The idea that people can smell sound, taste words and see numbers as colors is called Synesthesia. I have been intrigued by it for years.
Synesthesia is from the Greek (syn), which means “union”, and (aisthesis) which means “sensation” and thus it means “a union of the senses”. What is meant by this union of the senses is, for example, you can look at a color and experience what that color tastes or sounds like at the same time. Synesthesia is defined as a rare capacity to experience one sense when another is stimulated: to see smells, hear colors, or even tasted music. It is typically associated with certain illnesses, such as schizophrenia, severe depression, neural damage or the use of certain psychedelics, such as ayahuasca.
Synesthesia is an exciting topic for me because I don’t see it as a mental health diagnosis as some do. I see it as a latent skill that we have lost touch with. Part of the 90% of our brain that we are not currently using. When I originally wrote this article there was not a lot of research on the topic. Since I wrote this article 11 years ago there is more and more research suggesting I may be right.
In this article I will begin to explore the idea of synesthesia from two perspectives: first, the idea that synesthesia is a latent sense that everyone has and can experience; and second, that synesthesia can be activated through visionary imagery. This is currently an ongoing exploration for me.
Synesthesia has been known throughout history; it is relatively rare, especially in adults, is often associated with creativity and in some circles is considered a pathology or condition. Current research states that 1 in 25,000 people born have synesthesia, three times as many women as men have it, and it occurs more frequently in left-handed people.
I have experienced spontaneous synesthesia on a couple of occasion and those experiences awakened my curiosity. I have also had numerous experiences of hypnogogic hallucinations; where I see neon colored geometric patterns, light webs and images upon waking. Hypnogogic hallucinations are said to occur more often in highly creative individuals. There is a stage in dreaming just before waking where the senses are expanded and it is this point where hypnogogic hallucinations can occur. Hypnogogic hallucinations are where you see flashing lights of color, geometric shapes and images of people that are not there in the third dimensional reality. Could there be a connection between hypnogogic hallucination and Synesthesia?
Although the definition of synesthesia is very specific, pseudosynaesthesia is seen frequently. Pseudosynesthesia can occur unintentionally, as with drug use or learned associations, or intentionally, as in much literature, music, and art. In my imaginings I tend to think blending of the senses is a dormant capacity that we all have access to, which might be something we can cultivate. I have read many articles about synesthesia, most of them viewing it as a condition. It first came into my awareness in a brief article in the December 2004 issue of Spirituality and Health titled “Hearing the Pattern Woven in Cloth.” It is about a tribe in the Upper Amazon who weaves song lines into cloth.
This is a quote from the article: “Having experienced synesthesia himself, Roger Walsh, M.D. P.H.D decided to conduct and extensive study of longtime meditation practitioners. His study revealed that serious meditators, who reported a blending-or unification- of the senses with some frequency, could cultivate the synesthesia. He also found that the more advanced the meditator, the more likely they were to experience synesthesia.”
I found synesthesia mentioned a second time in the Dec. 2004 issue in connection with anthropologist Margaret Mead. She apparently had the gift of synesthesia that allowed her to describe the taste of a living room or the shapes of music. This article goes on to say, “Synesthesia may be the root of the ‘sacred geometry’ revered in many indigenous cultures. It is not uncommon in children, but tends to be ignored in our culture and therefore lost.”
Robert Lawler, who has studied native tribes in Australia reports that from all indications, the Aborigines developed the central and deep neural systems with equal intensity. Their lives in the perceivable word are one of intense observation of specific detail of every aspect of nature. A great portion of their daily life is spent in song, dance and chant and in other ecstatic ceremonies that activate the deep neural systems, which align with what is called the voice of the Dreaming. Just as it is in dreaming, this hypnogogic ecstatic state is always present in the body, but it is not always activated. It is believed that rhythmic rituals help to activate brain chemistry so that our conscious awareness is released from the domination of the central nervous system. Once freed our perceptive power is elevated.
Anyone who has done ritual has experienced an expansion in sensory awareness and level of intuition. This expanded state can be enhanced with the addition of breathing techniques, dancing, rhythmic motion, drumming, chanting, mantras, meditation, hypnotic suggestion and music.
