by Jas. Morgan
Almost everyone is familiar with the expression, "I see what you're saying," but for a
few rare individuals - synaesthetes - this metaphor is quite literally true.
Synaesthesia. It's the futigue cognitive super function latent in us all. Literally it means
"Union of the senses." Synaesthetes can smell colors, see sounds, taste shapes.
In fact, any sensory modality can translate into any other: sight, sound, hearing, taste, touch.
There are bimodal, trimodal and polymodal synaesthetes. The perfect example would be a 5-point
synaesthete, where all the senses converge simultaneously.
It's a clinically rare, phenomenon today, amounting to perhaps one in 25,000. But it goes back
to the primordial ooze, to our most primary sensory wiring predating the late stage evolutionary
hyper-trophy of the neo-cortex.
Until now it was known, to most of us, as one of the more treasured effects of the psychedelic
experience. Few people realized that there were synaesthetes among us who tasted sunshine every
day. But synaesthetes are now coming out of the closet.
And they're in good company. Rimbaud, Messiaen, Nobokov, Kandinsky, Fischinger are just a few
of the more spectacular synaesthetes. For over 200 years synaesthesia has been one of the most
enigmatic phenomena in medical psychology. Sir Isaac Newton attempted a mathematical correlation
of sound and color. Scriabin mapped individual musical keys onto certain colors and his score
for Prometheus: The Power of Fire featured a staff for a clavier à lumières (light organ).
Messiaen, who likened his color composing to painting, is one of the supreme examples. Something
of the ecstatic richness of his universe can be sensed from the following quotation:
"My secret desire of enchanted forgeousness and harmony has pushed me toward those swords
of fire, those sudden stars, those flows of blue-orange lavas, those planets of turquoise,
those violet shades, those garnets of long-haired arborescence, those wheelings of sounds and
colors in a jumble of rainbows of which I have spoken with love...such as gushing out of
chords...the sacred instinct of the natural and true harmony..."
Scriabin's ambitious masterwork Mysterium was never completed. It was planned as "a liturgical
enactment in which music, poetry, dance, colored light and scent were to unite, inducing
worshippers to supreme, final ecstasy."
The "supreme final ecstasy" seems to be where we are heading with multimedia technology.
Could our species drive toward multimedia come from an urge to achieve the unified perception
of the synaesthete?
Richard Cytowic M.D., author of The Man Who Tastes Shapes and Synesthesia: A Union of the Senses,
speaks of synaesthetes as "cognitive fossils" and speculates that synaesthesia "is a
very fundamental mammalian attribute" that is "actually a normal brain function in every
one of us, but that its workings reach conscious awareness in only a handful" - or by an
accident of physiology.
For those who want to have your own synaesthetic experience, Cytowic suggests "Some
meditation that shuts up the inner dialogue, the yakety-yak of the analytical mind." such
as his own meditative practice, "Soto Zen means 'serene reflection.' It is to 'neither think
nor try not to think.' You sit in front of a blank wall with your eyes open and stop deliberate
thinking. So in a way it's like sitting under a bridge letting the cars go over you. And those
cars are like your thoughts and you just let them go. When it does happen what I tend to see
is a great blue-purple geode in front of me. Like an amethyst crystal that rotates and
scintillates. And it comes and goes."
With synaesthesia, the cortext turns off, the limbic brain lights up and we are in the direct
experience. When I spoke with Cytowic, he was strong to emphasize, "The lesson, as far as
synaesthesia is concerned, is that perception is holistic to begin with. Our brains are not
passive receivers just sitting there saying, 'Oh, here comes a smell. Here comes some
wave lengths.' They are active explorers seeking out the stimuli that interest them. Perception
does not come from the outside in. It comes from the inside out. This is a scientific or
neurologic explanation for why some people see the world differently. We usually call such
people artists, and poets, and maybe even politicians. When you think historically, artists -
even those who have been abandoned and despised and ridiculed - persisted with their vision
because that's all they can do, their vision."
It is tempting to invoke "neoteny" at this point, the notion that we are evolving toward
the point where the snake bites its tail, where the over developed cortex meets primary
synaesthetic awareness. I have a theory that the integration of electronic technologies is
creating a change in people's nervous systems - that the way we cognize, the way we think
about things, and trends like the word processor may actually be encouraging our synaesthetic
faculty to evolve.