Ideasthesia (alternative spelling ideaesthesia) is defined as a phenomenon in which activations of concepts (inducers) evoke perception-like experiences (concurrents). The name comes Ancient Greek ἰδέα (idéa) and αἴσθησις (aísthēsis), meaning “sensing concepts” or “sensing ideas”. The main reason for introducing the notion of ideasthesia was the problems with synesthesia. While “synesthesia” means “union of senses”, empirical evidence indicated that this was an incorrect explanation of a set of phenomena traditionally covered by this heading. Syn-aesthesis denoting also “co-perceiving”, implies the association of two sensory elements with little connection to the cognitive level. However, according to others, most phenomena that have inadvertently been linked to synesthesia in fact are induced by the semantic representations. That is, the meaning of the stimulus is what is important rather than its sensory properties, as would be implied by the term synesthesia. In other words, while synesthesia presumes that both the trigger (inducer) and the resulting experience (concurrent) are of sensory nature, ideasthesia presumes that only the resulting experience is of sensory nature while the trigger is semantic. Meanwhile, the concept of ideasthesia developed into a theory of how we perceive and the research has extended to topics other than synesthesia — as the concept of ideasthesia turned out applicable to our everyday perception. Ideasthesia has been even applied to the theory of art. Research on ideasthesia bears important implications for solving the mystery of human conscious experience, which according to ideasthesia, is grounded in how we activate concepts.
What Is “Ideasthesia” And Why Is It Important To Know?
by Faena Aleph
Many of us speak metaphorically when we describe a color as “screaming” or a sound as “sharp”, These are synesthetic associations we all experience, whether we know it or not ––but we pronounce them literally because it makes enough sense to us.
But synesthesia, which is one of the most charming sensory phenomena, has been overly studied and illustrated by many artists. Today, however, a fascinating aspect of this bridge between senses is being discovered: ideasthesia.
Danko Nikolic, a brain researcher from the Max-Plank Institute, has proposed this theory that questions the reality of two philosophical premises 1) the mind and body, and 2) the perception of senses and ideas. His research suggests that, for starters, these dualities might not exist.
Widely speaking, ideasthesia is a type of bridge that metaphorically links rational abstractions, i.e. ideas with sensory stimuli in a dynamic catalyzed by language. Nevertheless, the best way of understanding “ideasthesia” is through a TED talk that Nikolic himself recently gave. And, be warned, his theory might just change your paradigms from their foundation and reinforce the beliefs that Walt Whitman anticipated over a hundred years ago.
Ideasthesia — Art, Genius, Insanity, and Semiotics
by Totem And Token
…the notion of ideasthesia — that one can feel or physically experience an idea. Instead of a letter or a sound or a single word as being physically felt, an entire idea or construct or abstract is experienced phenomenologically.
But this seems abstract in and of itself, right? Like, what would it mean to ‘feel’ an idea? The classic example, linked to here, would be to imagine two shapes. One is a curvy splatter, kind of like the old 90s Nickelodeon logo, and the other is an angular, jagged, pointy sort of shape. Which would you call Kiki and which would you call Bouba?
An overwhelming majority (95% according to one source) would say that the splatter is Bouba and the pointy thing is Kiki.
But why though?
Bouba and Kiki are random sounds, absolutely meaningless and the figures were similarly meaningless. Some contend that it is a linguistic effect, since ‘K’ is an angular letter and ‘B’ is more rounded. Yet, there seems to be a consensus on which is which, even cross-culturally to some extent. Because just the idea of the pointy shape feels like a Kiki and the blobbier shape feels like a Bouba.
Another way I think it is felt is when we talk about highly polarizing topics, often political or religious in nature. In the podcast You Are Not So Smart, David McRaney talks about being confronted with a differing view point as having a gut-wrenching, physical effect on him. Researchers pointed out that the feeling is so strong that it actually elicits a fight-or-flight response.
But it’s just words, right? It’s not like someone saying “I don’t believe in universal healthcare” or “You should have the right to pull the plug in a coma” actually makes it so, or will cause it to happen to you. It is simply one person’s thought, so why does it trigger such a deep-seated emotion? The researchers in the episode hypothesize that the core ideas are related to you identity which is being threatened, but I think the explanation is somewhat simpler and stranger.
It’s because the ideas actually feel dangerous to you.
