A harmless condition characterized by blending of the senses – colours associated with letters and numbers, smells and tastes perceptually linked to music, sounds triggering the perception of shapes, synesthesia is a neurological phenomenon which reminds us that not everyone experiences the world the way we do.
From brown squared orgasms, through ringing that feels rough like a rope, to Kandinsky who wanted to find a universal translation algorithm that would apply to everybody, synesthesia opens the doors of perception ajar to the relativity of experience and the different way things may be interpreted.
The wondrous world of brain’s hyperconnectivity
Synesthesia is described as involuntary physical experience, involving sensory blending. Depending on the type of synesthesia synesthetes have, they hear colours, taste sounds, or see letters and numbers as colours or as shapes.
In the book Wednesday Is Indigo Blue, the researcher Richard Cytowic and the neuroscientist David Eagleman explain:
A person with synesthesia might feel the flavor of food on her fingertips, sense the letter “J” as shimmering magenta or the number “5” as emerald green, hear and taste her husband’s voice as buttery golden brown. Synesthetes rarely talk about their peculiar sensory gift–believing either that everyone else senses the world exactly as they do, or that no one else does. Yet synesthesia occurs in one in twenty people, and is even more common among artists.
This interesting brain hyperconnectivity is confirmed to appear in one out of 23 people, the most common type of of synesthesia being experiencing color for days of the week, followed by graphemes triggering colors (Richard E. Cytowic, M.D., and David M. Eagleman, Ph.D., Wednesday is Indigo Blue, p. 8)
Video found via: TEDEd (What color is Tuesday? Exploring synesthesia – Richard E. Cytowic)
Synesthesia is more common among creative people – writers, painters, artists, composers, and it is not an accident that I first I heard about synesthesia in an interview I had with the bright and talented Bulgarian balletist and choreographer Momchil Mladenov (ref. Gracefully Yours, Momchil Mladenov) Talking about the essence of creative processes and generating ideas, Momchil got to this word. And because I still read a little Greek I could tell the roots, but didn’t know how the meaning behind the word has historically unfolded and what did it mean in real life, outside the somehow limited experience of etymology.
So, Momchil explained:
Some ballets are created now, like I did with Skryabin last year. That was created today, that was never there before. It came up from the music, it came out through the hand of Georgi Cherkin. And therefore it triggered something in me, that I connected to synesthesia. Some people are synesthets. Like Scryabin, he was a synesthet, it is beleived that he saw his music in colours.
Some people see numbers through colours, they only understand, or know, what the number is, because they see a colour. It’s an amazing world. And many people I know, and I am sure, are synesthets. They see in colour. Of course there is a discussion which colour which number is, but each person sees different colours for different numbers. So, knowing that he was a synesthet gave me the freedom to play with it. And to see what I hear in his music, what colours do I hear in his music. And then I gave a little homework to the dancers, I said: “Pick a colour that you like and when you dance the choreography that I have created for you feel, dance it, as the colour you like, as what you feel is this colour.
Creative fusion, convergence and our hyperconnected lives
These days a vast amount of all kinds of data, stimuli and representations are going through our minds and senses. Dots are being hyperconnected each second, not only by us, as interpreters, but also literally (via hypertext). There are numerous examples of different types of data being translated into visuals, sound, even narratives.
Synesthesia could well be a key to understanding today’s converged, augmented reality. Or if not a key, then at least an enjoyable parallel path. This neurological condition is itself augmented experience and an example of unexpected networks appearing in our brains.Interpretation becomes creation.
This raises the question about representation, showing us that things exist in the brain, although the stimuli, we believe are triggering them, are not present. This subtly calls for rethinking the idea of “understanding”. Bringing us to the most important insight these unexpected networks of perception seen in synesthetic experiences provide. An insight that we can borrow and apply to our Web experience, namely the awareness of the the Ocean underneath every sign and the importance of context and experience.
The Ocean underneath every sign
In Umberto Eco’s words (ref. Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language) the “symbol is simultaneously everything and nothing.” Loosely translated into today’s Web experience, this potentially reads: nothing is meaningful outside its context and the way it is being experienced.
Which returns us to the wondrous world of synesthesia. It was Kandinsky who yearned to push aside analytic explanations and focus on the quality of direct experience that synesthesia is. The incessantly analysing mind, he knew, impeded experience (cf. Phenomenology And Neuropsychology A Review of Current Knowledge, 1995)
In our intertextual times it’s good to be often reminded that not everyone perceives the world similarly and that signs and representations are neither firmly set, nor to be referred to as closed-off entities. Rather they are to be considered and understood in the context of an ever expanding hyperconnected world where the ambiguity of essence puts experience and perception next to knowledge and understanding.