Everything is deeply intertwingled.
The literatures that touch on synesthesias—scientific, art-historical, literary, phenomenological, ethnographic, psychedelic—vary widely in their definitions, interpretations, and in their degree of comfort with the first-person, subjective nature of experiential reports. The significances given to synesthetic experiences are similarly wide-ranging. This article explores the relationships among synesthesias, psychedelic experience, and language, highlighting Terence McKenna’s synesthetic language experiences on DMT and magic mushrooms. The complexities of creating and performing with the Intertwingulator, a system that provides the means to weave together, in multiple mappings, two or more complex visual, aural, and linguistic systems in live performance, are briefly described.
Contemporary neuroscience (Cytowic, Marks, Harrison) views synesthesia as a rare, (perhaps abnormal, perhaps pathological) ‘condition.’ Visionary artists, (Blake, Scriabin, Kandinsky, the French symbolists) link synesthetic perception to a spiritual dimension. Phenomenologists (Abram, based in Merleau-Ponty, the phenomenologist of perception) locates synesthesia as fundamental to perception and language, both spoken and written. Ethnographic reports of ayahuasca shamanism in the Amazonian rain forest (Luna, Amaringo) describe the centrality of the icaros, the shaman’s songs, that guide and create the content of the visionary experience on many levels, calling visual forms and presences into being with sound. Reports of psychedelic synesthesias (James, Pankhe, McKenna, Munn, Narby) link the states of multisensory perception to noetic experience of deep insights into the nature of reality and consciousness, and their profound intertwinglement.. A range of contemporary artistic practices, especially in immersive, interactive, electronic media environments seek to create, or invoke, synesthesias. The psychedelic connections to the creation and participation in many of these experiences (rave culture, Burning Man), and their enabling technologies—such as computer graphics, are common knowledge.
This paper touches on one example of such artistic experimentation. The Intertwingulator is a Max software implementation that can link the sensory qualities of two or more intricate systems, each producing complex, aesthetic forms in differing sensory modalities through an intermediate zone (the intertwingulator) where mappings can be constructed and tested in performance. The Glide system of dynamic, multidimensional visual language is mapped to keyboard input from a midi synthesizer and/or from another software system, such as composer Pauline Olivero’s EIS (Expanded Instrumentation System) to create a variety of synesthetic performances. The collaborators acknowledge the dual difficulties: technological and aesthetic. Making the technology work on the one hand and designing and performing a meaningful aesthetic experience with these highly complex instruments are interdependent challenges.
A Synesthetic Sampler
“Sounds seem to affect what I see. I see music; the textures of rhythms and the colors of melodies float before my eyes.. My visual images alter or change whenever I hear a sound or noise…Sight, feeling, motion, texture, thinking, sound—all are one….The interaction between sight, music, and physical feeling is most remarkable.” (Dobkin de Rios, p. 48.)
“When I get there I lie down with my eyes closed and sunglasses on, there is some interesting synesthesia going on, corresponding patterns in regards to distance and volume and other characteristics of the sounds I hear. The most interesting ‘looking’ sound comes from a moped that passes by on the bike road below the hill.” (DOM, Vaults of Erowid)
“I experienced powerful synesthesia between hearing and touch. I ran my
hands over the sharp edges of the springs underneath my girlfriend’s bed and simultaneously heard, felt, and saw an intense static/sharp/bright sensation.” (5-MeO-DMT,Vaults of Erowid)
“Your name, Richard, tastes like a chocolate bar,” she writes, “warm and melting on my tongue.” (Cytowic, p. 14)
“The spirits one sees in hallucinations are three-dimensional, sound-emitting images. In other words, they are made of their own language, like DNA.” (Narby, p. 71)
“Through his icaro, he also calls the rainbow with the whole range of colors that the boa yakumama has. He sings the icaro of the diamond, the gold, the silver, and of all the precious stones in order to put them on the woman to protect her…” (Luna, p. 112.)
