Non Sense

I have a friend who “sees” the days of the week as colors. If you ask him about having lunch on “blue,” he’ll check his mental PDA and respond with something like, “Thursday’s not good for me, but brown…I mean, Friday…will work.”

His son “sees” numbers as colors, so I suppose its an inherited trait. It’s called synesthesia, and it’s defined as “to perceive together … a condition in which a two senses are sensed at the same time, where one type of stimulation evokes the sensation of another, as when the hearing of a sound produces the visualization of a color.”

Christian songwriter and performer Chris Rice used an unintentional reference to synesthesia in his recent song “Smell the Color 9”:

‘Cause I can sniff, I can see
I can count up pretty high
But these faculties aren’t getting me
any close to the sky
But my heart of faith keeps poundin’
So I know I’m doin’ fine
But sometimes finding You
Is just like trying to
Smell the color nine

I call his reference unintentional, because he seems to be saying that finding God sometimes seems impossible, but his referential metaphor obviously doesn’t take into account that there are, indeed, people who can “smell the color nine.”

I recently ran across a fascinating short story dealing with synesthesia. It’s called “The Empire of Ice Cream,” written by Jeffrey Ford, and it’s included in an anthology entitled “Science Fiction: The Best of 2003.” (Incidentally, for those who have despaired of ever again finding new SF that actually has some Sci to go along with the Fi, you’ll be quite pleased with this volume; I recommend it highly.)

The protagonist in Mr. Ford’s wonderful little story introduces his condition thusly:

It has only recently come to light that the process of synesthesia takes place in the hippocampus, part of the ancient limbic system where remembered perceptions — triggered in diverse geographical regions of the brain as the result of an external stimulus — come together. It is believed that everyone, at a point somewhere below consciousness, experiences this coinciding of sensory association, yet in most it is filtered out, and only a single sense is given predominance in one’s waking world. For we lucky few, the filter is broken or perfected, and what is usually subconscious becomes conscious.

The emphasis above is mine, and I believe this observation is key: a condition like synesthesia may be viewed as a blessing or a curse — an abnormality or a rare occurence of complete normality — depending on one’s outlook.

Even though Chris Rice didn’t meet the issue head on, I believe he’s in the ballpark in that this issue has spiritual implications. What is there is not what I always see or otherwise sense. I am like the king of Israel who saw only that he was surrounded by Arameans intent on his death, and who didn’t see the overwhelming angelic army of fire protecting him until God opened his eyes at the behest of Elisha. I “see through a glass darkly,” using only a portion of my physical senses and almost none of my spiritual ones. As such, I’m a bookend to the fictional synesthete in the story; my lack of spiritual perception is considered normal (or not considered at all) by most human standards, but is an undeniable shortcoming by God’s.

[Update: This is what I get for posting late at night and trying to re-create Old Testament Bible stories by memory instead of looking them up. It wasn’t the king of Israel whose eyes were opened by God, it was Elisha’s servant. My bad.]

4 comments

  1. Physical synesthesia does actually occur. Some blind people develop the ability to “feel” colors.
    It’s a certainty that God doesn’t expect human beings to perceive the world of Spirit as part of their regular “physical” senses, though. There are cases, where through Grace, exceptionally devout people can. But in the main, it’s anything but a shortcoming on our part.
    Synesthesia in humans seems to be strictly confined to physical senses. The realm of the Spirit is, by definition, not physical. The demarcation between the two is (for most of us) sharply drawn. I qualified with “most” because there are instances where people who are dying seem to be able to “see” spirits, both good and evil, human and discarnate. Animals seem to be more naturally attuned to spiritual perceptions and frequently react to entities humans can’t perceive.
    Traugott K. Oesterreich’s “Possession and Exorcism” [1921] recounts several instances where a possessing spirit facilitated such perception in its host. But it’s not a normal or even desireable condition. One spirit, wracked by exoricism, claimed, “We see more than you. You would die if you saw the world as we do.”
    The subject gets very creepy rather quickly. But there’s no question that our spiritual “blindness” is by design. It’s most likely a deliberate safeguard.

