Synesthesia and magic

I was listening to a podcast about the neuroscience of synesthesia the other day, and it got me thinking.

If you’re not familiar, synesthesia is a condition where your brain adds extra sensory information to your sensory input. For example, some people see colors associated with numbers. My mom has a version where she perceives sounds as colors. (And she hates jazz, because of how it looks.)

Pythagoras famously was considered a synesthete, and his associations between numbers and other qualities were accepted as divinely inspired.

Other synesthetes have offered deep contributions to human art. Seeing the world with a non-normal sensory perception is very interesting, and it makes for a compelling artistic perspective.

Whenever I think about Art, I think about magic too, because the two are pretty closely related. So I’m thinking – what are some of the ways that synesthesia interacts with magic and spirituality?

My interest in this stuff

I have a background in hard science, and I come from a family of engineers. So I tend to like things that have evidence, or things that can be proven. Or, perhaps more accurately, I prefer to avoid arguments or beliefs that can effectively be disproven.

Like The (fucking) Secret.

But ever since I was a little kid, I was fascinated by the invisible things – ghosts, psychic phenomena, the things scientists and engineers can’t explain.

I mean, everyone has a ghost story.

I stepped away from the cultural religion I grew up with when I was a teenager, and immersed myself in alternative spiritual and metaphysical practices. I’ve devoted a fair amount of time and immersion in a variety of New-Age and non-Christian beliefs, values, and teachings. (Among others. I have a fair amount of education in Buddhist, Yogic, and other spiritual traditions too.)

So I dig magic and mysticism, but I don’t dig the woo-woo~ New Age “all-beliefs-are-valid” bullshit. There are a lot of things that happen, where it can be readily explainable by normal causes. Is the house haunted, or is the plumbing old and creaky? Is it your awesome power causing the lights to flicker, or the ju-jitsu studio upstairs? In other words – is it magic, or is it coincidence and confirmation bias?

And still, when we account for all possible rational explanations, weird shit happens. So I’m super interested in the interplay between neuroscience, magic, and the way we perceive our environment in ways that seem mysterious.

Tables of correspondence

Most new-age, Wiccan, and Pagan spiritual paths include learning (or creating) correspondences between things.

One of the most popular is the correspondences between colors and qualities:

  • Red – Passion
  • Orange – Energy
  • Yellow – Intellect
  • Green – Growth
  • Blue – Emotion
  • Purple – Mysticism

Magical people will use candles of these colors in spells and rituals to influence their lives with the corresponding attribute. For example, burning a green candle for money. Or burning a red candle for sex.

Correspondences aren’t just limited to colors. Some Pagans like to make associations with the 4/5 Elements, which correspond to the 4 phases of matter and the (1) space between them:

  • Earth – solid – physical body
  • Water – liquid – emotions
  • Air – gas – intellect
  • Fire – plasma – passion and will
  • Spirit – space between things – the soul/immeasurable self

Correspondences can also be used to learn systems of divination – patterns of cards, dice, or patterns found in nature which are thought to communicate information between the reader and the spiritual world. For example, a tarot card is assigned a meaning, which when read in context offers insight into a person’s present and evolving situation.

These correspondences are arbitrary.

This may come as a shock to some people. There are a lot of folks who practice magic and New Age, who believe that these correspondences are Divinely Inspired™. The truth is they usually stem from cultural associations and artifacts, or from one highly influential person in the culture. But like most words, the association between the symbol and the thing is largely random. They have meaning because we give them meaning – the meaning isn’t inherent. Without a human to interpret the color green, plants would just be green.

(Even onomotpoeia – where a word sounds like the object it refers to, like [buzz], the association is strongly variable by culture. Also, plants are only green because of the electromagnetic receptors we have in our eyes – if our eyes were sensitive to other colors, we would perceive plants as having different colors. Especially flowers.)

Synesthesia is partially learned

Synesthesia is typically something that people are born with (or not).

There is some mystery about how some people make the associations between senses. Why is 8 orange for one person, and spiky for another? We aren’t really sure.

In some cases, a person with synesthesia can be imprinted by certain associations. For instance, in a certain percentage of synesthetes, the Fisher-Price magnetic letters created associations between colors and letters based on … the color of the magnetic letters.

To me, this suggests a certain amount of learned association we can create between things.

It’s not completely learned. Synesthetes have measurably stronger cross-talk and neural connections between the sensory areas of their brain, in ways that non-synesthetes don’t.

But everyone can learn to associate a symbol with a particular meaning. Like, that’s literally how words work.

It’s sort of like creating a shortcut on your computer desktop to a program. You can link it to whatever program you want. But the human mind can also add extra layers of meanings and associations. In the metaphor of the computer, clicking the shortcut might launch three different programs, type a sequence of words, pull up a data entry field, and launch a website to give you some mood music.

Likewise, we can layer symbolic meaning onto a color. Red is no longer a certain wavelength of light, it also brings to mind heat, passion, sex, blood, etc.

Synesthesia and Magic

Have you ever talked to one of those people who can actually see spirits? Or who can smell magic?

Does it remind you of anything?

I have this hypothesis: many phenomena people associate with magic and spiritual activity is a form of synesthesia.

I think that for whatever reason, a person’s brain perceives a spiritual or non-physical input, and their brain maps that input onto another sense.

Now – I don’t know how we could actually test that theory. Mostly because spiritual phenomena and magic are notoriously resistant to laboratory experimentation.

But it might give some comfort to those of us who have had magical or spiritual experiences, but who have not visually seen a Fully Body Spiritual Apparition™.

