Synesthesia

The infant’s experience of the senses is, theoretically, one in which senses are not entirely distinguishable. In which sound and sight, for example, become somewhat confused. Interesting to think of a synesthetic experience as a basic experience to an infant. Potentially accessible to the adult. Why not?

Painting of the northern renaissance appeals to touch so that what is depicted is an own-able, manipulable thing. The viability of texture is highly emphasized. It has been called the art of “describing”. Space in the southern renaissance was understood in terms of geometry, that light rays converge at the fixed point of the eye, and as such is often described as favoring the eye. However, this is also an appeal to touch insofar as the impression created from a fixed point is one in which the body could enter the space. Painting as an extension of architecture. It makes sense that an architect was the first to publish a treatise on perspective (it also makes sense that every good example of perspective is found in man-made forms such as railroad tracks and columns).

The two senses that seem most connected are sight and touch. Vision projects touch, so that one comprehends the feel of texture at a distance as well the contour of an object. Touch, in turn, confirms the information collected by sight. It’s a pleasant experience of cognitive dissonance when something that appears hard is actually soft. For the most part, however, what one sense assumes, the other confirms.

Vision, however, also detects something that cannot be confirmed by touch, which is color. One can see texture, one can touch texture, one can see color, one cannot touch color.

Or could one know what blue feels like? What feel is blue?

The eye can also see words, while the ear can hear words. Or does the eye actually see words? The eye sees light while the mind interprets words. Are the words that are read the same as the words that are heard? Does the mind perform different processes to distill the concept conveyed by the word depending on which organ the word enters the mind through?

If vision and language are somehow connected, then are touch and language as well? There is a spatial component to language, particularly the written word. The mind re-enacts the writing of the word, the movement of the lines of the letters. Japanese calligraphy is traditionally strict about the order and direction of the stokes that constitute a character. Movement is intrinsic to the Japanese kanji, which means the concept is not only given visual form, but also spatial and temporal. Kinesthetic.

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“100 Poets anthology”, calligraphy by Hon’ami Kōetsu

How might the predominance of the typed word instead of the written alter one’s reading experience? The click-clicking of the written word.

Another synesthetic impulse is to conflate hearing with seeing. One thinks of such abstract artists as Wassily Kandinsky. There are some parallels. Rhythm, for example, is entirely abstract. Rhythm manifests in a pattern. Pattern is visual or audial. One can also relate loudness with saturation. A bold red in an otherwise grey pallet reads as an exclamation mark. Whistler’s color theory incorporates this understanding. It is also interesting that the word “composition” is broad enough to refer to a painting or a song. It seems pattern and emphasis, organization, are common grounds.

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“Nocturne: Blue and Gold“, James Abbott McNeill Whistler

With close analysis, the idea that a painting can evoke the same sensory experience as a song falls apart. Kandinsky might have been translating his subjective experience of music into painting, but his system cannot be read by an orchestra. The experience is visual. The tactile nature of the painting medium is very different from the disembodied nature of a song. A song belongs to no specific place. It is ambient. The same cannot be said of a painting (or can it?). And though Whistler referred to music in titling his paintings, the play between subject matter and abstraction results in naming. When the subject becomes nameable, it appeals to language, not abstract but literal.

A song, however, seems to be capable of evoking visions, abstract or specific. I am only a novice in the arts of music, but I once took on the challenge of trying to visualize Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. One might say this was an easy choice. It was not difficult for me to, without contextualization, see that the song was about battle and victory. I don’t assume I’m unique in this capacity. It is quite interesting that such a specific image can be received from such an abstract medium. It seems the element of time belonging to music enables for a dynamic process that can evoke specific images.

When one adds time to images, animation, it appears that vision and hearing are naturally conflated. Animation naturally calls for the auditory, hence the success of Steamboat Willie. Translating time into a painting, which is static (does it have to be?) is a challenge.

Color changes, gradients, can potentially convey time, as change seems to imply time.

Color can easily evoke many synthetic experiences and inversely many synesthetic experience manifest as a specific color. Color can also evoke a sense of taste, as food (particularly the synthesized version of food that became so prominent in the 1990’s with such inventions as Fruit Roll-Ups and Squeezit) has a colored aspect. Part of of the experience of taste comes from vision. Vision conditions the mind to expect a taste. Consider watermelon Oreos. Do they actually taste like watermelons? Of course perhaps they might. There is a whole industry dedicated to creating illusionary flavors, just like painters create illusionary textures. The profession is referred to as flavor chemistry.

Many painters know the peculiar phenomenon of mixing a color that looks “delicious”. I’ve felt the desire to taste some pigments. Some artists take advantage of this, obviously exemplified by the paintings of Wayne Thiebaud.