“The first thing I saw was the ‘visible language’! … The ‘elves’ appeared. They sang/I saw/read/felt/heard. They are ‘made out’ of the visible language. The message is conveyed by the medium itself in several simultaneous sensory modalities.” (DMT, Vaults of Erowid)
“The ancient wise men, to describe the kaleidoscopic illuminations of their shamanistic nights, drew an analogy between the inside and the outside and formed a word that related the spectrum colors created by the sunshine in the spray of waterfalls and the mists of the morning to their conscious experiences of ecstatic enlightenment: these are the whirlwinds he speaks of, gyrating configurations of iridescent lights that appear to him as he speaks, turned round and round and round himself by the turbulent winds of the spirit.” (Henry Munn)
Neologisms in Ancient Geek
Xanadu never shipped, but Ted Nelson’s word still bears fruit, now in the context of synesthesia. Intertwingle: itself a blended word, (to say it is to do it: noeto-poetic?) a braid of intertwining, mingling, perhaps twisting together, the deepness of which suggests the mycelial networks of brain and WWW; the immersive, multisensory bombardment of a rave; googling around the fractal depths of contemporary dataspaces; navigating by synchronicities, “hints and allegations;” dense heterarchies of meaning emerging and dissolving; connecting paths and patterns, linkings, unlinkings. And this theme of intertwingularity is the common ground underlying the discourses of synesthesia, whatever the variances among epistemological theme parks, or the bewildering richness person to person in experiential reports, whether those reports are quoted in neuroscientific works, the Vaults of Erowid, William Blake’s visions, or the heavenly or hellish trip reports of Aldous Huxley.
The Noetic Disconnection
From this small sampling of quotes, it seems clear that under the broad rubric of “synesthesia” almost any sensory—and/or emotional—and/or cognitive experience can be cross-linked. Neuroscientist Richard Cytowic narrows the definition of synesthesia to
“the involuntary physical experience of a cross-modal association. That is, the stimulation of one sensory modality reliably causes a perception in one or more different senses. Its phenomenology clearly distinguishes it from metaphor, literary tropes, sound symbolism, and deliberate artistic contrivances that sometimes employ the term “synesthesia” to describe their multisensory joinings.”
Cytowic estimates the occurrence of the synesthetic experience to be statistically rare, one in 25,000. When psychedelics are the testbed of synesthesias, the occurrence of synesthesias increases dramatically:
“It is reasonably common for individuals who take hallucinogens to report that their senses become mixed. Given the illicit nature of the topic it is hard to find reliable data on this issue, but a recent web-based questionnaire conducted by Don DeGracia, suggested that, of a total of 62 respondents who admitted to using hallucinogenic compounds, 45.9% reported synesthetic symptoms. Clearly the most common manifestation (over 90%) was to see sounds. Now, just as with the patients described in the last section, it would be prudent to treat such accounts with an element of caution, as it can be hard to dissociate ‘true’ synesthesia from possibly imagined forms of the condition.” (Harrison)
Questioning the reality or validity of these experiences in the scientific discourses is common, and interesting ambivalences arise in the handling and evaluation of first person reports. On the one hand, Cytowic invokes The Varieties of Religious Experience, in which “William James’ spoke of ecstasy’s four qualities of ineffability, passivity, noesis, and transience,” claiming that “These same qualities are shared by synesthesia.” Further, in the section titled “The Rejection of Direct Experience,” Cytowic states that “Questioning its reality [synesthesia] without first having some technological confirmation shows how ready we are to reject any first-hand experience. We are addicted to the external and the rational. Our insistence on a third-person, “objective” understanding of the world has just about swept aside all other forms of knowledge.” At the same time, this very ineffability, is, for Cytowic, a bug not a feature. He sympathizes with Heinrich Kluver, who, in trying to get his subjects to report on their mescaline hallucinations, “was frustrated by the vagueness with which subjects described their experience, their eagerness to yield uncritically to cosmic or religious explanations, to “interpret” or poetically embroider the experience in lieu of straightforward but concrete description, and their tendency to be overwhelmed and awed by the “indescribableness” of their visions…Similarly, once Kluver got his subjects past elaborating or, even worse, explaining what they saw…” [emphasis added]. Clearly the noetic aspect of the experience is to be edited out by the “phenomenological” psychologist. Cytowic’s own example of pruning direct experience:
“In explicating MW’s description of mint, I distinguished between his factual description of curved, smooth, and cool tactile attributes, and his analogical explanation of the taste as “cool glass columns.”
