Sensorium

A Quest to Understand Extraordinary Experiences of Sense

"Synesthesia is in the mind, not the brain" - Geoffrey Rush

Part two of an interview with the esteemed actor about his cross-sensory world

Geoffrey Rush
Geoffrey Rush considers his sensorium.
At the turn of the millennium, when our calendar year changed from 1999 to 2000, virtuoso actor Geoffrey Rush experienced far more than the ball dropping in Times Square. 

“When that happened, the change in color – I suppose because there were three nines and it was saturated, and nine for me has always got a sort of deep violet-lavender aura to it – and then 2000 was almost completely pure white because of all those zeros I suppose. And the colors are never like paint chart colors. They’re internalized, more hallucinatory, sort of colors.'' 

I ask him if he is projecting (seeing the synesthesia outside of his body) or seeing it in his mind’s eye or associating with his synesthesia. 

“It’s not outside of me. Say I hear a lawnmower outside of the house, I know that’s the source of the sound but I’m not just hearing it. There’s always an associated very raggedy complex shape that that sound makes in the atmosphere."

I tell him a documentary filmmaker once asked me to describe synesthesia in one word and I responded "place" because of its sense of location apart from self. I wondered if he agreed with that?

“It is that feeling that it is somewhere; a very abstract place. It’s in the mind, rather than the brain. It’s in the sensory world.” 

He recalls in acting school seeing such things when made to relax on the floor with eyes closed in silence and trying to conjure imagery as well. Or when he went on to the Lecoq school in Paris in his 20s to study physical theater, mime and improvisation as is its forte, he remembers, he spent quite a bit of time in the first year learning to remove the ‘neutral mask’ which is to kind of remove the psychology of the face and let the body fully express whatever your imagination is going for, he explains. This could also inspire cross-sensory things. 

“And some of the build-up exercises for that would be what Lecoq called ‘identification’ and he would get us to identify with physical phenomena. He would say, ‘I want you to get out on the floor and don’t illustrate, don’t demonstrate…build a very strong image in your mind of fire, and let your body create that.’” 

And then, “people would thrash around and somehow you would just see flames. You would say, ‘That’s a bushfire! It’s not fat burning in a pan.” You had to have a very specific image, not just a generic response, he explained. 

Later, it became more complicated and the students would have to manifest physical substances, such as water. “What is the movement of a big lake, where there’s barely any movement and you just get the sense of something profound and deep?” he recalled. 

Later still, it became more interesting for him personally, he recalled, “because we got into colors. And people would have to get up and image a color and try to express it physically. And he would ask around the class what did we see and it was extraordinary how some people would say, ‘I saw a really bright gold, whatever the movement was. I tried to do hot pink! You know that really phosphorescent stuff that gets used on stickers that go on parcels and things like that and say, ‘Warning!’ So there’s something in that that was really good. 

“I suppose I connect because one of my favorite artists is Kandinsky [who may or may not have been a synesthete, but who painted as though he were]. I remember seeing a big exhibition in London some years ago. It went from his more figurative early work where there were landscapes, and then a bit more expressionistic, and then later in his work, canvases were huge. And they were just fantastical kinds of three-dimensional explosions of contrary colors blossoming right out of the frame and I was just enthralled by that sort of stuff. I could almost hear it.” 

I ask Mr. Rush if his synesthesia acts as a mnemonic? Does he find with the vast memorization of scripts he must do that you sometimes know there’s a green 'W' up ahead in the lines? 

“A little bit, yes.” 

This seems to remind Mr. Rush of the idea of different learning styles and he explains. “I’ve been working very regularly with a specific dialogue and dialect coach since the late 90s. And I’ve found now the best way to memorize scripts in general… Some people can just read it and repeat it and they know where it is on the page and what they have to say. But what I do now is I lie down and kind of just relax. And she feeds line by line so I only hear the shape and the sound of the words, not the prosaic print. I’m entering it into it more I suppose, rather than objectifying. And some people learn in that way, I think. 

“I remember reading some time ago back when I was a director of a theater for young people back in the 1980s, around about that time someone wrote a paper that some children in the classroom have a completely kinetic sense of learning. They get up and do something about it or actively, physically engage. They enjoy it more and they respond to it very strongly and I believe there are people who have no sense of metaphor. It needs to be whatever side of the brain is right. They purely deal with the numeracy or the literacy in a very empirical kind of way. And that’s how I started to have a layman’s understanding of how my senses worked." 

That understanding was further refined, when about 10 years ago a friend who is a very good jazz pianist colleague had a demonstration with Dr. V.S. Ramachandran, the great neuroscientist and synesthesia expert. Mr. Rush, who has followed science closely since his youth, was intrigued and attended. “He was there specifically to talk about synesthesia. And that was the first time anyone had explained the thesis or what they think is happening in the brain for me… [The composer] would improvise certain pieces and Ramachandran had charts of numbers and letters describing what some synesthetes would see.’’ It was quite an important evening for him. 

Mr. Rush believes this “is part of a relatively new, hardly uncharted territory, the mysteries of the brain. But I’ve never felt like I’ve had to go to the doctor and say, ‘I’ve got a terrible case of synesthesia – is there something I can take?’ ‘’ he chuckles.

 

Maureen Seaberg is an author and synesthete dedicated to advancing understanding of synesthesia.

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