Synaesthesia unravelled: the union of the senses from a cultural perspective
Neuroscience enjoys tremendous authority at present. Due to this authority, as well as to interest generated by recent research in the ﬁeld, terms such as ‘neuroplasticity’, ‘mirror neurons’ and ‘hyperconnectivity’ have transcended the scientiﬁc study of the nervous system and come to ﬁgure as sources of cultural capital (see Legrenzi and Umilta 2011). Part of this popular appeal undoubtedly rests on the attraction of the vividly coloured representations generated by the brain-imaging technologies employed to scan neural activity. As the brain is a rather sensorially-silent organ – unlike the heart or the stomach which we can feel and hear at work – such images seem to ﬁnally allow us sensory access to its mysterious processes. Inﬂuenced by these developments, scholars in the social sciences and
humanities increasingly employ the ﬁndings of neuroscience to help explain or ‘validate’ cultural theories and practices. This has particularly been the case
within art history and within the study of the body and the senses in society (i.e., Bacci and Melcher 2011; Lende and Downey 2012). As a result, new subdisciplines such as ‘neuroaesthetics’ and ‘neuroanthropology’ have sprung up. One fascinating topic that crosses the borders of neuroscience, the humanities,
and the social sciences, just as it crosses the borders of the senses, is synaesthesia, the ‘union of the senses’. From the standard neurological perspective, synaesthesia is a physiological condition in which certain perceptions trigger unrelated sensations, for example, a musical note may elicit a mental sensation of colour. Neurologists recognize that synaesthesia has been elaborated as an artistic practice and plays a role in language in the form of metaphor (as exempliﬁed by such expressions as ‘a sharp taste’ or ‘a loud colour’). However, they regard such cases as weak, compared to ‘strong’, ‘brain-based’ synaesthesia. Traditionally synaesthesia was seen as a ‘pathological’ or ‘abnormal’ condition
due to the seeming irrationality of the associations made between diﬀering sensations (why should a particular musical note be green?). In recent years, this has changed somewhat. The stigmatization of synaesthesia has declined and many now see it as a ‘gift’ or sign of an artistic personality (van Campen 2010). In this chapter, however, we are interested in synaesthesia as a cultural
phenomenon, a phenomenon that has a vigorous history of social expression and reception and that extends beyond linguistic metaphors and artistic practices to inform a broad range of ﬁelds, from kinship relations to mathematics. From this perspective, viewing synaesthesia as either a ‘pathology’ or a ‘gift’ misses the key ways in which it is socially elaborated. Indeed, it is our contention that, far from being limited to genetic ‘deviants’, a predisposition for cross-modal connections is generally shared by humans (although it may be stronger in some individuals than in others). It is this commonality of the phenomenon that makes it useful for widespread cultural elaboration, as will be discussed below. We intend to show that synaesthesia is too multifaceted and too culturally
important to be left solely to neuroscientists to deﬁne. We also hope, on the one hand, to encourage neuroscientists interested in sensory integration to take more account of cultural factors, and, on the other, to stimulate historians, anthropologists and other scholars to look beyond, beside, and behind neurological models to explore the ways in which the senses – and sensory models – are shaped by culture.