The voluntary synesthesia

SYNESTHESIA: the simultaneity of perceptions inside the experience of movement

I dedicate this article to a phenomenon defined in neuroscience as synesthesia. I have always had a particular interest in the relationship between neuroscience and movement practices such as dance, martial arts, yoga and athletics. I believe that the latest discoveries about the brain may have an implication on the deep understanding of the human body and, consequently, of all the experience of movement. My interest in understanding the synesthetic phenomenon come from a simply question: how can I use this knowledge inside my practice of movement (from Tai-ji to dance, including all daily movement)?

What is the synesthesia?

The “synesthesia” (from the greek -syn together; -aisthánesthai, perceive; “simultaneous perception”) can be defined as an association of several sensations (auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile or visual) warned at the same time by an individual.
For example, a form can be “tasted”, a number or a sound can be viewed “in colors.” The crossing of the synesthetic sensations is not a poetic metaphor, but a real perceptual experience. In its mildest form it is present in many individuals, often explained by the fact that our senses, while being autonomous, are not acting in a totally separation one from the others. The synesthetic phenomenon is involuntary, but through increased attention from the subject, it can be summoned up with awareness to the point that you may be able to take advantage of these sensory contamination in every human creative activity. For example, among the many artists who have used this their synesthetic “ability” there are the French composer Olivier Messiaen, the Lithuanian painter and composer Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis and the painter Melissa McCracken .
Kind of synesthetic experiences may also be induced artificially, through the use of hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD or mescaline, experiences of sensory deprivation, meditation practices, and in some types of diseases that affect the cerebral cortex. This is how describe the synesthesia the neuro-Indian scientist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran (“The Emerging Mind”, 2003):

In the 19th century, the Victorian scientist Francis Galton, who was a cousin of Charles Darwin, noticed something very peculiar. He found that certain people in the normal population who were otherwise perfectly normal had a certain peculiarity and that is every time they heard a specific tone, they would experience a specific colour. For example, C sharp might be red, F sharp might be blue, another tone might be indigo. And this curious mingling of the senses was called synesthesia. […] Galton also pointed out this condition runs in families and more recently Simon Baron Cohen in Cambridge has confirmed this, that it does indeed run in families.
Now I think it’s fair to say that even though people have known about synesthesia for over a hundred years, it’s been by and large recorded as a curiosity by mainstream neuroscience and psychology but what I’d like to do today in fact is suggest that anomalies can be extremely important in science. […] But first let’s look at the most common explanations that have been proposed to account for synesthesia and in fact there are four of these. The first explanation is the most obvious and that is that they’re just crazy! Now the second explanation is maybe they’re just acid junkies or pot heads, they’ve just been on drugs. Now this is not an entirely inappropriate criticism because synesthesia is more common among people who use LSD but to me that makes it more interesting, not less interesting. Why should some chemicals cause synesthesia, if indeed they do? The third idea is that maybe these people are just remembering childhood memories. For example maybe they were playing with refrigerator magnets and five was red and six was blue and seven was green, and for some reason they’re stuck with these memories but this never made much sense to me because why would it then run in families? You’d have to say they’re passing the same magnets down, or the propensity to play with magnets runs in families or something like that. Anyway it didn’t make much sense but it’s something you have to bear in mind. The fourth explanation is more subtle and it invokes sensory metaphors. If you look at our ordinary language, it’s replete with synesthetic metaphors, cross-sensory metaphors such as for example if you said cheddar cheese is sharp. Well cheese isn’t sharp, you can take a piece of cheese and rub it on your skin, it’s actually soft. So why do you say it’s sharp? Well you say oh no no, what I mean is it tastes sharp, it’s a metaphor. But this is circular – why do you use a tactile adjective, touch you know sharp, for a taste sensation? […]
Maybe what’s going on is these people have some accidental cross-talk, or cross-wiring, just as in my experiments on phantom limbs in my London lecture I showed that the face area becomes cross-wired with the hand area in the cortex, except in this case it happens not because of amputation but because of some genetic change in the brain. And now we’ve done imaging experiments on people with synesthesia and showed that if you show just black and white numbers, they get activation in the colour area.[…]
Now the next question is why does this cross-wiring or cross-activation occur? Well remember I said it runs in families. Well this suggests there’s a gene or set of genes involved. What might this gene be doing, this bad gene? Well one possibility is we are all born with excess connections in the brain. In the foetus there are many more redundant connections than you need and then you prune away the excess connections to produce the modular architecture characteristic of the adult brain, like Michelangelo chipped away everything that doesn’t look like David to produce David. That’s how you generate a brain. So I think what’s happened in these people is that gene is defective and therefore there’s defective pruing so there’s cross-activation between adjacent areas of the brain – or there could be some kind of chemical imbalance that produced cross-activation between adjacent parts of the brain that are normally only loosely connected and this produces a hyperconnectivity between these parts of the brain. […] Now, however, we then found this is not true of all synesthetes. All synesthetes are not made equal. We then ran into other synesthetes where it’s not merely a number that evokes colour but even days of the week evoke colours. […]

Well one of the odd facts about synesthesia which been known for a long time and again been ignored, is the fact that synesthesia is much more common among artists, poets, novelists, you know flaky types! So now why is it much more common? Well one view is that – in fact according to one study it’s seven times more common among artists poets and novelists and the reason is what do artists, poets and novelists all have in common? Just think about it. What they all have in common is they’re very good at metaphor, namely linking seemingly unrelated concepts in their brain. […]

