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From Issue Ten, May 2011 « Previous Article Next Article »

Tasting the Universe: What Synesthesia Suggests about the Nature of Consciousness

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Among the beneficiaries of the various shifts in human consciousness now underway are a little-known group of outliers known as synesthetes. Synesthesia is defined as a blending of senses or a neurologically-based condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. Those definitions are only a hint of what synesthetes experience in terms of form and color and other add-on impressions in their sensory lives. And “synnies” reject the word “condition,” as there are few deficits associated with what they prefer to call a “gift” or a “trait.” A synesthete may hear a symphony but also see amorphous, multi-colored shapes go by. She may say the word “table” and taste cake, just like Academy Award-winner Tilda Swinton. He may be able to compute pi to 22,500 places, like the British writer Daniel Tammet (who has Asperger syndrome and savantism), or be able to equate celestial imagery to communion with the Creator, like three-time Grammy Award-winner Pharrell Williams.

Just over 100 years ago, synesthesia was a blip on the radar of modern science for one shimmering moment. Ironically, the same man most credited for drawing attention to this trait would unwittingly help show it the door. Sir Francis Galton recognized synesthesia but then went on to be an early pioneer of behaviorism, which stamped out any shred of respect for or inquiry into inner experience.

Galton named the joining of senses synesthesia – from the Greek syn, meaning “union,” and aesthesia, meaning “sensation.” As he wrote in “The Visions of Sane Persons” for The Fortnightly Review in June 1881: “These strange ‘visions,’ for such they must be called, are extremely vivid in some cases but are almost incredible to the vast majority of mankind who would set them down as fantastic nonsense. Nevertheless, they are familiar parts of the mental furniture of the rest, whose imaginations they have unconsciously formed and where they remain unmodified and unmodifiable by teaching.” Galton had great sympathy for the synesthetes he encountered throughout his career, particularly when they would relate to him how strange they felt as children.

Not long after synesthesia made its modest, respectable appearance on the world’s scientific stage, a radical shift occurred in the field of psychology, foreshadowed by Galton’s interest in the psychology of the behavior of twins: the school of behaviorism emerged. Led by American psychologist John B. Watson, this new school of thought banished personal experience in favor of people’s observed interactions with one another. A paper Watson wrote in 1913 started the wave, and in his 1924 book, Behaviorism, he explained it further: “Behaviorism . . . holds that the subject matter of human psychology is the behavior of the human being. Behaviorism claims that consciousness is neither a definite nor a usable concept. The behaviorist, who has been trained always as an experimentalist, holds, further, that belief in the existence of consciousness goes back to the ancient days of superstition and magic.” [Italics appear in the original.]

The impact of behaviorism was enormous. Synesthesia, perhaps one of the innermost of innermost experiences, became a forgotten curiosity. Not until the 1980s, when the cognitive revolution in psychiatry peaked, was it respectable to look once again into internal states. While behaviorists believed that since mental events could not be observed, psychiatrists should not focus on descriptions of the mind in their theories, cognitive proponents believed that investigating the mind helped scientists more reliably predict behavior.

The cognitive movement, which had its beginnings in the 1950s, was actually a backlash against behaviorism. It grew from new ideas in psychology, anthropology, and linguistics, and even the new fields of computer science, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence (AI). Psychologist Donald Broadbent, who was among the movement’s early figures, wrote the book Perception and Communication in 1958, in which he compared thought to information processing and used computer terms such as input and output. His model is still in use today. Psychologist Ulric Neisser, who wrote Cognitive Psychology in 1967, said that the mind has a perceptual structure. In the 1980s, philosopher Daniel Dennett added to the discipline with his thesis that in order to explain the mind, one needs a theory of content (how humans make meanings of things) and a theory of consciousness (what it is and how it works). And finally, AI expert Douglas Hofstadter shaped the conversation with his wide-ranging interests, including his beliefs that mental errors are a window to the mind and that analogy-making is at the root of cognition.

It is against this backdrop of a new, technologically advanced world that two scientists, Larry Marks and Richard Cytowic, were inspired to take a deep look inside the human experience, which led them to rediscover the gift of synesthesia in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They initiated a new wave of research that continues in countless learning institutions and labs around the world today. But the biases of behaviorism lingered and made it difficult for these early pioneers, who faced skepticism and sometimes outright censure from their peers. Cytowic has said that “colleagues for years refused to accept synesthesia as real and warned that pursuing it would ‘ruin’ my career because it was ‘too weird’ and ‘New Age.’ They had the typical reaction of orthodoxy to something it can’t understand – deny it.” However, Cytowic remained fascinated by a case he encountered quite by chance. He knew it was real because this man, his dinner host one evening with friends, kept returning to the sauce he was making to see if it had “enough points.” He wasn’t referring to the texture of the sauce; rather, he would somehow know it was ready when he felt the familiar ping of “triangle-like shapes” on his tongue. Cytowic would title his second book The Man Who Tasted Shapes in his honor.

