Manifestations Of Synesthesia Cultural Studies Essay

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Studies ran out by Cytowic, (imaging studies showing decrease in cortical activation and regional bloodflow during synesthesia), along with other evidence (including synesthetes advanced memory because of their ability to associate multiple senses with a single experience), has led him to the conclusion that the limbic system is critical for synaesthesia, that the hippocampus is an especially important node in this system and that synesthetic experience is dominated by the left hemisphere 3

Several experiments made with synesthetes show that each synesthete is affected differently .People with grapheme-colour synaesthesia, a case in which the person sees numbers and alphabet shaded in colour, match different colours for different letters and numbers. Jamie Ward, a scientist at the University College of London, has studied a person with sound-taste synaesthesia, and has come to the conclusion that this specific synesthete was matching the sound of a word with a taste, that he had experienced only during his childhood. Dr. Ward suggests that this happens, because there was a chaining between the sound of words with the sounds of the names of food, during the process of vocabulary acquisition, going back to the actual concrete experience of tasting that food. These facts suggest that synaesthesia is not caused only by a simple genetic mechanism. There is about 70% influence by genes, and the rest must be affected by environmental factors, that determine the synesthetic experience as well.

Recent neurological studies propose that the executive areas of the brain demonstrate a high degree of sensory integration. The Cross-Modal Transfer (CMT) hypothesis is broadly accepted as an explanation to the condition of synaesthesia. It proposes that intersensory equivalence exists since birth and that perceptual development is characterized by gradual differentiation.

Another theory is the Neonatal Synaesthesia hypothesis, which is similar to the CMT theory, but suggests that in early childhood, all babies have synesthetic perception. This is a normal phase until about 4 months old. After that, the senses become differentiated. In adult synesthesia, this modularization process was never completed. This leads also to the conclusion that all people have experienced synesthesia.

Several facts come to enforce this point. We all have mechanisms that link together smell and taste. This could be explained by the fact that both senses are controlled by parts of the body very close to each other, so a stimulation of one could affect the other. We also have connections between sound and vision. The McGurk Effect is a very good demonstration of how we perceive the same sound differently, depending on the visual input we have while listening to that sound ( if e.g. the sound is da ,we could be hearing ba if we don t look at the person saying it).

Another interesting fact is that both synesthetes and non-synesthetes match high-pitched notes with bright colours and low-pitched notes with dark-colours, creating an analogy between a visual and an auditory element. There is also our perception of the position of our body in space, where vision, touch and proprioception are a unified experience.

An experiment conducted by Dr. James Ward also suggests, that we all might have a notion of numbers arranged in space, going from left to the right, just as a lot of synesthetes actually see these lines of numbers arranged in front of them, a condition called number line .

It seems that all of us , on some level use synesthetic principles to explain concepts, at least unconsciously. Synesthetes are aware of it. Cytowic, at one point asserted, Synesthesia is actually a normal brain function in every one of us, but its workings reach conscious awareness in only a handful ( cytowic the man who tasted shapes page 166)

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the French philosopher, comes to agree with this view. He believes that the body is a subjective sensory organ, and that every person therefore has his/her own different subjective perception. All experiences are born in the body, and therefore the unity of the senses become possible. All the sensory experiences work in a synesthetic way ,but remain on an unconscious level. What we then perceive are some gestalts, that come out as a refined, conscious version of this flux of impressions. (merlau ponty 1945)

This observation arises several hypotheses, which link this common ability of synesthetic perception with concepts like metaphor or even language. Dr. Ramachandran proposes that the origin of language could be explained by the multitude of synesthetic connections within our brains. The outcome of an experiment ( the Buba-Kiki experiment, first observed by Wolfgang K hler in 1929 : Two words are chosen ,one is buba and the other one is kiki .The people asked must match these words with two shapes, a rounded one and a jagged one) demonstrated that the majority of people match specific words with specific objects This happens, because there is a non-arbitrary tendency to link the sound qualities of the word with the visual qualities of the object. There is also a mapping between hand gestures and unconscious lip and tongue movement. This is maybe the reason why the pronounciation of words that describe something small (petite, deminuitive etc) share the same logic with the corresponding gesture that describes something small. The same goes for the opposite (the words large, enormous produce sounds that match the impression of the gesture).So this hypothesis proposes that the initial step towards the creation of words was made because of this synesthetic connection between our senses.( V.S. Ramachandran and E.M. Hubbard

Synaesthesia AWindow Into

Perception, Thought and Language)

Metaphors often involve links among the senses. Researchers suggest that there must a connection between the areas that affect synaesthesia, metaphor and creativity. Aristotle s classic definition of metaphor in Poetics, is that it is a process, giving a thing a name that belongs to something else. So metaphor links an object with a network of analogies, providing a much more vivid understanding of this object. The hyperconnectivity triggered by synaesthesia enhances the ability to link seemingly unrelated things, so basically it enhances the very essence of metaphor and creativity. The ability to see and express one thing in terms of another is the definition of metaphor and a sensual factor to the artistic process. Cytowic concludes: Orderly relationships among the senses imply a cognitive

continuum in which perceptual similarities give way to synesthetic equivalences,

which in turn become metaphoric identities, which then merge

into the abstractions of language. In other words, the progression looks

like this:

perception -> synesthesia -> metaphor -> language . 8

Metaphors are a bridge between the rational and the unconscious, instinctive, emotional perception of the world. And the greatest union of synesthesia and metaphor occurs in art. I think all these elements give a clue as to why synaesthesia has been involved in art so intensely. The hypothesis that we all are synesthetic on some level could explain the desire of artists to reach this unified experience through their art. There are also several synesthete artists,who have tried to depict their synesthetic experiences. There is also a remarkable synchronization between a multitude of artistic movements involved in synesthesia (intellectually, not clinically) and psychological studies on synesthesia in the beginning of the twentieth century.