  2. “But there’s no question that our spiritual ‘blindness’ is by design. It’s most likely a deliberate safeguard.”
    I will agree with you…up to a point. Isn’t this really an issue of spiritual maturity? Just as children are (or should be) shielded from perceiving those things which they aren’t emotionally or intellectually equipped to handle, perhaps God shields the spiritually immature from things we’re not ready to handle.
    As we mature…as the process of sanctification works in our spiritual lives…we can deal with spiritual realities that previously would have freaked us out, so to speak.
    To say unequivocally that God designed us to be spiritually blind is to deny that He equips and empowers believers not only to perceive spiritual realities — both good and evil — but to embrace (in the case of the former) or engage and battle (in the case of the latter) them with the weapons He provides. Scripture states that believers are not given a spirit of fear, but we are molded into overcomers, victors…and I take that to mean not in a physical sense, but in a spiritual sense.
    In any event, I didn’t mean to make the physical trait of synesthesia into a literal proxy for the gift of spiritual sight. I perhaps overstretched the metaphor. But it led to this good discussion, so it was worth it!

  3. %%%%%
    The one to one correspondence between digits (or even multi digit) numbers and colors that Eric mentions in people with synesthesia reminds me of the 12 notes per octave in a piano or guitar.
    Any music CAN BE PLAYED 12 DIFFERENT WAYS – SIMPLY BY MOVING ALL NOTES HIGHER BY 1 note. Likewise any music can be played by moving all the notes higher by 2 notes. . . . . . . Or you can play the music by moving all notes higher by 11 notes. HOWEVER, IF YOU MOVE ALL NOTES HIGHER BY 12 NOTES, YOU ARE BACK TO THE SAME OLD MUSIC, ONLY 12 NOTES HIGHER OR I OCTAVE HIGHER. Just as this is true with ADDING SAME NUMBER OF NOTES TO ALL NOTES, IT ALSO WORKS IF YOU SUBTRACT THE SAME NUMBER OF NOTES FROM ALL THE NOTES OF THE MUSIC!!!!!
    This ADDING or SUBTRACTING of notes to the entire music is BEST EASILY SEEN IN GUITARS WHERE THEY CLAMP ALL THE STRINGS say 4 FRETS HIGHER. Doing so enables the guitar player to ADD 4 NOTES TO ALL THE NOTES IN THE MUSIC while his fingers just follow the same series of finger formation or chords as before. THE MUSIC HOWEVER WILL BE HEARD AS 4 NOTES HIGHER!!!
    In Eric’s post, the correspondence was numbers and colors. In the description I gave above in the “12 notes octave” THE CORRESPONDENCE IS NUMBERS AND SOUNDS OR NOTES. The adding or subtracting of the same number of notes to all the notes in the music is I think what they call “CHANGING THE KEY” . Hence Key of C, key of E, Key of D SHARP, KEY OF B FLAT,etc.
    It is AMAZING to hear and see musicians play musical instruments, or singers sing songs and CHANGE KEYS VERY EASILY TO ACCOMODATE VARIOUS SINGERS WHO CAN’T SING THAT WELL IN CERTAIN KEYS. THE REASON I SAY IT IS AMAZING IS BECAUSE, BY EAR, WITHOUT ADDING MACHINES TO ADD A CERTAIN NUMBER OF NOTES TO ALL THE NOTES IN THE MUSIC, THESE MUSICIANS, many of who perhaps are not good at math, manage to get all the transposed notes CORRECTLY!!!! IN SHORT, BY EAR, THEY ARE ABLE TO KNOW THE CORRECT SUM OR CORRECT DIFFERENCE WITHOUT USING ANY CALCULATOR OR ADDING MACHINE AT ALL!!!!
    How easydo you think it will be for Eric, who I think is an accountant to mentally add $1.73 to all the numbers in that Balance Sheet and just by feel, know exactly if all the resulting numbers are correct or not??? But these musicians do it all the time by ear!!!