Synesthesia happens because of cross-talk between senses. Which means that their brain is perceiving some kind of stimulus that causes the cross-talk. Which means some part of that person’s brain is sensing the supernatural phenomenon.

If you’re not a synesthete

Don’t get discouraged.

If the sensory perception of spirits and magic is synesthesia, it suggests that the person perceiving them is being triggered by some kind of stimulus. (Synesthesia is not very strongly linked to hallucination, though in theory it could be possible to mistake a hallucination invented by your mind for a synesthesia experience.)

If that’s true, it means that some kind of stimulus exists to trigger the perception of synesthesia. Something in the brain of the synesthete would be responding to a ghost or magic. The difference is, the synesthete’s brain displays the perception as a different sense.

Without that experience of “Huh, that’s weird,” there’s not really anything to flag a supernatural experience as noteworthy. In this way, a non-synesthete could be perceiving ghosts all the time, and just not realize it, because there isn’t some noticeable thing to perceive.

This also suggests that the perception of magic and spirits happens in a sense that isn’t one of the Big Five (sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell).

In fact, because so much of the synesthesia is not deliberate, but rather the chance associations created in a synesthete’s brain, not having synesthesia around spirits and magic could be more of an advantage.

Here’s what I’m thinking.

For us to learn magic – and any skill, really – we have to observe and mimic someone doing it, then we have to do it on our own, then we have to keep doing it till we get bored, then we have to keep doing it until we integrate it into the way we move through the world. Through this process, we build and evolve a symbolic connection between the thing we’re doing, and the symbol that represents it.

So like, say someone uses a new word. You might try to use that word, but people don’t seem to understand. You look up the definition of the word. You try it out in a few sentences, around friends. Then you start slipping it in to conversations. Finally, the word just becomes a part of your everyday language. You’ve created a connection in your brain between the symbol (the word) and the referent (the thing the word refers to).

A synesthete doesn’t have a choice in how their perceptions translate into other sensory experiences.

A non-synesthete does.

So not having an automatic subconscious association between senses means you get to build your own. Intentionally.

Creating your own tables of correspondences

No one is born knowing what, say, the Runes are. Or what the Tarot arcana symbolize.

We have to learn that.

Our minds are wired to layer symbolic meaning onto our representations of objects. A Christian might layer evil symbolism onto a pentacle, where a Pagan might layer good symbolism onto the same object.

Tarot, Runes, Color Correspondences – each of these is also a case where we layer our chosen meaning onto a particular symbol. And we get to choose that meaning.

As we deepen our work with a particular symbol set, its usage becomes more natural, and it begins to resemble a language. We can use that language to speak with the spirits, and to ask magic to do what we want.

Using an existing symbolic association can boost the effectiveness of the work. First, there will be an existing community that can help reinforce the habits. Second, even in the case of concepts like dead languages, the collective mass of all those other humans using the same symbols seems to give symbols more weight.

(I like to think that reciting invocations in their original language is a reminder to spirits of the first people who contacted them. How cool would it be, if you met your childhood friend and they greeted you with your secret handshake? Now think about being a spirit hundreds or thousands of years old, and a new human speaks to you in the same language that people used to speak to you thousands of years ago. I think that’d be pretty awesome.)

Changing your associations

Even in language, which has official associations between words and definitions, there can be some variability between individuals as far as the nuance of that meaning. I might rate the word “awesome” as being better than “excellent,” and you might rate them the opposite.

This is completely normal. As we go through life, we each have our own unique associations between certain words and real-life experiences. For instance: to me, the word [retard] is a verb to refer to slowing the action of yeast in bread. (Also as [retardando] in music, which means to play at a slow tempo.) I’m guessing most readers only see the pejorative.

And that’s fine, though it does complicate things.

A good rule of thumb – for magical symbolism or for language – is that I can change the association of a word for myself, but I can’t change it for someone else.

This gives us some flexibility in the way we choose and work with magical symbols.

For example – if you see a Christian cross and you immediately have a distressing emotional reaction, you can work with a therapist to disentangle the symbolism that the cross represents from its actual form. You can get to a point where a cross is just a couple of sticks, with no emotional attachment whatsoever.

I actually did this with telephones. I have a fear of answering the phone based on some experiences, and because of the symbolic meaning I’ve layered onto them. After some work to disentangle those, they don’t bother me nearly as much.

We can add additional meaning to a symbol – like a rune or a tarot card – by repeatedly making the same associations. Even in cases where we already have an association, like between green and jealous for example, we can layer additional symbols on like the green of money and the green of lush jungle growth.

This allows you to develop a spiritual shorthand. You can take an action with an object that has symbolism – such as burning a green candle – and combine it with a symbol from work, like a name badge or pay stub. In this way, you can write a symbolic sentence to ask the spirits, deities, and magic to help you get a pay raise.

This might be quicker than trying to work out the Ancient Greek words to ask a Greek deity to bless you with a pay raise.

If you DO have synesthesia…

…you’ve got a built-in symbolic language that you can use.

You can use it artistically, to express the way you perceive the world, and invite others to see it the way you do.

Or you can use it as a language to speak to the Unseen World, and ask it to do things for your life. Nothing is stopping you from building your own symbolic language, but your bond with the synesthetic associations will be so strong and natural, it will probably make more sense just to use it.

Final thoughts

I think it would be awesome if I could physically see ghosts, deities, and the currents of magical energy. But I can’t.

That doesn’t make me a bad or ineffective magician.

In fact, my ability to train my mind in a short of magical symbolic shorthand gives me a level of flexibility and customization that synesthetes probably don’t have.

Do you have any thoughts about synesthesia and magic? Drop me a note at dmkoffer at gmail dot com.