This is why what feels perfectly rational to you feels irrational to others.
It also makes more sense when talking about geniuses or highly gifted individuals. Although they exist, the Dr. House-type hyper-rational savants aren’t usually what you hear about when you look at the biographies of highly intelligent or gifted peoples. Da Vinci, Goethe, Tesla, Einstein and others all seem to describe an intensely phenomenological approach to creating their works.
Even in what is traditionally considered to be more rational pursuits, like math, have occasional introspective debates about whether string theory or higher order mathematics is created or discovered. This seems like a question about whether one feels out a thought or collects and constructs evidence to make a case.
What’s more is that, while I think most people can feel an idea to some extent (kiki vs bouba), gifted peoples and geniuses are more sensitive to these ideas and can thus navigate it better. Sensitivity seems to really be the hallmark of gifted individuals, so much so that I remember reading about how some gifted students have to wear special socks because the inner stitching was too distracting.
I remember when I was younger (around elementary school) there was a girl who was in our schools gifted program who everyone could not stand. She seemed to have a hairline trigger and would snap at just about anything. I realize now that she was simply incredible sensitive to other children and didn’t really know how to handle it maturely.
I can imagine if this sort of sensitivity applied to ideas and thought processes might actually be a big reason why geniuses can handle seemingly large and complex thoughts that are a struggle for the rest of us — they aren’t just thinking through it, they are also feeling their way through it.
It may offer insight into the oft-observed correlation between madness and intellect. Maybe that’s what’s really going on in schizophrenia. It’s not just a disconnect of thoughts, but an oversensitivity to the ideas that breed those thoughts that elicits instinctive, reactionary emotions much like our fight-or-flight responses to polarizing thoughts. The hallucinations are another manifestation of the weaker sensory experience of benign symbols and thoughts.
2 thoughts on “Ideasthesia”
Hahaha. You’ve been thinking about my bushmen.
Synesthesia is quite common in Africa. It features in a lot of our language. The way a thing behaves can get a sound in no time: a woman I know says females twerking their buttocks is “toh-toh-toh” 😆
I use a lot of synesthesia in my creative writing. A lot of my rhythm is not only auditory, but tactile too. Depending on the effect I want to get, I can chain together sharp sounds or I can mix them up at variable intervals with softer sounds or hotter ones to produce an interesting effect. People usually get it, but they don’t know what’s going on 😹
The thing about it is how the stimulus triggers the sensation. It’s like the ‘k’ sound mentioned up there, but not only the ‘k’ but also the fact that ‘i’ is ‘ee’ in there so that the sound doesn’t open, it pierces: in other words it doesn’t cover a large surface area like ‘i’ in ‘ice’. Ice for instance may also be sharp at the end but is more of a slashing because of the initial ‘i’, compared to the piercing or stabbing of ‘ki’.
A color is similar. Loud colors. Hot colors. Piercing colors. Etc. The way it hits my eye gives me the adjunct sensation, but then I feel it traveling to my ears or my skin so that I hear what I felt on my eye or I feel it. That’s the only way I can communicate what I experienced as a whole. It’s a whole gestalt, you know? Haha.
“two philosophical premises 1) the mind and body, and 2) the perception of senses and ideas. His research suggests that, for starters, these dualities might not exist.”
I think they do. Ideas tend to be memories of sensations which we manipulate long after the interaction with the stimulus, while sensations are immediate. For me, for instance, my ideas tend to be multisensory: I have tactile ideas (temperature, pain, kinaesthetic, etc), sonic ideas, olfactory ideas, etc. Plays a big part in my creativity, as I explained above. I can tune in and out of each, like, say, thinking about only instrumental music, or the smell of a perfume. But I can abstract those and manipulate, say, the components of that smell and fit them with others in my memory or just reconfigure the smell of just that perfume, no addition or subtraction. Meditation helps with that too, like with the bushmen. Western education makes us rely mostly on the visual, actually. Westerners want to see everything, when actually there are other modes of experiencing. It also has a part to play in my native vödú (what you guys call voodoo). We experience these these “spirits”, we don’t see them, in ecstatic possessions, which is pretty much what Nietzsche meant in what he said inspiration is in his Ecce Homo.
“In the podcast You Are Not So Smart, David McRaney talks about being confronted with a differing view point as having a gut-wrenching, physical effect on him.”
