V. S. Ramachandran. The Tell-Tale Brain: Unlocking the Mystery of Human Nature. William Heinemann, 2011. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson.

Ramachandran, who is Director of the Center for the Brain at the University of California, San Diego, here continues his study of extraordinary cases in neurology which he began in Phantoms in the Brain. Here he covers in additional detail topics such as synesthesia, phantom limbs and the strange effects of various brain injuries caused by both strokes and injuries, as well as studies on autism. These show how much of our perception of the world is generated internally, and that indeed all our perceptions may be regarded as hallucinations informed by the information provided by the scenes.

These sort of syndromes, and perhaps others that have never come to medical attention may well give some clues as to what is going on in anomalous personal experiences. An example of this is provided by Ramachandran's study of mirror neurones, which showed that people might feel their phantom limb being touched when they watched someone else's limb being touched, and that this effect could be replicated in someone with a normal limb, if the limb is anaesthetised.

From this he concluded that mirror neurones are constantly activated, but their effects are normally repressed by information coming from the body. When this information is cut off by amputation or anaesthetic, the boundaries between the self and the other begin to disappear. This effect tends to validate the claims by early students of hypnotism that some hypnotised subjects could experience community of sensation, in this case we might assume that the hypnotic suggestion acts to disinhibit mirror neurones. Some of the phenomena of conditions like latah in which people imitate the movements of others may also have a similar cause.

The author also suggests that mirror neurones may play a role in folie a deux, and one might wonder if they are not also involved in cases of "mass hysteria" and "collective hallucination" and perhaps a wide range of apparently collectively experienced anomalous phenomena.

The author suggests that the ranges of pathologies, quasi-pathologies and benign differences may give important clues to the development of human consciousness, and suggests that we should emphasise more the difference between humans and other animals, and not just concentrate on the similarities. He also devotes a significant discussion on the psychology of art and aesthetics.
  • Maureen Seaberg. Tasting the Universe; People Who See Colors in Words and Rainbows in Symphonies. New Page, 2011. -- Reviewed by John Rimmer.
There has been a number of recent books looking at the phenomenon of synethesia from a medical and academic viewpoint, such as Ramachandra's book above and this other recent title also reviewed by Peter Rogerson. There seems to be fewer describing the phenomenon from the percipient's viewpoint.

Maureen Seaberg was born with the ability of being able to discern letters, shapes and sounds as colours. At first she thought that this was quite normal, and that everyone saw the world in this way, gradually she began to realise just how unusual this was. In order to understand synesthesia she begins a journey to meet other people with this ability, and to try to understand what it has meant to their lives.

People she meets include musicians like the violinist Itzak Perlman, who sees individual notes as colours and shapes. Musical synesthesia is perhaps the best known form of the phenomenon, and was widely recognised at the turn of the 19th/20th century. The idea of the integration of different senses fitted in with the ideas of the Symbolist art movement of the period. Composers such as Scriabin, who was not himself a synesthete, wrote compositions which required the use of a 'colour organ' to produce washes of colour across the concert hall in concert with his music.

However, synesthesia seems to have been almost forgotten as a condition through much of the twentieth century, and Seaberg puts this down largely to the growth of behaviourist theories of psychology which emphasised external social and environmental influences rather than internal experience. Ironically one of the pioneers of behaviourism was Francis Galton, who was also the person who identified synesthesia as a condition and gave it its name.

The author talks to a range of writers, artists and musicians who have used synesthesia as part of their creative processes. Unfortunately at times these interviews come dangerously close to the style of a slightly breathless Hello magazine celebrity interview. They do, however, demonstrate the varieties of the synesthetic experience, which appears to vary greatly between individuals. While some have a direct visual or auditory sensation, others just have a very strong impression of a particular colour or shape when confronted by a stimulus, without it necessarily having a sensory experience - more a sort of "Mondays always seem green to me" sort of response.

Although sound to colour is perhaps the most common form of the condition, Seaberg describes her word-to-colour experience. Of course, any description of this phenomenon is almost impossible to anyone who does not actually experience it themselves. Despite being seemingly bombarded by colours, shapes and other impressions, synesthetes cope perfectly well with their environment. In the later chapters of the book Seaberg looks a deeper philosophical, religious and even parapsychological implications of synesthesia, and the effects of 'mirror neurones' as described by Ramachandra. Synesthetes seem to be particularly empathic, and more able to "feel your pain", which was a particular problem at times for the author, as in her professional career she is a crime reporter for a New York newspaper!

This book presents an intriguing insider's view of an experience which it is very difficult, if not impossible, for outsiders to appreciate. I suspect that we are going to find synesthesia increasingly involved with the kind of topics that we discuss in Magonia.

1 comment:

  1. I recall watching a documentary in the 90s on the subject of synaesthetes that led to further reading. In terms of abnormal psychology, it's quite an attractive concept. Whereas other differences in our neural make-up have a markedly negative impact on a subject's perception of reality, this appears to add pleasure to life.

    It's been some years since reading about the subject, yet I was left wondering how life would be if it wasn't simply a 'disorder' transmitted through families? Imagine if it had become a typical feature in the human perception of reality...no more remarkable than a bat's sonar is to the bat?

    In some cases, people experience flavours for letters and words. Great fun. It adds a new dimension to 'taste in music.'

    Both books sound interesting, particularly Ramachandran's musings on consciousness through the synaesthetic filter.