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“Three Doughnuts”, Wayne Thiebaud

Thus left out of the conversation is smell, seemingly the most neglected of the senses. I wonder why. So many animals seem to have an experience of the world shaped almost entirely by smell. Dogs for example, seem to rely on smell more than or at least as much as vision. Freud identifies the transition from being on all-fours, relying on smell, to standing erect, relying on sight, as a source of society’s discontent. We know we communicate by smell. We attract by releasing certain hormones. We repel, or express aggression, by releasing others.

Does one perceive a smell from viewing an image? Of course, it is much easier to get an image from a perceiving smell. A smell evokes a memory, and a memory is an image.

Is it not possible to conflate an auditory experience with an olfactory experience? Why is it so normal to form an image, image here more related to language, from a more abstract experience of sound or smell?

Here, it is worth meditating on those who cannot experience vision. Might the blind be considered not so much disabled as reconfigured? In a vision-centric society the blind are indeed disabled from participating in such social trends as Instagram, and the socio/economic potential present in such trends are inaccessible to the blind. But here I am speaking of the organism unto itself, not to its relationship to a social network with other organisms. Perhaps we with vision experience so much less because of the dominance of this one sense over others. Its cheesy to imagine the blind kung-fu master or the blind pianist who can somehow hear the beat of a bee’s wings in slow motion, so instead envision something much more mundane. Perhaps the blind can more easily conflate sound and smell. These connections are more easily made as these senses are more consistently exercised. Perhaps the blind experience significantly more connections within themselves.

I wonder how my dreams would differ if I were blind.

So many expressions of “enlightenment”, or spiritual revelation seem to emphasize this experience of light. Aldous Huxley emphasizes visual phenomena during his mescaline trip. The Tibetan Book of the Dead describes the different lights of diverse hues one shall see after death, and where the different lights lead. I wonder what a mescaline trip is like for a blind man. I read about a study of such a thing, in which it is revealed that a human who had vision but lost it can still experience visual hallucinations. Perhaps this blind man has a unique understanding of what is called “inner vision” as is not distracted by outer. More than anything, I wonder if the awe-inspiring revelation of light is experienced as an equivalent in another sense. I have this assumption that when one dies, one experiences the totality of existence. Of course I’ve imagined this as “the light”. Technically, the experience of the All would entail all of its aspects, requiring all of our senses and senses we might not possess. Thus the experience of the All is impossible to imagine. Perhaps vision might fail to be so spectacular when combined with senses we don’t even possess.

Smelling God. Touching God. Tasting God. Hearing God.

Tasting God seems most odd. In order to taste, there must be proximity to the tongue. There seems to be an implied hierarchy. The tongue always seems like a giant compared to the thing it is tasting. Sure, one can lick a mountain and thus taste it (can one taste a mountain?), but the image I receive is one of consuming food. Consuming God seems to position one as bigger than God. Yet a catholic consumes Jesus every week. From the Catholic’s perspective, s/he is genuinely eating God, because the priest genuinely transforms the bread into the body and the wine into the blood via the process of transubstantiation.

How would one categorize reality if one judged it and organized it by taste or smell instead of by sight? Things would be grouped together on the basis of tasting alike. A sweaty man and the ocean would fit into the same category. Salty. (What does “salty” sound like?)

Perhaps the most basic abstractions we apply to smell are more related to their emotional resonance. There is a class of foul smells and there is a class of pleasant smells. But within this, there is a further abstraction of warm smells, such as cinnamon, and cool smells, such as mint. Warm foul smells, like a soiled diaper, and warm pleasant smells, like a fireplace. Perhaps one who is studied in the olfactory arts can identify further abstractions, or ways of grouping smells, but I’d propose that this abstraction, between warm and cool, is a generally shared abstraction.

(Thermoception is one of the senses commonly associated with touch, but is actually identified as an independent sense. It is the sense that perceives hot and cold, that metaphor often applied to the other senses. Vipers and boa snakes have such developed thermoception that they can navigate by sense of hot and cold like a bat navigates by sound.)

We also would abstract a smell as being “moist” or “dry”. Perhaps this is the consequence of imagining the source of the smell. Still, “moist” or “dry” is an interesting abstraction. In color theory, thermoception is synesthetically associated with color all the time. Red, Orange, Yellow are warm, blue, green, violet are cool. Joseph Albers asks of artists to employ different associations, such as most and dry.

There are tribes of people who use of color words to refer to visual experience via proximity to other senses. This includes the impression of moist or dry. Shiny and matte. Rough and smooth. Blood-like, dirt-like. Male, female. No consideration of the Red Blue Green cones of the eye. So many other senses are regarded as fundamental.

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