Synesthesia, and Psychedelics, and Civilization! Oh My!

The Coast to Coast AM radio host George Noory just interviewed David Eagleman.  I only heard part of the interview, but what little I gleaned seemed quite interesting.

Dr. Eagleman spoke of synesthesia.  He said that around four percent of the population has synesthesia which is a fairly high number (more common than scientists used to think).  He pointed out that it isn’t considered a neurological disorder because there is no negative consequences for those who have it and in fact there are benefits.  Those with this condition (who are called synesthetes) actually have improved memories because abstract information is grounded in sensory experience (this relates to localized memory which is an ancient mnemonic device).  There are many ways senses and concepts can link together and almost everyone experiences this in mild forms.

I wondered if it might’ve been more common in the past.  Maybe our modern rational ego has helped to compartmentalize the mind and thus created more clear demarcations separating perception and thought.  This possibly could relate to Julian Jaynes theory about the bicameral mind.  Jaynes theorized that a natural function of the human brain was hearing other voices, and that a shift in early civilization changed something fundamental in how our brain operates (or rather how we operate our brain).  The theory is that primitives used to hear voices outside of them and the world was experienced animistically.  As such, there was no clearly defined separate sense of self, no inidividual ego with a sense of being in absolute control.  Everyone still hears other voices in their head such as the words of advice from your parents, but we’ve learned to compartmentalize our sense of self and disidentify with these other voices.  Schizophrenics don’t have this ability.

This relates to psychedelics as well.  Psychedelics loosen the constraints that civilization has placed on our brains.  Any normal person under the influence of psychedelics will experience such things as synesthesia, animistic perception, external voices, etc.  Psychedelics are able to to do this because they are processed in our brains like any other neurochemical.  In fact, the most common psychedelic in nature  is DMT and the human brain produces it in small quantities.  Terrence McKenna theorized that psychedelics helped to develop human consciousness.  McKenna’s theory might find support in other theories that synesthesia is common to all humans early in their individual development (which might be a carryover from when humans permanently lived in such a state of mind).  Other theories claim that language itself originated in synesthesia as language began with concrete experiences and vocalizations that then became abstracted.

Further related to all of this are Ernest Hartmann’s boundary types.  People tend towards either thin or thick boundaries which correlate to personality factors, but certain substances can influence our boundaries.  Psychedelics create thinner boundaries and amphetamines create thicker boundaries.  Besides perceptual alterations, thin boundaries also are necessary for the simple ability to sympathize with others.  Interestingly, creative types tend to have thinner boundaries and have an extremely higher rate of synesthesia.

If you want to check out some of my previous analysis of the topic of human experience of the world, then here is a blog post of mine from


And here is some interesting info I found around the web:

A developmental theory of synaesthesia, with long historical roots
by A.O. Halcombe, E.L. Altschuler, & H.J. Over (full paper)

The recent surge of scientific investigation into synaesthesia, ably reviewed by Hochel and Milan (2008), is representative of an increasing recognition that our various sensory modalities are intimately interconnected rather than separate. The origin of these interconnections is the subject of an intriguing theory by Maurer and Maurer (1988). They suggest that all of us begin life as synaesthetes, with subsequent neural development reducing the connections among the senses. We present some historical roots of the idea that human life begins with the senses intertwined. The influential 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau described an early theory of child development in his book Emile (1762), hypothesizing that if “a child had at its birth the stature and strength of a man . . . all his sensations would be united in one place, they would exist only in the common ‘sensorium’.” A half-century later, a young Mary Shelley (1818) brought this idea into popular culture with the Frankenstein creature’s recollection of his early experience: “A strange multiplicity of sensations seized me, and I saw, felt, heard, and smelt, at the same time; and it was, indeed, a long time before I learned to distinguish between the operations of my various senses.” William James in The Principles of Psychology (1890) expressed a similar idea. In this context, the assumption of many 20th-century scientists that the senses were largely separate appears to be an historical aberration.

Terence McKenna’s “Stoned Ape” Theory of Human Evolution (or here)

Perhaps the most intriguing of Terence McKenna’s fascinating theories and observations is his explanation for the origin of the human mind and human culture.

To summarize: McKenna theorizes that as the North African jungles receded toward the end of the most recent ice age, giving way to grasslands, a branch of our tree-dwelling primate ancestors left the branches and took up a life out in the open — following around herds of ungulates, nibbling what they could along the way.

Among the new items in their diet were psilocybin-containing mushrooms growing in the dung of these ungulate herds. The changes caused by the introduction of this drug to the primate diet were many — McKenna theorizes, for instance, that synesthesia (the blurring of boundaries between the senses) caused by psilocybin led to the development of spoken language: the ability to form pictures in another person’s mind through the use of vocal sounds.

About 12,000 years ago, further climate changes removed the mushroom from the human diet, resulting in a new set of profound changes in our species as we reverted to pre-mushroomed and frankly brutal primate social structures that had been modified and/or repressed by frequent consumption of psilocybin.