    Many good physicists, however, Eintein for example, ALSO PLAY THE VIOLIN!!!
    —————–
    In my case, as a catholic where we have the the Rosary and the Divine Mercy where we also use the Rosary, Catholics pray these prayers and many find them so mechanical as I did, repeating and repeating the “HAIL MARY” 10 times for every MYSTERY or repeating the “FOR THE SAKE OF HIS SORROWFUL PASSION HAVE MERCY ON US AND THE WHOLE WORLD” 10 times for every “HOLY GOD HOLY IMMORTAL ONE, I OFFER THEE THE BODY AND BLOOD, SOUL AND DIVINITY OF YOUR ONLY BEGOTTEN SON OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST IN ATONEMENT FOR OUR SINS AND THE SINS OF THE WHOLE WORLD.” (this prayer was taught to Sister Faustina Kowalska by Jesus who would appear to her eveyday in APPARITIONS, I think about 2,000 times!!! She is now either a Catholic Church declared Saint or Blessed and was investigated by Pope John Paul II who was bishop of Krakow, Poland at that time. I think she died at age 33, same age as Jesus Christ when he died.)
    Unlike other catholics who find it so mechanical because they are counting the “hail marys” with their fingers or using the 10 beads of the rosary per decade or mystery, in my case, I have in the past years found a way to make the rosary and the DIVINE MERCY PRAYER MEANINGFUL. THERE ARE 10 COMMANDMENTS. SO I THINK OR SAY THE FIRST COMMANDMENT AND SAY ONE HAIL MARY. THEN I SAY THE SECOND COMMANDMENT AND SAY ANOTHER HAIL MARY. Then the 3rd Commandment and another hail mary. Soon I say the 10th commandment and a tenth hail mary. I don’t even anymore think or say first commandment, second commandment, third, etc. THE COMMANDMENTS, just like the words in a song, just come out in sequence!!!! In the end, not only have I said the Rosary or the Divine Mercy prayer, BUT I HAVE REPEATED AND SAID THE TEN COMMANDMENTS GIVEN TO MOSES 5 TIMES!!!! HENCE IT HAS MADE ME MORE AND MORE AWARE OF SIN BECAUSE THESE SINS ARE VIOLATIONS OF THESE 10 COMMANDMENTS. THAT”S WHY EVEN BEFORE I DID THIS METHOD, IVE ALWAYS WONDERED WHY THE ROSARY, which was taught to ST. DOMINIC BY THE VIRGIN MARY, had 10 hail marys for every MYSTERY. And it becomes even more meaningful when one realizes that these mysteries are mostly major events in Jesus life as a TRUE MAN, finally resulting in Mary as Queen of Heaven and Earth. The HAIL MARY itself which is repeated and repeated is actually phrases that came from the bible itself.
    —————–
    Sounds and Colors are ACTUALLY WAVES. They only differ in FREQUENCIES. Satan, is also called “LUCIFER” meaning LIGHT, in SPANISH LUZ. I think that was his name when he was still a good angel in heaven. In Revelations, from what i understand, it looks like in HEAVEN IS A LOT OF MUSIC!!!
    BTW, that father and son with synesthesia, do they have the same digit for say the color “BLUE”? Colors are used as numbers in the color bands or RESISTORS in electronics. In my head, I can still remember the memory aid I made years ago “BROY, Good Boy Very Good” meaning in sequence IF i am not mistaken BROWN, RED, ORANGE,YELLOW,GREEN, BLACK OR BLUE, VIOLET, GRAY.

  4. Um . . . oh-kay.
    I was first introduced to the concept of synethesia, albeit in a “literary” sense, while studying the poetry of W.H. Auden. Auden uses the device often and to great effect.
    I’d like to use it more often in my novels, too, but I’m always afraid some wise-acre will say, “Nothing smells green! What are you talking about?”

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