Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Synaesthesia and Self-Indulgence

The subject of synaesthesia creeps up periodically in newspapers, films, and on the internet. It seems to have a cycle, not unlike Kondratieff long waves or influenza pandemics. Carried along like detritus to be washed up on strange beaches are the scientists, pseudo-scientists and psychedelics who attach themselves to the phenomenon. Worst of all, perhaps, are synaesthetes themselves, eager to describe the nuances of their shaded alphabets, geometric flavours, and coloured sounds to glazed and disinterested audiences.

Over 300 years of ebbing and flowing interest, synaesthesia has grown from a rare phenomenon narrated to be experienced only by the creative elect to something rather more common. A decade ago 1 in 25,000 people was believed to be synaesthetic; now that number is estimated at between 0.05% and 3% of the population (women reportedly still outnumber men three to one). Welcome aboard, I say. Despite not having knowingly met another synaesthete other than my mother, I have never thought of synaesthesia as rare.

I am a synaesthete; that is to say, in my perception most symbolic objects (particularly letters and numbers but also temporal constructions and logical arrangements) have colours, textures, and shapes seemingly independent of their explicit visual form. Similarly, sounds (musical and ambient) have distinct textures, colours, and shapes. On the scale of synaesthetic sensory combinations, I would guess mine are fairly pedestrian: I cannot describe flavours as pointy (other than metaphorically), and I have never smelled pink. I would say, though, that my ways of perceiving the world are highly idiosyncratic and vivid. I would like to think that, at times, it shines through in my more lyrical writing. And synaesthesia could certainly serve as a good excuse for staring at shadows and corners instead of listening to idle conversations at tepid dinner parties.

I have a file of newspaper and scholarly articles about synasthesia dating to 1994; for a time in the 1990s I subscribed to The Synesthesia List operated by researcher Sean Day. I believe I unsubscribed during a period when the listserv traffic seemed dominated by personal inventories of coloured letters and other synaesthetic experiences. Reading through them was tedious: it seemed a project doomed to the most descriptive empiricism, buoyed primarily by a kind of harmless but banal narcissism. Recently I resubscribed to the List; the same narratives appear to dominate discussion, but the body of scholarly work has grown much larger. I will credit Day and other researchers for their persistence and indulgence, however; it appears a great deal of interesting work has been done on synaesthesia and cognition in the past decade. What it reveals is not that synaesthetes are special but that studying even (or perhaps especially) quirky and idiosyncratic ways of perceiving the world may contribute to understanding neurology, perception, and cognition in general. I appreciate this especially because, as a phenomenologist, my own scholarly work almost invariably focuses on the ways immanent and uncategorized facets of experience contribute to understanding and meaning.

Markus Zedler describes synaesthesia as "a perceptual condition in which the stimulation in one sensory modality elicits a concurrent sensation in another, a perception which is perceived as real. ... Any of such combinations of the senses are theoretically possible; however, the most common type of synesthesia is “coloured hearing”. Genuine synesthesia, however, is characterized by a very high degree of consistency over time." Cytowic (1993: 76-77) identifies the following 'diagnostic' criteria of synaesthesia: (1) Synaesthesia is involuntary and insuppressible; (2) synaesthetic images are perceived by the synaesthete as projected externally; (3) synaesthetic percepts are durable, discrete, and generic; (4) synaesthesia is memorable; (5) synaesthesia is emotional and noetic; Dann (1998: 6-7) adds two more: (6) synaesthesia is nonlinguistic and somewhat ineffable; and (7) synaesthesia occurs in people with normal, noninjured, nondiseased brains.

It appears that researchers do not know what 'causes' synaesthesia, nor what, if anything, it does or enables. Occasionally synaesthesia is purported to correlate thinly with dyslexia, high intelligence, and creativity. However, sample populations for studies seem most often not to have been obtained randomly, but rather reflect self-selected participants or captive audiences to which researchers have had access. There are claims that certain genes or gene sequences may influence synaesthesia, but this link appears provisional or speculative. In my view, there is considerable danger in applying any kind of determinism to synaesthesia, particularly in terms of personality, cognitive capacity, or creative ability. I have noticed that researchers distinguish 'genuine' or 'true' from 'pseudo' or metaphorical synaesthesia. While in empirical research there may be some value in isolating those in whom synaesthesia is innate for the purposes of studying cognition, in my view the capacity to use rich metaphor is equally meaningful, perhaps more so because of its near universality.

How does synaesthesia affect me? For much of my life it did not, at least not directly or particularly consciously. I never knowingly heard the word until around 1994, in my early twenties, when I first saw reference to the phenomenon in a newspaper article. Yet, since early childhood I had 'known' that letters, numbers, and other 'signs' were coloured, that sounds had hues and textures, that ideas could be mapped mentally in inner space across multiple dimensions, that the world offered a rich and luminous sea of sensations and meanings. Over time, though, I have come to rely (largely subliminally) on the colours of letters and other symbols to ensure accurate spelling and transcription. Moreover, it seems to me that my very high performance in cognitive ability tests is supported in part by a sense of colour/texture aiding in pattern recognition and sequencing, and by a sense of the 'specific gravity' of shapes in transformations. More saliently, though, I rely quite explicitly on mental maps to track internal genealogies and constructs of thoughts: the shapes of ideas are very real to me. However, I am not sure that these abilities correlate closely with synaesthesia, in the sense that synaesthesia may be just one of many quirks or tools relied upon in cognition. Just like outer space, the inner reaches of the brain are only incompletely explored; our knowledge might yet expand across these vast expanses.

Some sources:

Baron-Cohen, SImon and John E. Harrison, eds., 1997. Synaesthesia: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Ocford, UK: Blackwell.

Cytowic, Richard E., 1993. The Man Who Tasted Shapes. New York: Warner.

Dann, Kevin T., 1998. Bright Colors Falsely Seen: Synaesthesia and the Search for Transcendent Knowledge. New Haven; London: Yale University Press.

Some links:

American Synesthesia Association

Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens Synaesthesia Resource Centre
(site managed by Patricia Lynn Duffy, who in 2001 published a book by the same title)

Dr. Richard Cytowic

Hello I'm Special (website promoting Canadian cultural commentator and author Hal Niedzviecki's book Hello, I'm Special: How Individuality Became the New Conformity (Penguin Canada, 2004)

University of Texas Synesthesia Battery (collection of synesthesia tests and resources)

University of Waterloo Synaesthesia Research Group

No comments: