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The Shamanic Synesthesia of the Kalahari Bushmen

Dr. Bradford Keeney explains cross-sensory visions out of Africa

There is a Western, technology-based, unintentional bias in the reporting of synesthesia. Our best tool for logging synesthetes and their experiences is the online Synesthesia Battery administered by Dr. David Eagleman, the brilliant neuroscientist featured previously in this blog. But one must have access to technology, of course, to self-report and then be verified by doctors. And deep in Southern Africa, computers are not part of the world of the Kalahari Bushmen.

So it is amazing to hear from Dr. Bradford Keeney, who has an endowed chair at the University of Lousiana, about synesthetic experience in this fascinating group of people -- the oldest surviving culture in the world with 60,000 years of history.

Source: Courtesy Dr. Bradford Keeney.
Dr. Bradford Keeney left psychology for more ancient healing methodologies.
Source: Courtesy Dr. Bradford Keeney.

His experience with the shamans of that culture leads him to believe we can all access synesthetic experience. "I think it is likely that we are all whole synesthetes," he says. "This orientation assumes that the senses are not mutually exclusive, but interwoven in constant interaction. In this regard, we can also say there is one sense, though we have found a way to differentiate its variant forms of coordination and interplay as separate sense making. We all see when we hear and feel, but some are not as 'conscious' of it as others. Sort of like saying you may be seeing sounds, but you aren't paying attention - a kind of synesthetic blind spot: Some folks don't see-hear that they don't see-hear. The same is true for the other combinations of sensory linkage, When we pay more attention to one part of the whole of our unitary sensing, the rest of it goes off the screen of consciousness, though is retrieved (and often seen as secondary) in trance, fantasy, and rhapsodic, poetic expression.''

He says a fully integrated multi-sensory-motor coordinated person would propose that whatever they attend to is always a smell, sight, sound, taste, and feeling. "Strong spiritual elders talk this way. They can smell another spiritually developed person, while seeing their light and hearing their song... When all the senses are dancing well together, you also pay less attention to one being developed over the other or any dissociation that encourages you to say you are seeing sounds or feeling shapes... You are experiencing everything at once with no need to distinguish. The highest spiritual experiences feel, see, hear, taste, and smell at the same time wihout conscious differentiation. It is synesthesia with no conscious narration about it being synesthesia. No distinction. Only whole experience. We learn to draw distinctions and make indications that then enables us to say, yes, I am smelling love and hearing hope."

Courtesy Dr. Bradford Keeney.
Part of a rock painting of the Kalahari Bushmen shows synesthetic photisms around the figure.
Courtesy Dr. Bradford Keeney.

Bushmen don't talk about synesthesia per se, he explains. They don't use that word. "They talk about 'kia,' becoming awake. In this heightened awareness they say they get 'second eyes, second ears'... Now they see what they sing or feel all the other synesthetic combos. Hearing the sounds may drive the visionary experiences. Songs become called 'lines' or 'ropes' that take you somewhere. Scholars, especially David Lewis Williams, have compared these experiences to a general set of entopics (simple geometric shapes) produced in hallucination, whether inspired by meditation, psychotropics, or madness. Here brain malfunction is emphasized as the inventor of hallucinations. It is arguably better to see the entopics as driven by sensory-motor coordinations that are always present, but habitually ignored. Neurologically, Maturana and Varela argue there is no difference between an everyday perception and a hallucination because of the closed organization of our neurological dance. All this discussion leads to the radical constructivist notion that we actively participate in constructing our experience (drawing the distinctions) and this includes synesthesia."

Dr. Bradford Keeney in the Kalahari

Dr. Bradford Keeney with a Kalahari woman.

The images seen by Bushmen n/om-kxaosi (shamans) in heightened awareness are also shaped by cultural motifs, he explains. "The shamans often see and depict therianthropes -- beings that are a mix of human qualities with birds and animals. But more importantly, the rock art depict lines or ropes or grids of connection between living things. These ropes are seen in heightened states of consciousness and they are indistinguishable from the songs that are voiced in ecstatic emotion. All synesthesia. (Joke: maybe that tasty apple Eve offered Adam tasted so good that they saw God. Hence, syn-esthesia was introduced)!" Dr. Keeney shared some of these images and they are remarkable to me for the depiction of photisms, those lighted bits we synesthetes see, in the background of various scenes.

The oldest cultures found that ecstatic experience expands our awareness and in its most special form, the world is experienced through more sensory involvement and presence, he says. "The shaman's transition into ecstasy brought about what we call synesthesia today. But there was more involved than just passively experiencing it. The ecstatic shaman also performed sound, movement, and made reference to vision, smell, and taste in ways that helped evoke extraordinary experiences in others. They were both recipients and performers of multi-sensory theatres. Of course this is nothing like the weekend workshop shamans of the new age who are day dreaming rather than shaking wildly.... Rhythm, especially syncopated African drumming, excites the whole body to feel more intensely. Hence, it is valued as a means of 'getting there'. A shaman (an ecstatic performer) played all the senses."

If this seems far afield from Western experience, consider that in Exodus 20:18, as Moses ascended Mt. Sinai to retrieve the tablets, the people present were said to have experienced synesthesia. "And all the people saw the voices" of heaven, it says. And we know synesthesia happens even in non-synesthetes during meditation -- a heightened state.

Dr. Keeney left a very successful psychology practice when he came back to the realization he had experienced something extraordinary himself as a young man. An enormous wave of peace came over him as he was walking one day and he wandered into a chapel and began to shake. "My experience wasn't frenzied. I was more calm than I had ever been while at the same time the most aroused and joyous. It transcended that dichotomy. Today some people think you either need to sit still or be a wild maniac to open the gate to alternative awareness. The idea of a continuum is misleading. It's more like an Ouroboros - the alchemical dragon that swallows its own tail. Re-entry of a feeling, idea, form, can intensify its wholeness which includes a diversity of contradictions. 'I am struck dead by God while I fly through the universe giving birth to everything,' an all at the same time kind of experience.''

He says in these states we experience "difference" or "ratio" as the first experimental psychologists, Weber and Fechner proposed. "The differences that make a difference, as Gregory Bateson put it, are found inside the circularities of our interaction. These circles are both inside us and outside the boundaries of the skin. But the idea that it is an energy field is arguably misleading. A blind man crossing a street is perceiving as much with his cane as he is with the utilized difference between the curb and the street. This more cyberbetic rendering encourages us to look for patterns that hold the differences that make a difference in our experience."

In a fully awakened state, as the Bushmen refer to it, we can see shapes, forms, and even fully developed works of art even before they are created, he says. "I have often thought that if I could paint or sculpt what I sometimes see, it would be a masterpiece. But I have not acquired that sensory motor hookup. I am only a spectator at my personal synesthetic gallery! However, I have made some hookup with music so that what I feel and see can be expressed in sound. I use this way of improvising music, often jazz, as a means of helping others wake up. I change my voice into a more vibratory form, like the doctors of the Kalahari, to do the same. Examples of this are on my website ( God lives in all the colors, forms, sounds, feelings, smells, tastes and smells that we sometimes get a fleeting acquaintance with. But God is the whole unity of these differences - simultaneously holding all these variations, and their relational ecology, as well as their ever morphing interactions."

Researchers are looking into how the synesthetic forms of the rock paintings of the Bushmen may have been the earliest written communications and a proto-language.

Bradford Keeney, Ph.D., is presently Professor and Hanna Spyker Eminent Scholars Chair, University of Louisiana, Monroe, and has served as a professor, founder, and director of clinical doctoral programs in numerous universities. He is the originator of several orientations to psychotherapy including improvisational therapy, resource focused therapy, and creative therapy. A Fellow of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, he received the Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award from the Louisiana Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.

As a scholar, his classic text, Aesthetics of Change, was cited by Heinz von Foerster as one of the key texts of cybernetics, the original science of complexity. He is the inventor of recursive frame analysis, a research method that discerns patterns of transformation in conversation. As a fieldworker, Keeney has been called "the Marco Polo of psychology and an anthropologist of the spirit" by the editors of Utne Reader. He spent over a decade traveling the globe, living with spiritual teachers and healers who trusted him to share their words with others - modern cultures in need of elder wisdom. The result of Keeney's work is one of the broadest and most intense field studies of healing, chronicled in the critically acclaimed book series, Profiles of Healing, an eleven-volume encyclopedia of the world's healing practices.

He is recognized as an ecstatic spiritual teacher and healer by numerous cultures, Keeney became a n/om-kxao (healer) with the Kalahari Bushmen. Megan Biesele, Ph.D., former member of the Harvard Kalahari Research Group, wrote: "There is no question in the minds of the Bushman healers that Keeney's strength and purposes are coterminous with theirs. They affirmed his power as a healer." He is the subject of the book, American Shaman: An Odyssey of Global Healing Traditions written by psychologists Jeffrey Kottler and Jon Carlson, which won a Best Spiritual Book of 2005 award from Spirituality & Health magazine. A display honoring his breakthrough fieldwork and contributions to understanding the origin of human culture is permanently installed as an exhibition in the Origins Centre Museum, Johannesburg, South Africa.

Dr. Keeney and Dr. Hillary Stephenson are known as The Mojo Doctors and share their wisdom with groups around the world. Their website is: