Monday, February 28, 2011

Tasting the Universe - A Personal Experience with Synesthesia by Maureen Seaberg

A couple of years ago, I decided to solve a mystery going on in my own life. A breaking news journalist for a couple of decades with thousands of stories about other people’s lives, often tragic ones, I decided to put down the ashen adjectives of my past and embark on a quest to discover the truth of a beautiful and ethereal happening before my own eyes. What is synesthesia, I wondered one night, typing the details of a horrible crime story and seeing the unlikely and graceful multicolored filaments of light emanating from the letters of the story on my computer screen.

Prestigious labs around the world were now studying the brain trait I was born with, having proven through brain scans it was “real.” But how could they ever prove what many synesthetes, including myself despite my hard news background, seemed to think – that it had mystical qualities; that it was a form of enhanced consciousness and that it may be spiritual in nature.

I spent a year immersing myself in the cutting edge research and arts opportunities abounding now, a new Renaissance echoing the time 100 years ago when synesthesia was not only known, it was chic. Despite the many answers that could now be found (unlike my childhood in the 60s), I still had the deep existential question: Why synesthesia? And why me?

After gaining historic interviews with prominent celebrities and top scientists in hopes of bringing even more attention to the gift and erasing lingering stigma around it, I decided to begin asking people if they thought there was more to it than just crossed neurons or lack of inhibition between them, the two dominant theories. What people said may surprise many of my hard news peers and brought me into the forefront of the new frontier of consciousness studies – which I was surprised to learn is not so different from studying Psi phenomena and spiritual experiences.

One of the first people I knew I wanted to talk with was the Director of the Center for Consciousness Studies in Tucson, Arizona. Many of you may know Dr. Stuart Hameroff from his appearance in the wondrous film, “What the Bleep Do We Know?!” He was so generous and receptive to this layperson’s request. Could synesthesia be a form of quantum consciousness, I wanted to know?

"Synesthesia is a deeper form of regular consciousness,” says Dr. Hameroff. “Synesthetes have a lower threshold to quantum consciousness." He believes the phenomena associated with synesthesia (colored music, for example) happens at the quantum or subatomic level, perhaps in the microtubules (small inner pathways) of the neurons and deeper. "Synesthesia might be the tool to get at the hard problem of consciousness, actually (which is why do we have experience?) “These crossovers may be happening at a deeper level.’’

He says people with synesthesia have their threshold altered so they tend to be more in quantum consciousness. He sees consciousness as a sort of edge between the quantum and classical realms. Dreams, for example, are more quantum-like, he explains, because they have deep inter-connections, multiple code systems and possibilities, timelessness, sometimes. He thinks the qualia that make up the senses are also in the quantum world. So it could be that synesthetes are more in what you might call an altered state or a dream state or a quantum state according to the doctor.

Dr. Hameroff points out that altered states of other kinds, from meditation to hypnosis to drug use also feature synesthesia. “And so when you shift that boundary more so that what we’re aware of includes more of the quantum, which is only unconscious, pre-conscious – that’s when you have things like synesthesia, altered states, maybe even psychic phenomenon. I think that those are definitely quantum entanglements.”

I’m blown away by Dr. Hameroff’s assessment. If there is a new spirituality it is certainly the mysterious quantum realm. Could synesthetes be hard-wired to experience this brave frontier? Perhaps we are quantum avatars of a sort – it’s thrilling to consider.

I continue to search for cutting edge theorists like Dr. Hameroff to guide me through toward the future of research into synesthesia and its connection to something greater.

Quantum physicist Dr. Amit Goswami, the distinguished retired professor from the University of Oregon believes the future answers may be drawn from ancient belief sytems. He thinks synesthetes may actually be more sensitive to vital energy, also known as Prana or Chi in ancient teachings.

Dr. Goswami feels it is an extra sensitivity to vital energy. Moreover, people who look at our feelings and chakras sometimes experience colors, he explains. “Auras have to do with our vital energy connected with the electromagnetic body, which is physical. These vital feelings are often connected with the electromagnetic body and if we are sensitive to it, we feel as well as see. That probably is what happens in synesthesia.” Indeed, synesthetes who see auras are turning up in the literature according to researcher Dr. Jamie Ward of the University of Sussex in England. Typically, they see color around people they know well. I can see auras in the right light with a white background – it’s not a New Age myth, in my opinion.

To Dr. Goswami, there is no other explanation for synesthesia but a quantum one. “These correlated experiences could not occur without a quantum basis for it because only quantum physics has this capacity of non-locality; a non-local relationship between two different types of experiences. Only quantum physics can give an explanation of that.”

In classical Newtonian physics, he explains, if you talk about cross-sensory pairings without a stimulus of color to see color, it would not be possible. “The very fact that you bring significance to these experiences would thwart the materialists almost completely. So only quantum physics can even imagine to venture an explanation.”

Quantum physics? There’s that invisibility issue again – isn’t synesthesia also invisible except to the person experiencing it or the most sophisticated of brain imaging machines? But it’s a striking parallel. I think of the wind and how though invisible, it has caressed my skin or mussed my hair, or made great ships sail in search of New Worlds. And I understand that disconnect people still have with things they can’t see.

As I talk with people who don’t know what synesthesia is, I still sometimes experience their disbelief or judgment, but more often than not these days, their wonder.


Maureen Seaberg has lectured on synesthesia and spirituality at the Towards a Science of Consciousness Conference at the University of Arizona–Tucson. She herself has higher and lower synesthesia—both concepts and forms appear to her in color (her k's are teal and her 8's are aubergine). A journalist for 20 years, Maureen has had articles featured in the New York Times, the Daily News, Irish America, ESPN the Magazine, and other publications. She has also covered breaking news for MSNBC and appeared on NBC, CNN, and PBS.

Maureen has a BA in journalism with a minor in Spanish from Penn State University, and a certificate of superior-level Spanish from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome write up. Synesthesia is one of those things that's so intangible for those of us who've never experienced it. It's always a great opportunity to hear a first hand account of the condition, especially for someone (like me) who's never had any intimate discussions with a synesthete. Thanks!

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