NABOKV-L post 0006918, Tue, 15 Oct 2002 14:50:45 -0700

Fw: Submission to Nabokov Forum
EDITOR'S NOTE. Thanks to lepidopterist & Nabokovian Kurt Johnson for this
thoughtful item re synaesthesia, creativity, and consciousness. For a dated
primer on VN's synaesthesia and its possible connection to his writing, see
the first chapter of my _Worlds in Regression_. Kevin Dann_'s 1998 Yale
Press volume offers more recent work.

----- Original Message -----
From: "Johnson, Kurt" <>


To Nabokov Forum

This is a very interesting article because it emphasizes the possibility
that synesthesia may be of quite natural in newborns but then
"unlearned" by the conventional "growing up" atmosphere into which
newborns are placed. It also suggests outright that synesthesia, and
other similar sensory phenomena, are part of what underly the phenomena
of metaphor etc.

If some of you remember my post awhile back about the relevance to
Nabokov (and other artists) (followed on later by Don Johnson's "time"
thread) of how "consciousness" is viewed by some mystical traditions, it
is now worth mentioning a couple more caveats here. You'll remember
that in my original post I mentioned the child psychologist Douglas
Harding who also has written extensively of what he called the "growing
down" of creativity in youngsters by our conventional learning
atmospheres etc.

Most of you may be familiar with William James "The Varieties of
Religioius Experience", a classic that is probably the ONLY book on
mysticism in general that gets taught in the mainstream of philosophy
and medicine (actually it was a required book in my Philosophy of
Science course when I did my PhD). In it James refers to the classic
way in which the conventional senses homogenize, or are
undifferentiated, in many descriptions of mystical experience... like
"speaking without words", "knowing who someone is without them
identifying themself etc.". James classic word for these mixed message
was "noetic" and it also known to persons who have done hallucinogens,
as the Washington Post article also mentions.

A number of us Nabophiles discussed, off the record at Nabokov Forum but
among some of us across the email, the possibility that certain aspects
of "awakened consciousness", in the classic mystical sense, influenced
such artists as Van Gogh [the "energy" he drew into his paintings etc.],
etc. etc. and the recognizable sociological pattern that there can be
great poets (like Rumi for instance) who were personally well-integrated
and "together" psychologically, while others found their artistic gifts
quite "tortuous" or not well-integrated (Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath
etc.). Regarding this thread, and our speculation about some of the
threads in Nabokov's writing, I did not mention to anyone before, but in
response to my sending some of these discussions around, one major
teacher in the Hindu tradition of "non-dualism" (from Shri H. W. L.
Poonja's lineage in India) responded "Yes, one could be quite "awake"
[e.g. deeply insightful into the nature of reality] in some ways and
quite neurotic at the same time".

Thus, the re-emphasis of the point made by the Washington Post article
that "synesthesia" even as isolated as one "syndrome" which has come to
medicine's attention, is more likely one of a spectrum, or continuum, of
sensory experiences, which to a great extent underly creativity etc. in
general. I think again, as you know, Lionel Trilling was among the
first, and followed by a host of literary critics, who seriously have
looked into the similarities of the vision in the poetry of Wallace
Stevens and what is expressed in classical Zen (although Stevens himself
never studied Zen or was associated with it per se).

The present decade seems to be one in which a lot of people are learning
alot by talking across disciplines (much I guess like Nabokovia has gone
through a period now where there has been some intensive interest in
Nabokov's science etc.). I think there will also be much to be gained,
and if it happens it will happen simply by accident, and the synergy of
scholars etc. who notice things across disciplines which help them more
deeply understand their subject. Nabokov is not the only person of fame
to have such inquiry (about his concept of times, his "layered
realities") etc. aired across disciplines. There has been tremendous
discussion of mysticism and N. Tesla (because he himself attested that
many of his inventions came in dreams or reveries), we all know about W.
B. Yeats and "automatic writing" (whatever it is, it is an interesting
phenomenon) and the Nobel prize winner who discovered cyclo-chemistry.
The latter was also synesthesiatic, having seen the cyclo-structures
which solved the benzene enigma as a multi-colored snake during a

That there is some "moment" to keeping interested in such things but
also being careful in not mixing our "apples and oranges" one has to
only point to the current debate over the acceptence of teaching
"Intelligent Design" in the scientific cirricula of Ohio schools. The
scientists (and I agree) want to point out that science is a method (!)
which requires objective testing and, as such, "Intelligent Design"
doesn't really have a place in science per se. This situation (what is
science, what is metaphysics etc.) mirrors many of the discussions that
have gone on in the last couple years about Nabokov and his science
versus his metaphysics and creative writing etc. I still think it is a
testament to his wisdom that at face, and people have gone over the face
of it in quite a bit of detail by now, Nabokov never seems to have mixed
his science (as written in scientific papers) with his speculation (as
written in Father's Butterflies etc.). I think this will both serve
his legacy well and also keep the debate and speculation going, much to
the disappointment of people like the reviewer in that Times Literary
Supplement who simply didn't want to take him seriously.

Kurt Johnson

-----Original Message-----
From: D. Barton Johnson []
Sent: Monday, October 14, 2002 12:21 PM
Subject: Fw: Article on Synesthesia in today's Washington Post

----- Original Message -----
From: Alphonse Vinh
To: 'Vladimir Nabokov Forum'
Sent: Monday, October 14, 2002 8:49 AM
Subject: Article on Synesthesia in today's Washington Post

Of special interest to Nabokovians will be the interview with a local
professor of Russian literature who has synesthesia and like VV, sees
different colours for the Cyrilic alphabet and the Roman alphabet.