Research is beginning to show that rather than being an abnormality, synesthesia underscores all memory processes. A richer synesthetic capacity often means a stronger, richer memory. Oral traditions that require extraordinary memory always employ synesthetic imagery.
It is believed that anyone can experience the blending of sensory perception. The perceivable world is actually filled with magic and symbolism that tunes our senses of reality to another world more powerful, awesome and wonderful than we have allowed ourselves to believe. When synesthesia is activated it is not a neural malfunction, but an expansion of our senses that we can activate through practice.
Many creative people have incorporated synesthesia into their work including, visual artists, Wassily Kandinsky, and Walt Disney, writer Charles Baudelaire, and composers Olivier Messaien, and Alexsander Nikolayevich Scriabin, who created the color organ.
“The functions of consciousness cannot be separated any more than can parts of the universe. Each piece has a purpose, but operates within the larger whole. As humankind moves into the twenty first century and a more global purpose, the idea of the separated consciousness needs to give way to a new paradigm of divine harmony, the wholeness of consciousness. Humanity can then become aware of the creative healing phenomena known as synesthesia.” Joseph Campbell The Power of Myth, by Joseph Campbell
After the original writing of this article I couldn’t let go of my curiosity about Dr. Walsh’s research, so I looked him up on the Internet, found his email address and sent him a note. I told him about my interest in synesthesia and my idea that it could be cultivated. Within a couple of days I received an email from him with an attachment of his yet to be published, 26 page study titled: “Can Synesthesia Be Cultivated? Indications from Surveys of Meditators.” This studied will be published later this year in a journal on consciousness. Dr. Walsh defines synesthesia as “cross modality perception”, in which on kind of stimulus, such as sound, is also experienced as another kind of sensory stimulus, such as light or body sensations. He concludes that it is possible to cultivate synesthesia through meditation. He quotes Cytowic as saying, “Synesthesia is actually a normal brain function in every one of us, but that its workings reach conscious awareness in only a handful.”
Walsh reports that meditation affects perception in multiple ways, including enhancing perceptual sensitivity. He feels that meditation causes increased cross-modality activation and heightened sensitivity, because of the unmasking process. Walsh also found references in ancient texts that claim that meditation can refine perceptual sensitivity, and a few texts specifically noted synesthesia and suggested that it can be developed to extraordinary degrees. Walsh also found that synesthesia occurred more often in artist as compared to the general population.
Daphne Maurer of McMaster University in Ontario and her writer husband Charles Maurer, did research on the idea of synesthesia being something we are born with that goes away as we are enculturated. The Maurer’s proposed that all infants were synaesthetic, with exuberant connections snaking between the parts of their brains that transformed various stimuli to perception. The pitched crosstalk between these various brain areas, they said, likely resulted in a synaesthetic infantile sensorium.
These studies and others have led Maurer to conclude that the hyper-connected neural networks observed in babies tapered down over time, or got ‘pruned’ by their environment and their experience. She reckoned that the pruning had the effect of fading out the attendant psychedelic phenomena – except among synaesthetes, in whose brains the thicket of connections got strengthened and reinforced. http://aeon.co/magazine/psychology/are-we-all-born-with-synaesthesia/
Taken together, the findings show that we are all closet synaesthetes to a greater or lesser degree. This is exciting because if it is true it is something that can be cultivated in children rather than enculturated out of their consciousness.
Dr. Walsh’s study supports my idea that synesthesia can be cultivated. I also believe that meditation brings one to a state of mind that allows this to happen. Meditation doesn’t have to be a formal sitting practice but any kind of practice that brings you into center. In my own work it is the practice of making art that is my meditation. I feel it is possible to experience synesthesia more regularly once those sensitivities have been opened. This suggests to me that we are moving in a direction of heightened sensitivity and awareness where multi-sensory experiences will be more commonplace and accepted.
“It is not so much in the dream state but in a mood of ecstasy before sleep that I am aware of a region where colors, sounds and perfumes coalesce.” – E.T.A Hoffmann, Kreisleriana
Katelyn Mariah BFA, MA, LICSW Originally published in By Regions
If you are interested in this as I am here some links to get you started on more research.