Now imagine one further assumption – if this gene is expressed more diffusely instead of being just expressed in the fusiform or in the angular, if it’s expressed in the fusiform you get a lower synesthete, in the angular gyrus TPO junction you get a higher synesthete. If it’s expressed everywhere you get greater hyperconnectivity throughout the brain making you more prone to metaphor, links seemingly unrelated things because after all concepts are also represented in brain maps. This may be seem counter-intuitive but after all a number, there’s nothing more abstract than a number. You can have five pigs, five donkeys, five chairs – it’s fiveness – and that’s represented in a fairly small region namely the angular gyrus so it’s possible that concepts are also represented in brain maps and these people have excess connections so they can make these associations much more fluidly and effortlessly than all of us less-gifted people.[…]

Now, remember I said the third thing you have to do in science is show that this is not just some quirk. It has vast implications. Well what implications does synesthesia have? I’m going to show all of you that synesthesia is not just a quirk in some people’s brain. All of you here are synesthetes, and I’m going to do an experiment. I want all of you to imagine in front of you, to visualise in front of you a bulbous amoeboid shape which looks a bit, has lots of curves on it, undulating curves. And right next to it imagine a jagged, like a piece of shattered glass with jagged shapes.

And just for fun, I’m going to tell you this is Martian alphabet. Just as in English alphabet, A is a, B is b, you’ve got each shape with the particular sound, this is Martian alphabet and one of these shapes is kiki and the other is booba, and I want you to tell me which is which. How many of you think the bulbous shape is the kiki, raise your hands? Well there’s one mutation there. In fact what you find is if you do this experiment, 98% of people say the jagged shape, the shattered glass is kiki, and the bulbous amoeboid shape is a booba. Now why is that? You never learnt Martian and nobody here is a Martian. The answer is you’re all synesthetes but you’re in denial about it. And I’ll explain. Look at the kiki and look at the sound kiki. They both share one property, the kiki visual shape has a sharp inflexion and the sound kiki represented in your auditory cortex, in the hearing centres in the brain also has a sharp sudden inflexion of the sound and the brain performs a cross-modal synesthetic abstraction saying the only thing they have in common is the property of jaggedness. […]

Synesthesia as “experience of simultaneity” within the movement
In this context, I would like to extend the hypothesis that simultaneous cross-activation can be “called” voluntary (in addition to the 5 senses most used such as hearing, smell, taste, touch, sight) even among proprioceptive / kinestetiche areas (position sense, internal tension and movement of the body) and the areas responsible of abstract mental images (numbers – simple geometric shapes – lines and directions – etc). In this perspective, each time I want create a body’s “alignment”, in fact, I’m implementing a cross-activation between the perception of my body and mental image of line, be it a curved line or straight line. The line does not exist at the biological level of the bones, muscles and skin. It is “imagined”, but it is only thanks to this that the different parts of the body may form themselves into a specific shape extremely precise.

In this sense, perceive the mass of my body and, simultaneously, imagine an axis that passes through it, generates a syntestetic phenomenon. This, however, only when there is a real SIMULTANEITY ‘between the level (or neuronal area) of perception and the mental level (area) of numbers and geometry. It could be said that all the learning and practice of movement lies in the concept of simultaneity between these two different levels (or neuronal areas), between the “mind” and the “body”. However, despite the naturalness of this process, in a voluntary practice of Simultaneity, interpose two obstacles, two extremes and opposites cases that can separate ourselves from real practice: the Alternation and Abstraction.


In the Alternation we have the case where the focus of attention shifts quickly between the real perception of body and the mental image, giving the illusion of simultaneity. A split second my focus is on the physical perception, a fraction after jumping on the image we have in mind, to return to the body in the blink of an eye. The Alternation “mind-body” can also be very fast, fractions of a second, giving the illusion of generating cross-activation of two levels, when in fact you move from one level to another without even realizing it. Just like in creating videos. The video, in fact, bases its nature on an optical illusion: the movement that we observe on the screen as a fluid and continuous in time, is no more than the rush of a series of fixed and static images. To create this illusion are generally used 24 frames for second (fps).

At the opposite pole, however, we have the case in which the mind, thanks to its natural ability to abstract, creates a mental image of the perception experienced by the body. For example, touching the hand over a surface, I can say if t”his is “hot” or “cold.” This names are in fact an mind abstraction of a physical sensation. The body perception, differently from the concepts, lives and changes before the formation of the word “hot” or “cold”.
In fact, the concept of “temperature” is something that takes us away from the experience of the body and places us in the reality lived by the racional mind.
Naming is precisely the process that transforms the original perceptual image into an abstract image. This new image disconnect us from the real perception of the body (and movement). However now the two images can easily relate to each other because ot the same “level.” Also in this case it is not a real perceptual simultaneity. This process of abstraction (or rational mind) transforms the perception of the body in image that can be turn in words. This ability to abstract is so important that could be defined as the origin of all human culture in all its aspects and artifact. However, this natural process of abstraction can become “invasive” if we do not understand the difference between perceiving and thinking, between the static word o”f knee” and the ever-changing perception of the real knee, with all its tissues and cells in perpetual transformation. When talking about “mind-body separation” often refers to this typical abstracting process of the human mind. Also in this case we don’t pass trough a real simultaneity of perception and abstract imagination, but we live in a “virtual simultaneity” that in fact hides a radical separation.

In the practical work of Simultaneity, the perception still perception, always in constant transformation and intimately linked to the mutability of the body, while the mental images are mental images, “static” and then re-callable from the memory (although slightly different at each recall). Mind and body can live simultaneously in the ocean of consciousness without separation one from each other. It could be argued that a deep study of movement should be based on a daily practice of how to find, drill and maintain stable as much as possible this experience of simultaneity. Only when it’s created a synergy between these two areas (proprioception and abstract imagination) can happen a real and deep understanding of movement.

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