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Maureen Seaberg

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Tasting the Universe

Posted: 03/01/11 01:46 PM ET

I don't know when the colors began. They've always been with me, like the beat of my own heart or the sound of my own breath.

I seldom spoke of the synesthesia that had been with me always; as a child when I expressed my yellow "A" or teal "K" or the primordial green of my Saturdays it sounded strange. People were unaware of reasons for my impressions, despite being born into the 60s when the world was fascinated with the artificial synesthesia that came by using psychoactive drugs. No one knew or cared about the naturally occurring kind, so I learned to keep my impressions to myself, like most "synnies" of my generation. I'd been born into an historical vacuum without appreciation for the trait that is now known to be more common in those in the arts and to be linked to eidetic memory and creativity. I didn't know that 100 years ago it had been celebrated in salons and in French Symbolist poetry and in concerts with lighted color organs; alas I wasn't born into that fin de siècle celebration.

But my awakening happened, as it did for so many, when Dr. Richard Cytowic published The Man Who Tasted Shapes, and I soon set about collecting all the information I could about this neurological trait believed to affect as many as five percent of the world's population. Two years ago, I left breaking news to solve a mystery happening in my own life. I would live as synesthetically as I could for a year and write a book about the journey. I sought testimony from great artists who'd previously not spoken of their synesthesia but who were rumored to have the gift; I scoured events listings, phoned neuroscientists and even quantum experts and gathered their wisdom. And I ended up invited to present at the prestigious Toward a Science of Consciousness Conference run by the Center for Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona at Tucson, thanks to an insightful interview about synesthesia with its Director, Dr. Stuart Hameroff.

And then another invitation came. Tapped to study at the Norman Mailer Writers Colony in Provincetown on scholarship based on an excerpt from my developing manuscript, I would learn from my professor there, Dr. John Michael Lennon, that even Marilyn Monroe seemed to exhibit the trait. He found in Mailer's Marilyn: A Biography, the following evidence:

"She has that displacement of the senses which others take drugs to find. So she is like a lover of rock who sees vibrations when he hears sounds, and it is this displacement which will keep her innocent and intolerable to people who hold to schedule. It also provides her natural wit. ... She did not have a skin like others."

Though synesthesia's profound examples in the arts (Vladmir Nabokov, Duke Ellington, Olivier Messiaen, Billy Joel, Itzhak Perlman, etc.) lends glamour to the trait, it is also deeply spiritually important.

Most significantly in my quest, I reached out to Ganden Thurman at Tibet House. I'd met and grew to admire Mr. Thurman during a previous stint as an Internet editor. I suspected there was something deep and metaphysical happening behind these waves of magenta, persimmon and indigo lighted "photisms" synesthetes see and he seemed to agree. He assigned his staff medical anthropologist, Dr. William C Bushell, to mentor me through the project.

It wasn't long before Dr. Bushell had consulted with his friend, the gifted Dr. Neil Theise, a longtime Buddhist practitioner and stem cell pioneer, who came up with the following from a 9th Century statement by the Zen Master Dogen upon his enlightenment:

"Incredible, incredible, inanimate things proclaiming dharma is inconceivable, it can't be known if the ears try to hear it, but when the eyes hear it, then it can be known." This implied, Dr. Bushell explained to me, that no enlightenment is possible without synesthesia! This is not to say all synesthetes are enlightened. But the highest levels of practitioners recognize synesthesia as some sort of doorway to Nirvana.

Dr. Robert Thurman soon spoke with me about the phenomenon he has experienced himself. The great teacher believes it is a function of a "supra-sense," a sense above all others which can lock in to one or more of them at a time. This is known in Buddhism as the "mind sense." It figures in life as well as in death. "Its job is it chooses one of the senses to align itself with or perhaps several at once. It can override and simulate the sense organs," he explained.

I would never look at the quirky trait, which delights me daily as it splashes across the font of all I read, in the same way again.