For Kluver, Cytowic, and Harrison, the experiencing subjects’ data is inherently untrustworthy in some way, needing to be refined in such a way as to (conveniently) fit the categories established by the scientist for that experience. Further, when did adjectives such as cool and smooth attain such universal status? Is your smooth and my smooth the same? Are there degrees and admixtures of smooth? How does one fix as fact a word that can be used to describe wine, dance movements, and the way a pickup line is delivered? More significantly, perhaps, interpretation is assumed to be the privilege of the scientist; profound noesis, often a part of synesthetic experience, psychedelic or otherwise, is stripped from the ‘primary experience,’ denied epistemological potency, and tamed by the scientific reduction of ‘only the facts.’
The descriptive potency of natural language is put to the test in the discourses of synesthesia and psychedelics.
Hallucinogenic discourse, both of scientific and “recreational” nature, faces a similar rhetorical dilemma as the rest of the ecstatic traditions it responds to: It must report on an event which is in principle impossible to communicate. Writers of mystic experience from St Teresa to William James have treated the unrepresentable character of mystic events to be the very hallmark of ecstasies. Hallucinogenic discourse faced a similar struggle in the effort to report on the knowledge beyond what Aldous Huxley (and Jim Morrison…) described as the “doors of perception.” (Doyle)
The Noetic Connection
Jose Arguelles in his analysis of William Blake quotes the famous lines of Blake’s adopted by Huxley to describe the psychedelic visionary state:
“If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. / For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro narrow chinks of his cavern.”
Arguelles gets to the heart of the synesthetic matter in his interpretation of this passage:
“History is the result of an overelaboration and separation of the senses. . .Blake’s vision of man’s natural condition and the condition man shall return to following the apocalyptic disclosure of the present era—is that of a psychosensory unity in which each sense is not a “narrow chink walled off from the other senses but in a state of communication with them. This state of sensory interfusion, often referred to as synesthesia, is presupposed by a consciousness in which body and soul are realized to be one, and in turn presupposes a social order so totally different from the present one that its closest approximation is to be found in the remnant of so-called primitive societies.” (Arguelles)
David Abram, following Merleau-Ponty, finds this synesthetic unity in the very nature of perception itself.
“Although contemporary neuroscientists study “synaesthesia”—the overlap and blending of the senses—as though it were a rare or pathological experience to which only certain persons are prone (those who report “seeing sounds,” “hearing colors,” and the like), our primordial, preconceptual experience, as Merleau-Ponty makes evident, is inherently synaesthetic. The intertwining of sensory modalities seems unusual to us only to the extent that we have become estranged from our direct experience (and hence from our primordial contact with the entities and elements that surround us.):
…Synaesthetic perception is the rule, and we are unaware of it only because scientific knowledge shifts the center of gravity of experience, so that we have unlearned how to see, hear, and generally speaking, feel, in order to deduce, from our bodily organization and the world as the physicist conceives it, what we are to see, hear, and feel.” (Merleau-Ponty)
Walter Pahnke, of the famous “Good Friday” experiment in the heyday of Harvard psychedelic research, describes the noetic aspect of the psychedelic experience as one of it main features, along with synesthesia:
“The Noetic Quality, as named by William James, is a feeling of insight or illumination that, on an intuitive, nonrational level and with a tremendous force of certainty, subjectively has the status of Ultimate Reality. This knowledge is not an increase of facts but is a gain in psychological, philosophical, or theological insight.”
