Recently I read a book called “Wednesday is Indigo Blue” , it covers a wide range of enormous variety and creativity of the synesthetic mind. Here’s a section which I found rather interesting.
Chapter 2: The Kaleidoscope World
The Form Constants
In discussing synaesthesia spatial extension we mentioned from constants in passing. The elementary patterns of spatial configuration were discovered starting int he 1920s by the German psychologist Heinrich Kliver. He induced them with mescaline to better understand the subjective experience of visual hallucination. Once Kluver trained subjects to carefully introspect and hone it down to the sensory essential, however he identified four basic configurations he called tunnels and cones, central radiations, gratings and honeycombs and spirals. These constitute the form constants (figure 2.13 and 2.14). Variations in color, brightness, symmetry, replication, rotation and pulsation provide further gradation of the subjective experience. As the figures show, form constants are often symmetrical. This is why we said that when listening to music, synesthetes do not visualize something like a pastoral meadow with sheep gamoling through it -rather they perceive cross-hatching, zigzags, circular blobs, cobwebs and geometric shapes.
Kluver suggest that a limited number of perceptual framework may be inherent in the fabric of the central nervous system:
The analysis has yielded a number of forms and form elements… No matter how strong the inter and intra-individual differences may be, the records are remarkably uniform as to the appearance of the above described forms and configurations. We may call them form-constants, implying that a certain number of them appear in almost all mescal visions and that many “atypical” visions are upon close examination nothing but variations of these form constants (Quote Kluver)42
Kluver work was replicated and extended by others (43). Unaware of Kluvers work, yet another researcher discovered the repetitive elements of hallucinations and argued similarly that there are “certain constancies” the visual system itself contributes to illusory and hallucinatory phenomena as well as to everyday objective experience. The idea is that some basic anatomical or functional unit in the brain causes it to favor certain fundamental constructions of perception.
Form constants – which are a product of the brain – differ from entropic phenomena meaning “within the eye”. That is, if you are press on or rub your eyeballs the mechanical pressure stimulates the retina, causing you to see flashing lights or streaks, sometimes colored. Some people have an unusual ability to see their own retina blood vessels, which produces a cobweb pattern. Small ghostlike circles and arcs called the muscae volitantes are actual red blood cells coursing through vessels near the retina’s macula.
In the BBC documentary “Orange Sherbet Kisses”, synesthetic artist Carol Steen and synesthetic art critic Bill Zimmer of the new york times are shown viewing Kandinsky paintings. Kandisnky was a synesthetic painter who coupled four senses: Color, hearing, touch and smell. In the film Bill simmer not only points out form -constant shapes in Kandinskt’s canvasses but also one he experience himself in response to sound. Figure 2.15 illustrates the shapes seen in response to environmental sounds – thunder, a bang, a clang and a click.
Why do we enjoy fireworks so much? Millions of pounds of entertaining explosives go up all over the world and millions of people turn out to watch them. What are these colored lights, flashes and bangs? They do not represent real things in nature or remind us of anything on an intellectual level. They are abstract yet provoke a strong emotional reaction inducing millions to watch and walk away satisfied,” That was wonderful!” without being able to say exactly “that” was. No other form of abstract visual expression is as popular.
It may be that the form constants can help explain the satisfying appeal of something as unnatural as fireworks. The connotation of the term “constant” give false impression that what is perceived is invariant and stationary, when in fact the elements making up a configuration are highly unstable. , continually reorganizing themselves in an incessant interplay of concentric rotational pulsating and oscillating movement by which one pattern replaces another.
42 Kluver H 1966. Mescal and Mechanims of Hallucinations, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p.22
43 Siegel RK. 1977. Hallucinations. Scientific American 237(4): 132-14-; Siegel RK, Jarvik ME.1975. Drug-induced hallucinations in animals and man, pp 81-162 in RK Siegel, LJ West (eds) Hallucinations: Behavior, Experience and Theory. New York Wiley.