Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Synesthesia's Links to the Mystical

The literature is full of connections between synesthesia and heightened states

There is a growing body of literature surrounding synesthesia and mystical experiences. The very hard-to-describe nature of the brain trait lends itself to similarly noetic things, it seems.

Wiki Commons
Source: Wiki Commons

There is a synesthetic passage in the Torah and the Bible (Exodus 20:18) in which the people gathered with Moses at Mt. Sinai hear visions and see the voice of God in what was an apparent group ecstatic/synesthetic experience as the prophet retrieved the ten commandments from the mountaintop.

Dr. Eben Alexander, in his current bestseller, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey Into the Afterlife, similarly reports experiencing the blending of his senses or synesthesia during a Near-Death Experience he had during a coma in 2008. “Seeing and hearing were not separate in this place where I now was,” he writes of the extraordinary experience, brought on by a rare case of bacterial meningitis which shut down his body in 2008, making it all the more remarkable and in his opinion, not brain-based. He is in “The Core,” as he calls it, a place higher than the clouds with “flocks of transparent orbs, shimmering beings arced across the sky, leaving long, streamer-like lines behind them."

He could hear the visual beauty and the silvery bodies of “those scintillating beings above,” he writes, “and I could see the surging, joyful perfection of what they sang.”

Aside from heaven being a synesthetic experience for himself, there is also a synesthetic object he uses to propel himself through the space: a swirling column of light which is also a melody. He needs only recall the tune to move about the heavens. All this left Dr. Alexander with the feeling that synesthesia and the divine are inherently related.

Courtesy Dr. Alexander
Source: Courtesy Dr. Alexander

“I think synesthesia is closer to the true knowing that is part of our true existence at the core — the eternal part of our existence,” he told me in a phone interview. “And for whatever reason, my hunch is that synesthesia, the whole phenomenon — the more that we can learn about it and the more we can learn about any brain action that is associated with the phenomenon of synesthesia, it will help us to understand more about that fundamental reality of our soul and spirit that exists eternally, and that is truly experience and is truly the source of memory. Somehow that stuff kind of comes back through the mechanisms that sometimes appear to be synesthetic because the nature of that underlying reality is purely synesthetic in kind of an infinite sense.”

MIT (Department of Anthropology) and Columbia University (American Institute of Buddhist Studies) researcher, Dr William Bushell agrees and takes it a step further. "In fact," he says, "synesthesia may not only be associated with the highest spiritual states, it may be necessary for them."

He notes Dr. Roger Walsh of the University of California at Irvine’s paper “Can Synesthesia Be Cultivated,” showing evidence of synesthesia in non-synesthetic people during meditation. The more the person meditates, the more often he or she experiences synesthesia, he concluded.

Dr. Bushell also points out the statement by the 13th century Zen Master Dogen upon the teacher's enlightenment:

Wiki Commons
Source: Wiki Commons

"Incredible, incredible

Inanimate objects proclaiming dharma is inconceivable

It can't be known if the ears hear it

But when the eyes hear it, then it can be known."

Synesthesia thought leader and author of the synesthesia memoir Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens Patricia Lynne Duffy was deeply moved by Dr. Alexander's recent talk at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and has this to say about the connection between synesthesia and the noetic: "It is striking how often the connection between synesthetic and mystical perception comes up in the literature — as reported by a great range of people from medieval mystics such as Hildegard of Bingen, to nineteenth-century poets, such as Rimbaud and Baudelaire, to 20th century writers, such as Aldous Huxley, to contemporary neuroscientists such as Eben Alexander. The range of types of experiencers and the depth and breadth of their reports invites first awe and then further exploration."

Courtesy Pim van Lommel
Source: Courtesy Pim van Lommel

Researchers are uncovering even more connections. Drs. Pim van Lommel and PMH Atwater have each documented cases of synesthesia in connection to those experiencing NDEs. In his book Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience, Dr. van Lommel of The Netherlands places synesthesia alongside other changes which seem to occur in the newly "returned" from NDEs — photosensitivity and aversion to touch are two other side effects he notes. He writes the following from Holland:

"Synesthesia is a condition in the brain of conjoined senses. It is a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. And quite a lot of people (how many exactly is not well known) experience synaesthesia as a result of their NDE because their brain has changed structurally and/or functionally. However, during NDE normal senses do not function anymore because the brain does not function anymore: patients have a extrasensory perception of hearing, perceiving, smelling, etc., and all these at the very same moment because time and space do not exist in this higher dimension, everything happens/occurs simultaneously. "

Dr. van Lommel says while NDE experiences do have synesthesia-like qualities, we should be careful not to call them synesthesia per se since synesthesia is brain-based and this is happening in a different state of consciousness. However, he would still typify the residual effects when the patient "returns" as synesthesia.

Courtesy PMH Atwater
Source: Courtesy PMH Atwater

Dr. Atwater had synesthesia in childhood which she later outgrew — that is until three NDEs of her own seemed to trigger its return. She is now one of the leading experts on NDEs in the world and writes and lectures on the topic.

She has this to say about it: "Synesthesia is an after-effect to near-death states, rather typical I would say — present in the neighborhood of around 2/3 of the cases in the research I have done. It is not surprising afterwards for an experiencer to (for instance) buy a painting for how it sounds, perhaps even how it tastes, rather than just how it looks. The reality of conjoined faculties simply becomes a way of life - as if another facet of how the brainmind complex afters after a near-death experience.

"Synesthesia, to me, is a physical after-effect, one of many examples of how the brain shifts after such an episode," however, like Dr. van Lommel, she would not use synesthesia to describe synesthesia-like qualities of the NDE.

"Near-death experiences, near-death-like experiences, spiritual and visionary experiences all share a common landscape. That landscape operates differently from our physical world, yet it is as real and as solidly experienced as the everyday reality we have adjusted to since birth. That landscape is a world apart, perhaps another dimension that is either infra or ultra to our normal perceptual range. And when we visit or glimpse that world we either adapt to the uniqueness of its rhythms and pulsebeat, or remain as if a foreigner either frightened or hesitant to be there. What you and Eben have termed a synesthetic state. . . is the way this world works, it is the essence of its form, its truth, a reality that for all extents and purposes exists apart from the brain organ. We relate this landscape to our brain and our limbic system and the condition of synesthesia only because we have no other way to explain how we can accept its existence and how we respond to that existence. In my 33 plus years of researching near-death states, I have learned to be very clear about what experiencers tell me and describe. It is very easy to jump to conclusions based on our training or what we have learned during earthlife. To admit that there might be another world apart from or in addition to the life our senses define for us seems either ridiculous or impossible. This is why near-death states confound us. And this is why skeptics lose every time. The near-death phenomenon (the experience plus the aftereffects) challenges the core basics of what we think we know. When you examine the entire phenomenon with both children and adults and throughout the world, you are faced with the ultimate dilemma: that other landscape is one of spirit and it operates according to spiritual laws. We come from that world, and to that world we return."

Dr. Alexander closes with this: “It is crucial to remember that my ultra-real experience deep in coma, in the realms of the Gateway and the Core that I describe in my book, did not happen in my brain, or in the physical universe, but they really happened in a more fundamental reality – the dwelling-place of Divine consciousness, spirit and soul. That is the remarkable conclusion from months of analysis and discussion with other scientists about my experience. To use the word ‘synesthesia’ (an overlapping of perceptions across standard boundaries of sensory modalities) with such an experience risks misleading some into thinking that my deep coma experience occurred in my brain. It did not.”

More from Maureen Seaberg
More from Psychology Today