'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Some Thoughts On 'Synaesthesia'

Happened to read the Wikipedia article about Synesthesia and a lecture by V.S.Ramachandran (the 4th lecture in a series called 'Reith Lectures' - titled 'Purple Numbers and Sharp Cheese'; available online) on this very interesting neurological phenomenon. This post is from a layman's perspective.

- "When I listen to an old, sad melody, I experience a breeze within - a soft, cool, gentle, BLUE breeze."

To self, this statement describing a complex interplay of sensations of sound, color, texture and temperature captures the quintessence of of synaesthesia.

The association within Hindustani music between Ragas and times of the day and seasons is often uncannily resonant. They way 'Lalit' sounds before daybreak, how 'Bhoopali' captures the atmosphere of the dawn perfectly and 'Darbari' and 'Malkauns' enhance the tranquility of late night really seem to be truely synaesthetic experiences.

One of my vivid memories from the mid 1980's is of a long car journey on a monsoon day - it was pouring all the way and very gloomy and the car had a tape player running the same set of songs over and over - among all those songs the Malayalam song 'Thengum hridayam' had made a very unique impact. Many years later, I found that it was set in the Raga 'Megh' which is said to be perfect for the rainy day.

Still, I cannot quite classify my experience (and those of millions of other Hindustani lovers) as definitely synaesthetic; even earlier in life, I had seen movies *showing* 'Megh songs' in a rainy setting and thus it probably was only a case of a subconscious association made between the song and sound patterns heard earlier in a similar setting. More recently, I happened to hear some 'electrified' folk songs from the African country of Mali (album: 'Mali - Acoustic and Electric' from the series 'Hemisphere'). The basic pattern of most of those songs could be mapped to Raga Megh. And it would be very unlikely that the people of Mali (which lies deep in the Sahara desert) would have associated this pattern with *rains*!

The 'synaesthetic' quote at the top, if I remember right, was due to the late Malayalam movie actor M.G.Soman. Many years ago, some Malayalam magazine had conducted a survey among celebrities with the question: "What is your favorite color?" and this sentence was part of Soman's response - obviously, he chose 'blue'!


Indeed Ramachandran's 4th Reith Lecture tries to develop a comprehensive theory on the very origin of language based on 'Synaesthetic Bootstrapping'. I have an issue here. Although he almost summarily dismisses Chomsky and Pinker's thoughts on the origin of language, to self, Chomsky's take that Homo Sapiens has something qualitatively unique ("miraculous") among animals for it (us) to have something like 'language' and the mechanism Ramachandran proposes do NOT appear to be in conflict. It can even be argued that the latter has actually produced evidence for the Chomskian picture by postulating a possible mechanism by which something very special could have happened to our species. It is common knowledge (say for instance in Physics) that even a gradual increase in complexity in a system can sometimes lead to DISCONTINUOUS change(s) in its state, with fundamentally different new properties emerging. So, once the "cross-wirings" in the brain increase beyond a certain threshold (by 'normal' evolution, as Pinker said), we might just have completely new effects emerging, possibly via synaesthetic bootstrapping - language, music, religion...- although even the sheer number of such unique attributes our species enjoys is mindboggling!


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