Graveyard of the Gods

Metaphor is based in the relationship between metaphier and metaphrand, strengthened by paraphier and paraphrand. A metaphor’s effectiveness in conveying meaning is not inherent to the structure of language or the words themselves, but the range of associations and connections between all elements (some of which are mostly unconscious) – the most receptive and accustomed to these elements will be most affected by metaphor. Cross modal abstraction increases the power of metaphor by bolstering the connective elements of the words we choose (the metaphiers and paraphiers) when attempting to express something – this probably why such as high percentage of artists display synesthesia (1 in 7 artists as opposed to 1 in 200 normal population).

Globalization, Romanticism, and Owen Barfield
by Jim Davis

Abram (1996), McLuhan (1964), et al argue that the phonetic alphabet led to a kind of synesthesia, wherethe visual was transformed into written symbols experienced as sounds. Early cultures were auditory cultures, wherelanguage was only spoken. The phonetic alphabet enabled an efficient writing system. It also resulted in thediminution of memory as the sole repository of tradition, and the fixing of standardized and “official” versions inauthoritative text. Following this line of thinking, the spread of the corresponding consciousness tracks the spread ofliteracy and the technology of writing reproduction.

14 thoughts on “Synesthesia, and Psychedelics, and Civilization! Oh My!

  1. Hello Jose,

    I’m always in favor of disseminating interesting info. I have heard interviews with Peter Russel before, but not with the others. I’ll check them out sometime.

  2. Hey Benjamin, great post as always.

    This resonates with my experience of psychedelics, especially morning glory seeds. I walked around laughing my ass off because I could see how everyone experiences animistic perceptions but have forgotten or shut it out. At the time this seemed a plausible cause for our attitudes towards the destruction of the planet. I also experienced small but permanent shifts in my sense of self, but I attribute this to meditating under the influence. I recall a study that showed psilocybin acts by decreasing bloodflow to the default mode network, a section of the brain controlling the sense of self. It wouldnt surprise me if they hooked up meditators to brain scanners and found a similar thing.

    BTW, I really think you should re-visit your Crowley vs. Jiddu piece, it still cracks me up. I was thinking about writing a comedy sitcom where Lovecraft, Ligotti and Poe all share an Austin or Portland apartment in the present day. Poe would annoy the others by attracting vehemently Christian female followers whom he dates, and I could picture Ligotti and Lovecraft teaming up to school the unfortunate groupies with their combination of hard materialist nihilism and tales from the darkside. But everyone would be annoyed by Lovecraft practicing his 18th century gentleman’s airs, and his countless cats.

    • Psychedelics are quite interesting.

      I suspect we will learn a lot about the human mind from psychedelics research. One rarely thinks about perception and consciousness, until it is altered. Many biases and assumptions remain hidden from awareness and we don’t know to get at them because they form the foundation of our sense of reality, our cultural reality tunnel.

      I was just reading an article about how culture colors our perception of reality:

      High quality research has barely begun in this area.

    • “BTW, I really think you should re-visit your Crowley vs. Jiddu piece, it still cracks me up.”

      Maybe I will one of these days. It was an inspired piece. I never know when inspiration will hit.

      “I was thinking about writing a comedy sitcom where Lovecraft, Ligotti and Poe all share an Austin or Portland apartment in the present day. Poe would annoy the others by attracting vehemently Christian female followers whom he dates, and I could picture Ligotti and Lovecraft teaming up to school the unfortunate groupies with their combination of hard materialist nihilism and tales from the darkside. But everyone would be annoyed by Lovecraft practicing his 18th century gentleman’s airs, and his countless cats.”

      How about reimagining these three as young, angsty teenagers who decide to start a Goth band. Maybe it is Lovecraft who wants to start the band to impress some hot Goth chick. Ligotti goes along because he thinks it will be a fun social experiment. Then the two of them would try to get Poe to be the lead singer because his brooding moodiness is perfect for the position. I’m imagining Poe as the early poor Jim Morrison on the beach writing his songs.

  3. Ligotti would be the narcotic gobbling genius guitarist, like a goth Keith Richards. Lovecraft would channel his repressed Victorian sexuality into smashing the drums with menace, building much needed muscle mass in the process. Poe would start off as a pensive Jim Morrison, but with fame he’d probably evolve into a more perverse Iggy, much to the consternation of his bandmates. If anyone ever designed a t shirt of this band, I’d wear it till it crumbled.

    • I’m imagining a television series about this band and their adventures. Maybe as they traveled the country to play shows they would fight monsters and solve mysteries. It would be a musical version of Scooby-Doo combined with Supernatural, but darker and creepier. Unlike Scooby-Doo, when the mask was removed at the end, an even more hideous evil would be revealed that would drive anyone mad who looked upon it.

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