Sunday, April 10, 2011

synesthesia and theology

Synesthesia: Role and Meaning, by Svi Rosenstein:
Synesthesia (S) recently became an accepted object of research once again in studies of consciousness. During the last few years, several books were published and a special session was even dedicated to studies in S at the conference, "Toward the science of consciousness", Tucson, Arizona, April, 2000. In fact, we are speaking about a phenomenon that has been famous for at least 3313 years, from the moment when the Tora (in original Hebrew) was given to mankind on Mount Sinai (the Sinai revelation). The translation of the first part of the Tora is known as the Bible in English speaking countries. When the Ten Commandments were given, all the people saw sounds (Exodus, 20,18), and heard images. At that moment, the whole Jewish folk were staying around Mount Sinai, and more than 600.000 adult men (between 20 and 60 years old) participated in the event (plus women and children). The quantity of presented people- all together- was more than 2.000.000. All these people were "synesthetes" at that time. It means that most profound group effects of S are possible and may be looked for.
It is known that the Jewish folk were on an extremely high spiritual level at the moment of revelation. The Tora was given on the fifties (50th) day after Jews abondoned Egypt. We are counting each year these fifty days. Now these days we are in the process of this counting- in particular to-day is the forties day in this year counting -3313 years from the actual event. At the time of crossing of the Red Sea on the way from Egypt to Mount Sinai, "each maidservant saw [in the spiritual realm] more than the prophet Iezikiel saw in the course of his prophecy", as it is stated in the Midrash (collections of ancient traditional Jewish materials accompanying the text of the Tora itself ). It is natural to suggest that the mass manifestation of effects of S are closely connected to the dramatic elevation of the spiritual level of the folk at that time, and even caused by this elevation. If so, it not due to chance that modern researchers of S wonder how high the intellectual and creative level of their subjects, synesthes, actually is (see Synesthesia Fact Sheet, by Peter Grossenbacher (2000)). The widely described effects of the step-by-step manifestation of different mental and emotional abilities in the course of "kundalini"-raising can come easily to mind in this context. However, it may be strongly suggested in this case that some sort of similarity of effects does not mean the equivalency of causes producing these effects. This remark, though an obvious one, may be of substantial importance when the tools of positive science are applied to studies in high spirituality. The attentive reader may find some material to think over regarding this topic in the book by Aryeh Kaplan, "Jewish Meditation. A practical Guide" (Schoken Books, New York, 1985).
One can try to use the level of manifestation of S.-bound effects in a human population as an objective method of evaluation of the spiritual level of this population. In this sense, the statistics pertaining to synesthetes who are found in the society may became a useful tool for predicting social and spiritual processes in the near future. The ratio of vision-oriented synesthetes to audio-oriented synesthetes at a given time may serve as a example of a measure that we suggest to call the Spectrum of S.-bound Abilities in the Society (SAS). SAS may be tried as a tool for prediction of such effects as preference of given modality-oriented inventions, scientific articles or new directions in art at the given time, etc. The idea behind the SAS is simple – the spectrum of types of synesthetes living at a given time may predict the main directions of creative development the society is directed to.
Yet another remark connected to the S phenomena may be of interest: synesthes are more "integrated" individuals than most of us, the compartments of their brains (and souls, if one like to thinks in such terms) are less separated one from the other. Due to the well-known prophesy that, in the future, "the G-d will be the same G-d and His Name will be the same Name" [for all nations], the synesthetes are in some sense "people from the future" and again some features of human evolution can be deduced from S-phenomena directed studies. In this sense, not only physiology but psychology and even the pathology of synesthes may become a topic of genuine scientific interest.
—Svi Rosenstein
Medical Faculty, Hebrew University
Jerusalem, Israel

Spirituality: Part IX — The Brain and the Cultural Animal (3), by Pedro M. Rosario Barbosa

-Pedro M. Rosario Barbosa


The imperfect way our brain is arranged through a series of exaptations is what allows us to have an aesthetic sense, hence our brain allows us to have an aesthetic experience. We have seen the following points already:
  • Synesthesia is a door to understand how our mind associates certain sensations. We are all, as Ramachandran states, "closet synesthetes", because our brain is set up in such a way that it can establish non-arbitrary associations among sensations.
  • Our primordial way of thinking is through images, which provoke us a reaction or an association with other sensations.
  • Synesthesia is also a key not only to understand associations among sensations, but also conceptual associations. People who have systematic damage of the angular gyrus are unable to do the "booba/kiki" experiment, and are also unable to understand metaphors: which are essentially associations among concepts.
  • Because of conceptuation, the associations among concepts, and elementary computations in our mind make possible language development. It is an integral part of human nature. It is not that language produces concepts or a world-view … it is the other way around, basic and elementary conceptuation by our mind is what makes language possible.
  • Artists, using associations among sensations and concepts, discover ways to hyper-stimulate the mind in many different ways. This hyper-stimulation is not necessarily reduced to an association with sensations, but also all sorts of associations among concepts, be them cultural or biologically predisposed.....