/Alphonse Vinh

When Sound Is Red: Making Sense of Mixed Sensations

By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 14, 2002; Page A12

Joanne Innis was around 5 years old when she asked her mother, "How come
if you and Aunt Pat are sisters, you're red and
she's brown?"

When Glenda Larcombe hears a truck backing up, making a beep-beep-beep
sound, she "sees" the beeps as a series of red

And when psychologist Thomas Palmeri gives one of his test subjects a
difficult test -- to spot a tiny "2" on a computer screen
scattered with tiny "5s" -- the man finds it instantly: To him, the "2"
shows up bathed in a different color.

These are all examples of synesthesia, an unusual phenomenon whereby
people experience different senses blending into one
another. Some synesthetes experience individual words in particular
colors. Others experience smells when exposed to shapes
or hear sounds inside tastes.

While most experts do not consider it a disorder -- synesthetes are
usually glad to have the ability, and it sharply improves their
memory -- research into synesthesia is teaching scientists important
lessons about the normal brain, perhaps even about aspects
of creativity.

"Synesthesia is seven times more common among artists, novelists and
poets," said Vilayanur Ramachandran, a neurologist at
the University of California at San Diego, who is researching the
phenomenon. "What do artists have in common? They have
the ability to link seemingly unconnected domains."

Ramachandran thinks that the power of metaphor and the blending of
realities that artists strive for are phenomena that
synesthetes experience all the time. While that is currently only a
hypothesis, it is certainly true that synesthetes seem to
experience the world with more intensity -- what scholars call "affect."
However, many of them don't realize they have a unique
ability, believing that everyone else experiences the same sensations,

While superficially resembling a drug-induced hallucination, synesthesia
feels profoundly normal to synesthetes. After Innis, an
assistant professor of Russian at Goucher College in Baltimore, realized
that she saw the world differently than most people,
she understood why she was never interested in experimenting with drugs
like LSD: "There was too much going on in my head
already," she quipped.

Various explanations have been offered for synesthesia, and while there
are tantalizing clues and plausible theories, no one has
yet identified a gene or found a neurotransmitter responsible for it.

One theory is that synesthesia may be caused by "cross-wiring" between
areas of the brain that process different sensations.
Palmeri says his research at Vanderbilt University has ruled out
cross-wiring at least in some areas of the cortex through
experiments that show subjects different pictures through each eye.
Ramachandran says synesthesia likely arises from
connections in the fusiform gyrus of the temporal lobe. He expects that
scientists will eventually find a gene or genes that cause
"leakage" of information between disparate parts of the brain, given
that synesthesia seems to run in families.

Another theory is that everybody may be born with synesthesia, that
infants may experience the world as a jumble of
interwoven sensations and their different senses may slowly grow
distinct, like lenses being brought into focus. Carol Mills, a
psychologist at Goucher College, says synesthesia might also be a normal
part of all adult brains -- with synesthetes at one end
of a spectrum.

"It may go on in all of us even if we don't have synesthesia," said
Mills, who published a paper last week based on Innis in the
journal Perception. "For example, if I give you a very high-pitched note
and a series of colors and ask you to match one, you
are going to pick a light color. If I give you a low bass note, you are
probably going to pick a dark color. [The difference is]
when a synesthete hears a low note, they see dark. When they hear a high
note, they see a light color."

The mingling of senses is often difficult for synesthetes to describe.
Larcombe, for instance, an electronics technician at the
Navy base at Dam Neck in Virginia Beach, said the red dots she sees when
she hears beeping are not part of her actual vision.
"It's not like I would see a red dot right in front of me -- it's in my
mind's eye," she said in an interview. She also reported
"feeling" her interviewer's voice, "like a wave, like water, with yellow
and orange."

Richard Cytowic, a Washington neurologist and the author of a book about
synesthesia called "The Man Who Tasted Shapes,"
described the case of a dinner host who told him the chicken didn't have
"enough points" on it.

While a minority of synesthesias are unpleasant, he said -- like
vile-tasting words, musically induced nausea or billboard colors
out of whack with the synesthete's internal color scheme -- many
synesthetes report intense pleasures at trivial tasks.

"Remembering someone's phone number is delightful; balancing a checkbook
is delicious," Cytowic said in an interview. "It's
also a rule of thumb that exceptional talents come at a cost.
[Synesthetes] often have trouble with arithmetic, right-left
orientation and finding directions."

No firm figures exist for how common synesthesia is; the best estimates
range from 1 in 200 to 1 in 2,000. The most common
forms of synesthesia link numbers or letters with colors. Even within
this group, there are variations of type and intensity. Innis,
for instance, associates words with the color of the first letter. Her
question to her mother about her aunt Pat was because she
saw the "M" in "mom" as red and the "P" in her aunt's name as brown.

Innis said she could also "turn on" the individual colors of every
letter in a word, an especially useful trait when she was learning
Russian in high school. Mills's research with Innis has explored the
unusual fact that Innis not only has synesthesia for English
words using the Roman script, but for Russian words in Cyrillic. Mills
has determined that Innis's Cyrillic letters drew their
colors from their English counterparts.

Innis said she used to have trouble remembering Russian words that start
with "o," because the letter in her mind was an
unremarkable transparent whitish gray. So she opened up such words into
their constituent colors. For instance, she
distinguished "ostavit," which means "to leave," from "ostanovitsja,"
which means "to remain," by homing in on the letter "n,"
which occurs only in the latter word.

"The 'n' gives me a bright orange to stand out," she said, confiding
that she avoids mentioning her special ability to her students,
who have to learn the Russian words the hard way.

(c) 2002 The Washington Post Company