Hahaha. That’s where the Hindu system of chakras comes in.
It’s very common around here. You’ll hear people say of others’ offenses: it hurt me in my abdomen. But not the entire abdomen, you usually (every time, so far) see them point to one and the same area: the area of the manipura chakra, which is the seat of our personal power. And I’ve seen quite the number of people develop bad psychosomatic illnesses from corrupted manipura, like when they won’t let offenses go. I won’t be surprised you also have that experience. Example: when you feel confident, you feel buoyed by this lavalike phenomenon in your belly, or when you’re angry, where does it feel your anger is coming from?
Most of us have gotten so insensitive to our inner states, because of overeducation. All we know is what is in our brain (what Hindus call ajna chakra), what we’ve been taught, rather than what the rest of the psyche and nervous system is actually experiencing so we don’t even know what’s happening when “we are happening”.
What I personally and subjectively know is that my own experience doesn’t always fit well with mainstream (WEIRD) claims about human nature, societal/economic/political ideology, and ‘objective’ reality. But it’s unclear to me exactly what is my own experience. For example, it is beyond any doubt that I don’t quite think and learn like most other people in my society or else that my neurocognitive processes and psychobiological patterns don’t conform to the teaching methods of the mainstream (WEIRD) education system.
Something is different, even if it is hard for me to put my finger on. I sometimes suspect I might not be as abnormal as I’ve thought in the past, rather that some people are better at hiding and suppressing their more natural way of being. This makes more sense as time goes on. Even in WEIRD societies, it is only a minority of the population that is extremely WEIRD, and it just so happens that this minority has been the focus of almost all social research done not only in the West but in the word.
When we think of the Western mindset, what we are largely thinking of is a highly literate society. The West is simply the first part of the world where literacy took hold on a large-scale most early on. The Renaissance, Protestant Reformation, Enlightenment, the English Civil War, and (early and late) modern revolutionary era would have taken place if not for the quick spread in the West of printing presses, movable type, schools, and literacy. That is why so many centuries ago a working class bloke like Thomas Paine could shake the Western civilization to its foundation. The West is the canary in the coal mine and it doesn’t bode well for the rest of humanity.
That might relate to my own state of mind. I came to reading late. I struggled with language early on and word recall was a key part. I’ve never been good at learning things in isolation. In my mind, everything has a personal and emotional element. I think and so I remember according to interconnections that over time form into thought-webs. This probably fits into ideasthesia, not that I’m all that sure about synaesthesia. It is easy and natural for me to ‘feel’ my way into thoughts and experience, even that of others. I’m highly intuitive, tending toward synthesis rather than analysis. Yet in some ways, I’ve overcompensated for my former lack and have developed an analytical side (what some would explain as an INFP’s aspirational Extraverted Thinking) that can obscure my intuitive tendency, at least obscure it for other people interacting with me. I protect my intuitive nature because I live in a society that isn’t friendly and supportive toward it.
So, I’m divided and conflicted. Maybe that is true of nearly everyone in a society such as this. Insensitivity to inner states is behind my depression, whether or not it’s the main factor. I’ve been contemplating that one of the biggest changes in the Western world have been dietary and, according to functional medicine, that this has profound changes on the human body-mind as it expresses across the entire society and becomes entrenched in culture and the social order. The Enlightenment and modernity following was built on the global trade of addictive substances that, some have argued, fueled the extremes of the intellect and materialism: sugar, tea, tobacco, opium, etc (I’ve also considered the addictive nature of exorphins combined with leaky gut that both are associated with wheat and dairy).
I used to be hopelessly addicted to sugar, carbs, and caffeine (and briefly felt the addiction of nicotine), and that addictive tendency was closely related to my depression. That addictiveness is also, as Johann Hari points out, grounded in the isolation and loneliness, stress and anxiety of hyper-individualism (the very thing that Julian Jaynes sees as key to the rise of civilization as we now know it with its authoritarian edge). The entirety of modern industrialized society, in the West most of all, is totally out of balance in so many ways. We (the collective mainstream ‘we’) are only beginning to realize how bad it has gotten and what it might mean. Maybe something like ideasthesia can help remind us of other ways of being in the world. I try my best in understanding, even as I’m mired in the craziness as anyone else in this society. That is why I look to other kinds of societies, past and present.