All language is psychedelic by definition, functioning to make manifest the mind, to bring thoughts, feelings, information, from the interior of one mind and make them available to be interiorized in another. David Porush calls this “Technologically Mediated Telepathy.” And Porush, Abram, and Erik Davis all relate the story of how this psychedelic, originally synesthetic, oral language-making connected us deeply and reciprocally to our natural environment, a mutual be-speaking that was progressively lost when writing, and most particularly alphabetic writing, froze knowledge-making into eternal signs in rows on flat surfaces, signs you could come back to—and they hadn’t changed. These signs deployed progressively deeper disconnections—among the senses, between time and space, between reason and emotion. The alphabet: the cybernetic technology that changed everything. Synesthesia, in this light, comes to stand for the promise of reconnection, of noesis, of recovery of some long lost unity, within ourselves, among ourselves, within the world. Psychedelics can deliver synesthesias with a noetic quality, at intense, supersaturated, high-bandwidth delivery rates, as well as bringing tales of new forms of language that both create and express these altered states of consciousness. Psychedelics may appeal to some deep longing for knowledge not delivered as information arranged in hierarchical tree structures, taxonomized and bowdlerized, the promiscuous metaphor and the unseemly miscegenation amongst disciplines that it encourages, excised from the “phenomenological” reports. The psychonaut’s noesis can arrive live and lively, paradoxically gesturing, zany, even alien. Terence McKenna’s accounts of the DMT self-transforming machine elves made of language dispensing unbearably high-speed, condensed blasts of pure, and extraordinarily alien gnosis, and the mushroom experiences reverberating with the logos, seen and heard in synesthetic unity, weird as they are, have been reported, in varying forms, by many others. Do the reports of synesthesias in the scientific literature of psychedelic-like weirdnesses (Richard, your name is like chocolate melting in my mouth) leaking into baseline consciousness, (strangeness usually kept in bounds by the state-bound nature of other forms of consciousness—dreaming, meditating, drugs—according to Roland Fischer’s model of mind-states) fascinate us in the same way? There are entire classes of synesthesias attached to letters and numbers, flavored and colored linguistic objects. McKenna himself comes back to these language experiences time and again in his books and lectures: new forms of language perceived, theories of the evolution of language and consciousness catalyzed by psychedelics are proposed:
“Perhaps a human language is possible in which the intent of meaning is actually beheld in three-dimensional space. If this can happen on DMT, it means it is at least, under some circumstances, accessible to human beings. Given ten thousand years and high cultural involvement in such a talent, does anyone doubt that it could become a cultural convenience in the same way that mathematics or language has become a cultural convenience?” (McKenna, p. 39.)
The LiveGlide Synestheater
My own testbed for synesthesias has been in the seven year development project of LiveGlide, a visual performance instrument based on the psychedelically informed visual language, Glide. The Synestheater, an interface within LiveGlide, allows the software coupling of the parameters of two complex artistic systems, each organized around a different sensory modality (the aural, the visual, for instance). Parameters from the visual system, LiveGlide, can be flexibly mapped to aural parameters in a composer’s MAX patch. But the mapping of aspects of the aural experience to properties of the visual experience in such a way that in performance an aesthetically satisfying experience is created is largely unexplored territory, beyond the obvious mapping of beat or amplitude in dance music to synchronized changes in the visual. Often the visual is slaved to the aural, delivering an amplified entrainment, but not necessarily exploring other inter-relations possible between sight and sound.
We have, with the advent of sophisticated technologies emerging from the Protean sorcery of the CPU, come to a point where we are building new instruments—and instruments with which to build instruments (such as MAX-MSP, Jitter, Audio Mulch, etc.)—at a much faster rate than we are learning to play them in an artistically mature manner. How many years does it take to master a musical instrument? An abstract animation technique? How can they meaningfully link? How can our perceptions be re-educated to encompass multiple sensory modalities and make magic in these unexplored, complex, subtle, infinitely variable synesthetic zones? And yet, we keep doing it, always on the verge of overwhelm, drowning or going with the flow. As Terence McKenna put it,
“Information is loose on planet three….Earth is a place where language has literally become alive.”
The cyberspirits are out of the bottle. Chiasmatics 101 is a recommended course for psychedelic journeying. And if all knowledge ultimately comes down to what we sense, what new things will we know in what new ways when we get just a little more in control, not of the waves, but of our ability to stay on our feet on the surfboard as we ride the rainbow serpent down the wave-ways into the great unknown, reached by connecting new pathways in the mind?
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