Sacred Synesthesia 15 January 2017

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I recently watched a documentary about a man with quite intense synesthesia, which allowed him to visualise numbers as complex three dimensional entities. Larger numbers were composed of smaller numbers in such a way that a landscape was formed, and by mentally surveying this landscape, tremendously difficult arithmetic was performed in an instant. Investigations carried out by VS Ramachandran verified that these visualisations were consistent, and held not only numeric significance, but aesthetic as well (pi was held up as a particularly beautiful number).

In order to explain this feat, it was suggested that two usually separate areas of the man’s brain had become linked, and this (in combination with a mild form of autism) accounted for the vivid experiences. While no attempt was made to suggest that these shapes in some way represented the numbers with more fidelity than the Arabic symbols to which we are accustomed, it was nonetheless conceded that the man’s visual arithmetic worked. Both numeric and synesthetic mathematics agreed on the relationships between these intangible entities. It just so happened that he could see them.

In religion it is often argued that a prophet, messenger, guru, or saint, represents a perspective on the divine Other. In some circles, these different religious perspectives are accommodated by suggesting that, as the Sufi poet Rumi noted, although the lamps are different, the light is the same. In fact, the entire Baha’i faith is founded on this concept, and attempts to contextualise religions within their time and culture, whilst also forming a historical narrative that brings them together as part of an ongoing revelation.

The modern trend of spirituality also sees individuals choosing their religious clothing in light of their own reason and experience, and incorporating only those beliefs, values, and behaviours that appeal to them, facilitating a synthesis of many faiths. This sort of personal religious experimentation comes close to echoing the complementary relationship found between numeric and visual mathematics; if there is more than one way for the result to be calculated, it makes sense to use the method you find most acceptable, even if it is not used by the majority.

I’m certainly not the first person to suggest that the unnamed and undefined divinity speaks to different people and cultures according to their needs and capacities, but I wonder about the different quality of experiences that occur in people with synesthesia, and what this can tell us about the bewildering religious landscape. It is also interesting that synesthesia-like effects are found in the majority of people, for instance the bouba/kiki experiments show that people tend to link types of sounds and shapes regardless of language or culture.

I am not arguing for a reductionist dismissal of religion as nothing more than aberrant psychological behaviour – rather, I am suggesting that religious geniuses have very personal internal models of a divine relationship; they are engaging with something real. Where I may be more contentious is that I suspect they may have misunderstood the appearance of their experiences and taken them as concrete realities, rather than personal interpretations.

There is a biblical aphorism: ‘you will know them by their fruits’, and if we examine the history of the world’s wisdom traditions, they have tended towards a community ethic (do good wherever possible), a purpose to life (this is going somewhere – although we may have been here before), and a sense of human unity (our differences are superficial). I feel as though this is the underlying structure witnessed by the revered mothers and fathers of our religions, but also what guides the vast majority of people to a religious life in one way or another. Rather than try to prove one religion or another as True, we should embrace and celebrate the variety of expressions that these impulses have found.

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About Luke Burns

Luke Burns is studying for a Religious Studies degree from the Open University.