Diagnosing Synesthesia

For years, researchers relied on self-reporting by people who said they were synesthetes, and there was no way to objectively corroborate such fantastic claims. That has drastically changed. The scientific literature now speaks humanely of several generations of synesthetes who spent their lives keeping it a secret, afraid to admit their differences until it became a part of public discourse. Today, universities and labs openly advertise for synesthete subjects on their websites. Prominent artists and scientists have given interviews about their own synesthesia (a few for the first time in my book). Now that technology and diagnostics have proven this to be a real phenomenon, the skepticism and the shame have gone away.

Well before neuroimaging was available, scientists used ingenious diagnostic tools to explore what they suspected was happening in their synesthete subjects. Richard Cytowic created several such criteria to better test people making these claims:

1. It is automatic and involuntary.

2. Synesthetic images are spatially extended, meaning they often have a sense of location.

3. The experiences are consistent and generic (the latter meaning simple).

4. Synesthesia is highly memorable.

5. It is laden with effect; it causes an emotional response in the person experiencing it.

Across the pond in London, Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen and his colleagues developed the Test of Genuineness (TOG) in 1987. It measures how consistent people’s responses are when stimulated, for example, by a sound or a number or a letter. Synesthetes, who will almost always see the same color or feel a similar sensation for each stimulus (such as a flash of teal when listening to a G note), score very high – in the 70- to 90-percent range. Non-synesthetes typically score in the 20- to 38-percent range. This test is most effective when it is repeated several months later in order to confirm a consistency in the associations (Is that subject’s G note always teal, or does it change?). At the University of California at San Diego, Dr. Vilayanur Ramachandran and Dr. Edward M. Hubbard used “Stroop interference” to create another clever test. They would show the word “yellow” written in red ink to a subject and ask that subject to read it. What they found is that the non-synesthetes typically had slower response times. For synesthetes, however, if the color matched a subject’s own peculiar association for that word, his or her reaction time was much faster. In another similar test, the doctors created a field of 5s in which a small triangle of 2s was hidden and showed it to both synesthetes and non-synesthetes. As might be expected, the synesthetes were much quicker than the non-synesthetes to find the hidden triangle because their number-to-color associations made the different number stand out. Dr. David Eagleman of Baylor University College of Medicine created The Synesthesia Battery, an online test which takes advantage of the custom color bars on computers so that synesthetes can find exactly the shade of indigo for their Hs or that perfect persimmon for their Rs. And now exacting brain scans can show locations of the brain that actually light up when synesthetes are stimulated by various sensory input.

Finally, it is real. Scientists with their inventive diagnostics have made the intangible tangible. Galton and his synesthetes would be amazed to see this very private experience actually quantified and verified to the mainstream.

What do leading figures in the study of consciousness have to say about this uncommon way of being? If there is a contemporary philosophy emerging to help explain this phenomenon, it’s the realm of quantum consciousness.

Synesthetes and Quantum Consciousness

Dr. Stuart Hameroff is an anesthesiologist and director at the University of Arizona at Tucson’s Center for Consciousness Studies. “Synesthesia is a deeper form of regular consciousness,” he says. “Synesthetes have a lower threshold to quantum consciousness.” He believes the phenomena associated with synesthesia (colored music, for example) happens at the quantum level, perhaps in the microtubules of the neurons and deeper. “Synesthesia might be the tool to get at the ‘hard problem of consciousness’ (how physical material – the brain – can have a qualitative experience). These crossovers may be happening at a deeper level.’’

Hameroff says that people with synesthesia have altered thresholds that open them up to experiencing “quantum consciousness.” He sees consciousness as a sort of edge between the quantum and classical realms. “I think dreams are more quantum-like,” he says. “Dreams have deep interconnections, multiple code systems and possibilities, and timelessness.” He thinks this is more typical of quantum information, and he believes that the qualia (the way things seem to us, like the taste of chocolate or the way a sunset looks) that make up our senses are also in the quantum world. “So it could be that synesthetes are more in what you might call an altered state or a dream state or a quantum state.” Hameroff points out that altered states of other kinds, from meditation to hypnosis to drug use, also feature synesthesia. “And when you shift that boundary so that what we’re aware of includes more of the quantum, which is only unconscious, preconscious – that’s when you have things like synesthesia, altered states, maybe even psychic phenomenon. I think that those are definitely quantum entanglements.”