Further Along the Paths of Synesthesia and Metaphor

...There is something very interesting about synesthesia that we have not discussed yet: when you combine sensations the wrong way. Take for instance, number-color synesthetes. It is true that if they look at a number, they see a color. However, what happens if you show them a colored number. If for a person who sees green when he sees five, you show him a green five, there is no problem. However, if you show him a purple five, or a red five, immediately they are disgusted by what they see. They see colors in "layers" (so-to-speak), so they can see the real color before them and the synesthetically induced color simultaneously. But then, their reaction is: "Oh my God! That’s hideous!" Why would that be?
It seems that the way our brain is arranged predisposes us to find some forms of sensation-arrangements to be pleasing, while finding others displeasing or ugly. The same thing happens with metaphors: we find some arrangements of metaphors pleasing, while others seem to be displeasing. In the case of poetry and rhetoric, not only metaphor or analogies, but the way they sound when they are read is also pleasing or not depending on how they are arranged. Finally, this is true in music, the arrangement of certain sounds can be pleasing while others are not.
This relationship between synesthesia and the way metaphors, concepts, sounds, etc. are arranged is not accidental. One of the key traits of synesthesia is that almost always they are in "one direction" so-to-speak. For example, in the case of number-color synesthetes, numbers evoke colors, but colors won’t evoke numbers. Ramachandran documents only one case where a color has evoked a number (but not the reverse). In the same way, metaphors work only in "one direction". He refers to a thorough research made by the linguist George Lakoff and the philosopher Mark Johnson in this area. For example, we speak of a "loud shirt", but not a "red sound"; we say "sharp taste" but not "sour touch". Like synesthesia, these are not pure random associations. We speak of a smell being "sweet", because in our brain, the sectors of smell and taste are close together.
It should not surprise us, then, that in the fields of art and literature there are eight times more synesthetes than any other field...

...Some Principles Behind Poetic Art

Lover: Your lips are a scarlet thread
and your words enchanting.
Your cheeks, behind your veil,
are halves of pomegranate.
Your neck is the Tower of David
built on layers,
hung around with a thousand bucklers,
and each the shield of a hero (Song of Songs 4:3-4)
Question: Did the Lover just call her Beloved a "giraffe"? I understand the "scarlet thread", because red lips evoke beauty, elegance, and biologically speaking, sexual attraction to the Beloved. The same happens with the description of the cheeks. But "your neck is the Tower of David"??!!! Really?? If you tell that to a woman today, she would ask what the heck would THAT mean.
Fray Luis de León found himself with the problem, and would pay for it dearly much later. He was a great theologian, a mystic, and an amazing poet. He lived at the time of St. Theresa of Ávila and St. John of the Cross, two of the most eminent figures of the Mystical Period of Spanish literature, great poets too, and two great Catholic saints. The Inquisition had an eye on them. St. Theresa of Ávila had the Inquisition looking over her shoulder constantly: she was suspicious because she belonged to a Jewish family, and wanted to reform the Carmelite religious order. St. John of the Cross was in jail, and escaped (no one knows how).
On the other hand, Fray Luis de León did spend time in jail and did not escape mysteriously. What were the charges? Writing a work on the Song of Songs of Salomon. The writing was not meant to be published. It was a translation from Hebrew to Spanish of that very beautiful book of the Bible. Its translation was forbidden because of its erotic connotations. A nun, of all people, privately asked him to translate it and explain its meaning. In the introduction to the writing, Fray Luis de León explains that in Hebrew much of these metaphors and similes make full sense, but when translated to Spanish, they sound strange. If comparing a neck to a tower seems strange to us, it should not be in the Hebrew mind. What the author means is something like this kind of neck:

Now, if you notice her neck, it is long and sensual, and her necklace looks like a set of bucklers, shields surrounding "the tower", a familiar scene for the Jews of the time, especially for a king like Salomon. Fray Luis de León did not use Nefertiti’s bust as an example to illustrate what these expressions mean. However, he did say that part of of the explanation for this expression is that the simile alluded to her height. Then, he makes an interesting observation: the Tower of David is fortified with shields, which is an indirect reference to his Beloved’s necklace. However, he did give an advice if you seek to understand strange passages in the Song of Songs: imagine what the author is describing within the context of passionate love, and then you’ll get it!
This is the reason why, for me, the greatest poetic work is Dante’s Divine Comedy. There has been no poetic work before or since that can remotely compare to it. Why? Because when you read the book, you discover the following:
  • Theology: the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the conception of the afterlife (heaven, purgatory and hell), the doctrine of sin and grace, the Neo-Platonic conception of angels, the doctrine on the soul.
  • Philosophy: Ethics (virtues and vices), physics, astronomy, mathematics.
  • Literature: Allusions to the works of Homer (the Iliad and the Odyssey), the work of Virgil (the Aeneid), and the Bible.
  • History: Julius Caesar, Brutus, and Cassius, Cicero, Octavian, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and many more.
  • Reference to the Status Quo of His Times: Religious Orders (Franciscans and Dominicans), references to Popes, references to political and religious figures of the time.
...And much, much more. The Divine Comedy is a complete encyclopedia of the times and knowledge available at that moment in the Middle Ages. Would anyone do something like that in our times. Imagine writing about philosophy, science, ethics, religious orders, EVERYTHING you know …. all in the same work, exploiting sensations from the reader to make you feel fear, repulsion, desperation, peace, joy, and so on … ALL of those things in verse and rhyming! Now THAT is a work of genius!
Yet, we notice something very important about Dante’s Divine Comedy and every other classical work: they are not wholly "brand new". They are all based on a legacy, a gift by the past.
In this case, I’m not necessarily talking about knowledge of history or science. I’m talking here about the importance of how these styles and techniques achieve a certain goal in our minds, an aesthetic experience. Learning art, poetry and music are important, because they enhance our aesthetic experience, and they form a new basis for which new artists discover new ways for stimulating our aesthetic sense.
Mozart used a lot of earlier musical ideas when composing his symphonies (such as the structure of symphonies), but at the same time elaborated them to the point of them being works of genius. He even used earlier works of literature and adapted them to his opera. Think, for example, in Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni. Today there are whole new genres which try to mix all sorts of other genre: hip-hop practices sampling extensively, I know several artists which mix Puerto Rican music with Celtic music (Celtorican music), Jazz and others. What we learn from artists, writers and musicians is the value of culture.
All cultures are based on two things, human nature and the cultural past


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