Christina Sarich, Staff Writer
Imagine biting into an apple and seeing the color purple, or smelling the salt of the ocean as the touch of a lover’s hand on the small of your back. These types of experiences are called synesthesia: the occurrence of concomitant sensation is a fascinating blend of the five senses – touch, smell, taste, sound, and sight.
We’ve all experienced synesthesia to some degree, but, synesthetes (as people are named who can taste the color blue or smell someone’s hand tickling through their hair) have a heightened interplay of neurological synapses that end up quieting some senses and turning up the volume on others.
Forgetting to Distinguish the Taste of Purple, The Smell of Sweet, the Sound of Light
Coming from the latin syn and esthesia (as in anesthesia) those with this forgetfulness to ‘divide’ the world into parts experience it instead, as a contemporaneous blend of lemon zest on the tongue while seeing a Dexter Gordon jazz riff, or touching a piece of fine stationary and smelling a Spring day. Instead of feeling anesthetized through the five senses, they are amalgamated into a tumble of sensual experience.
The brain is a wet, loud, strange place sometimes, and the sensory-motor connections that allow synesthesia to occur are quite fascinating. If to you, Thursday is translucent white and your boss screaming at you the color pale grey, the sound of a symphony tastes like cinnamon and a baby crying smells like wet leaves, then you have synesthesia.
Psychologists, Philosophers, Neurobiologists, Trippers, Painters and Artists with Synesthesia
Neurologists consider synesthesia to be rare, and often abnormal, and in some cases even pathological. Many artists, poets, and musicians consider it to be a gift, and phenomenologists consider synesthesia to be a step closer to spiritual awakening. Some feel that synesthesia occurs due to an abnormal seratonin breakdown. This phenomenon of mixed sense also occurs under the influence of multiple psychedelic drugs. When we are still in our mother’s womb, and up until about four months of age, we all experience sensory input in undifferentiated ways. From cradle to grave, synesthesia can occur in multiple ways.
Regardless of how you quantify the phenomenon of synesthesia, researchers are still figuring out exactly how the brain segregates and correlates information that comes in from external stimulus and becomes filtered through the five senses.
Approximately 100 years ago, being a synesthete was considered tres chic in France and other parts of Europe. In modern vernacular synesthetes have now been categorized by psychologists into more than 50 types. Rimbaud and Baudelaire used the cross-sensory imagery of synesthesia in their poetry and others wrote of experiencing it in concert halls. Notes had hues and metaphors were endemically mixed-sense references. Some say Kandiniski, Van Gogh, and Poe were synesthetes.
Terence McKenna experienced synesthesia in his many psychedelic trips (primarily after experimenting with magic mushrooms and also taking more than 70mg of DMT, familiarizing himself with what has been called tryptamine synesthesia). Narby, Munn, Pankhe, and thousands of others who have experienced Shamanistic rituals have also reported mixed sense phenomenon. James Wannerton of Blackpool, England experiences lexical-gustatory synesthesia, which means he ‘tastes’ words or sounds. In a book by social scientist Cretien van Crampen, Hidden Sense, he points to ways the brain processes information differently in different people:
“When synaesthetes insisted that letters have colors, researchers attributed it to their strong imagination…In other cases, in was felt to be a learned association…Another frequently heard explanation for synesthesia is that the colors of letters are not perceptions but are rather a type of associative metaphor. The word “sea” would thus be associated with a blue color because the word evokes an image of the sea for the inner eye. However, the synesthete may tell you that the word “sea” has red, yellow, and purple colors…
Brain scans of synaesthetes [now]…provide proof of the neurological existence of synaesthesia…In one test, a synaesthetic person was blindfolded and placed in a recording tnnel of the brain-scanning apparatus and wore headphones that produced spoken words at regular intervals…activity in the areas of the brain responsible for hearing and color vision occur simultaneously when a blindfolded synesthete hears a word. Under the same conditions, the brains of non-synesthetes generated activity only in the areas known to be responsible for hearing.”
Universal Common Experience
In a discussion presented by Dr David Luke from the University of Greenwich recently it was offered that “there is a geometric aspect common to many of the psychedelic visions experienced by people in different cultures.’ It doesn’t matter if you are a Timothy Leary devotee, a South American Shaman, a Holy Man in India, a recreational acid head, or a housewife, likely your experience on a psychedelic ‘trip’ will be a complex, interlocking play of shapes, divine geometric patterns and extremely bright colors that are almost ‘alien’ in comparison to the sensory experience of the everyday world.
This phenomenon of synesthesia shouldn’t be so surprising for many people who have premeditated cymatics. It is after all, the study of how sound, ‘looks.’ Evan Grant discusses this in a great TED talks video that shows how to make sound waves visible. Sound can travel through gases, liquids and solids, and especially our own bodies and brainwaves. It has been proven to alter them, and some of the geometric symbols, like the Sri Yantra, were thought to have been received as a simultaneous visual/sound phenomenon in mediation.
Synesthesia and Super String Theory
So, the question then becomes, no matter what causes our synesthesia experience, are we regressing (as in the womb) or getting closer to a Universal experience of Unity (as we evolve and experience spiritual evolution) where all the senses blend together to describe an Infinite Universe? In yogic terms, once one reaches chittasuddhi, there is often a blending of oneself and others, through both the senses and other ‘strings’ of the consciousness. From a nucleus of Infinite possibility, a whole experience can blossom forth within multiple dimensions, and not just the one we are currently rooted in with a linear experience of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch.
If, as super string theory suggests, at the highest levels of existence all things are just vibrating chords of energy tied to everything else, then it would make plenty of sense that smell and touch are interchangeable, as are taste and sound, sight and feeling, and so on. Those distinctions, in fact, might simply be the more gross experience of the dynamics of the more subtle Universe as a whole.
Further, the natural length of scale necessary to test string theory is entirely too small at present. If, however, every particle transmits a force (a boson) and that then makes up matter in the form of matter (a fermion) and vice versa, the symmetry of the Universe is proven yet again, and synesthesia might just be a blending of the senses in much the same way we can empathize with someone ‘else’s’ emotions or taste the sky when we look into a lover’s eyes. The Universe is psychedelia anyhow, to any awakened mind.
If you have experienced synesthesia in a state of altered consciousness or just live with it every day, we invite you to share your experience of it, or related links below.
About the Author
Christina Sarich is a musician, yogi, humanitarian and freelance writer who channels many hours of studying Lao Tzu, Paramahansa Yogananda, Rob Brezny, Miles Davis, and Tom Robbins into interesting tidbits to help you Wake up Your Sleepy Little Head, and See the Big Picture. Her blog is Yoga for the New World. Her latest book is Pharma Sutra: Healing the Body And Mind Through the Art of Yoga.
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