Dean Radin, senior scientist with the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) and author of Entangled Minds and The Conscious Universe, has experienced synesthesia himself. The sound-to-color variety of the gift was most pronounced when he used to play the violin. He says that synesthesia and other noetic experiences may shatter what is known about neuroscience. “I suppose this is a type of noetic experience in the sense that, as with most intuitions, it involved a deep, inner knowing, a conviction that this is so but without knowing how you know.” He believes the neurosciences may one day explain this particular form of knowing but that a full understanding of noetic experiences will require a major expansion of our understanding of consciousness, “one that may well transcend prevailing assumptions in the neurosciences.”

Synesthesia can thus benefit consciousness studies. Though it is ineffable and noetic, it can be measured in brain scans and other tests, providing keys to a unique experience which may be latent in all of us. Traditional, classical science says that synesthesia is either a cross-wiring of neurons or a lack of chemical inhibition between them. But quantum physicist Dr. Amit Goswami of the University of Oregon believes that future answers may be drawn from the past. He thinks synesthetes may actually be more sensitive to vital energy, also known as prana or chi in ancient teachings. Moreover, he explains, people who see feelings and chakras experience colors. “Auras have to do with vital energy connected with the electromagnetic body, which is physical. If we are sensitive to it, we feel as well as see. That probably is what happens in synesthesia.” According to researcher Dr. Jamie Ward of the University of Sussex in England, aura-seeing should be considered a form of synesthesia. In a recent study, he found synesthetes see color around people, typically people they know well.

To Goswami, there is no other explanation for synesthesia but a quantum one. “These correlated experiences could not occur without a quantum basis for it because only quantum physics has this capacity of nonlocality – a nonlocal relationship between two different types of experiences. Only quantum physics can give an explanation of that.”

Dr. Robert Thurman, founder of Tibet House and professor of Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, says he believes that synethesia is a function of a “supra-sense,” a sense above all others that can lock in to one or more of them at a time. This is known in Buddhism as the “mind sense.” It figures in life as well as in death. “Its job is to align itself with one of the senses or perhaps several at once,” he explains. “It can override and simulate the sense organs.” It is active in dreaming when we sleep (we can therefore “see,” though our eyes are closed), and it is what remains when we die.

The Future of Synesthesia Research

Scientists are discovering more and more forms of synesthesia every day, and more individuals than ever before are recognizing this in themselves. We live in an unprecendented era of research around this noetic trait. For the first time – through the Rhine Center at Duke University – scientists will examine the connections between synesthesia and psi phenomena later this year. And the Center for Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona has been featuring content by and about synesthetes prominently in its conferences, signaling a shift from materialism and anatomy alone. Studying synesthetes may be a key to understanding the underpinnings of consciousness, for they not only sense a wider range of energy but in most cases are able to verbalize what it actually looks like. Perhaps they are quantum avatars.

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  • Anonymous Icon

    evolution May 10, 2011

    In my book "The Spiritual Evolution of a Mystic" I was taught by ascended masters to match notes with colors. Unfortunately I have little conscious memory of what they taught. However, I have an intuitive sense that C was red, D way orange, E, yellow, F, green, G, teal blue, A, indigo and B, violet.

  • Anonymous Icon

    evolution May 10, 2011

    In my book "The Spiritual Evolution of a Mystic" I was taught by ascended masters to match notes with colors. Unfortunately I have little conscious memory of what they taught. However, I have an intuitive sense that C was red, D was orange, E, yellow, F, green, G, teal blue, A, indigo and B, violet.

  • Anonymous Icon

    hollys May 22, 2011

    Wow! I experienced the 'rainbow' of color once years ago while listening to music - my gosh it was so vivid and flowed with the notes and so very REAL. I have never heard of synesthetes until reading this article and feel as though my experience has been validated. What a relief... maybe I can actually talk about it with other people now. Thank you.

  • Anonymous Icon

    Eldad May 30, 2011

    I've had, over the years, many strange experiences, which now may have a common name to them. To name a few:
    1. many years ago, living in Denmark, i saw beautiful thunderlights obove the horison every time I closed my eyes when going to bed. It became so prevlant that I intentionaly closed my eyes to marvel at those sights. It lasted almost 2 years, until I left the country.
    2. When I was 14, I fell from a cliff of about 30ft high, lost my conscious, pulse and breath (witnessed by hundreds of teenagers and a few adults), and "went to heaven" - hearing the most amazing sounds and music and seeing incredibale colored vistas and beings. I later came to and took a long time to recollect my fall and what was before that.
    3. When Colombia shuttle took off for the last time, I was driving a car back home from college. I heard the count-down over the car radio and started crying, for a knowledge that hit me - Ilan Ramon, the Israely astronaut on-board - is not coming back. I didn't understand the feeling and why I was crying. Three-some weeks later, my son called me to wacth what was happening on the tv screen - when Colombia was due back. Before I was able to reach the living room I said to him: It's the shuttle disintegrating isn't it?
    Quantum knowledge, premonition, Telepathy, chance? Who knows.

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