Ancient Greek philosophers were already dealing with concepts like the colour in music ( ????? , the Greek word for timbre ,whose etymology comes for the actual word for colour )and how it could be quantified. Several philosophers such as Aristotle and Pythagoras created graphemes, matching pitch of sounds with colour. Sixteenth century artist Giuseppe Archimboldo experimented with the system of matching colour to sound by placing coloured strips of paper on his gravicembalo. Isaac Newton tried to connect the two systems through a common characteristic, namely frequencies. The Jesuit Castel adopted Newton s ideas and tried to apply it on an organ, the colour harpsichord, but it never accomplished to create a significant experience due to technical difficulties.

In the nineteenth century gaslights had been invented and Kastner refined the colour harpsichord and created a new organ named Pyrophone. Rimington patented the color organ in 1883. His system was based on Newton s principles. However, this color organ did not produce any sound. It had to be played simultaneously with an actual musical instrument.In the beginning of the twentieth century these technical difficulties had been resolved and Scriabin, who was a synesthete himself, focused on the psychological effects of the simultaneous experience of sound and image on the audience. He thought that the light should reflect the emotional intensity of the sound. He was also involved in Theosophy and his vision was to create a synesthetic show that would unify senses and arts with universal schemes, that anyone would understand.

Visual artists experimented with synesthesia, too. Nineteenth century symbolists were influenced by the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, a work of art where the different arts and senses are unified into one Gestalt experience. The same principle was followed by the artist group Der Blaue Reiter, which was founded in Germany in 1911.The group experimented with the mixture of poetry, dance, painting and music. They tried to unify the arts and liberate the expression by praising the immaterial. Music was considered to be the purest form of art, as its form and content express the spiritual, immaterial world , in contrast to painting, which has to learn from the methods of music. (Kandinsky,geistige )Issues like dissonance and temporality were investigated by this group and this brainstorming passed on to Bauhaus through Kandisnky, who was actually a synesthete. The futuristic movement condemned the old ways of painting and embraced a radical view upon the arts, where noise and violence is praised. .The sounds, noises and smells impress on the mind an arabesque of form and colour. We must measure this intensity and perceive these arabesques .(The Painting of Sounds, Noises and Smells ,Carlo Carr ) Visual artists, such as Mondrian tried to free the static painting from its ankylosis by visual suggestions of movement. The static nature of the painting was a big disadvantage in expressing the musical analogy, and it was was an obstacle, that was basically impossible to overcome. The Dada, artists like Hans Richter and Oskar Fischinger, and later abstract film-makers like John Whitney, experimented with the new medium of film and produced synesthetic studies of moving forms in correspondence to sounds or suggestion of sounds through rhythm. In these first years of experimentation with the new technologies, the technical limitations were still a big problem. Until the 1950 s though, new innovative technologies had emerged and the heritage of the avant-garde movements was appreciated and acted as an inspiration to new forms of expression. The birth of video-art in the 60 s ,the psychedelic light-shows of the 70 s , are the first samples of the technological possibilities of the electronic and digital media, that led to the commercialization of synesthetic experiences in discoteques and night clubs.(visual music 1900s). Since the lack of temporality in the painting and the lack of three-dimensional experience of the film, the unification of music, image, time and space has been fulfilled through the medium of installation art. This progress comes closer to the phenomenological view, that the perceiver is part of the ontology of the artwork. Music is no longer a goal for the other arts, but rather one of the component in a unified artistic product.

As Manovich explains, the old, conventional media were representations of the visual reality and human experience, while the new media form numerical data, which are open to composition and free administration. This quality results in the emergence of hybrid products. The fusion of media, where sounds can be translated to images and images can become sound, the synesthetic dream of the avant-garde artists seems to come closer to realisation. The emanation of the digital representation of information in the computer is the ability of easily combining and unifying different types of information ( e.g. hypertext) , the elaboration of digital data through automated procedures, the variability and the duality (each information is a numeric datum inside the computer with a second representation through human senses to something conceivable). (Wardrip N. and Montfort N. ed., The New Media Reader, Cambridge, MIT Press, 19-20 ).This duality brings in mind the function of the human brain, where all informations are signals transmitted through the nerves and then translated through senses to an actual experience.

What really changes with multimedia is the way and the degree of participation of the user. The user deals with the information using (almost) all his/her senses. Sound, graphics, images are not just different parts of a whole, like sound and image were in film, but rather components of equal value as to the impartment of the meaning.

This alertness of the total of our senses, which is necessary in using multimedia, can be either a liberation compared to the restrictions of the film, or enslavement of ourselves and of our sensory field to the media.

In comparison with the more psychological oriented experiments by Scriabin, Kandinsky and Mondrian, current artistic experiments seem more orientated on the physics of synesthesia (e.g. electronics and computer programming).