David Eagleman: Heaven, Hell and Synaesthesia

Following on from a recent post which linked to the Neuroanthropology website, I want to give brief mention to a neuroscientist by the name of David Eagleman, his research into synaesthesia and an excellent book he published earlier this year, ‘Sum – Forty Tales from the Afterlives’, a pocket-sized tome bristling with a glittering array of thoughts, ideas and speculations about what gods, afterlives and ourselves might or could never be, how we know we even exist or are merely re-living a seamlessly reconstructed version of one or more past life-times.

I first came across Eagleman on this podcast from ABC Radio’s ‘All in the Mind’, hosted by Natasha Mitchell, and which is available, complete with transcript here, and from which this is the introduction:

Imagine if I gave you a glass of milk and it tasted blue to you, or if your partner’s voice just felt like a wonderful golden brown, the colour of buttery toast? What if the number two and letter J conjured up the shade of letterbox red, or the name Derek tasted like earwax? Or whenever you heard music, a kaleidoscope of colours exploded inside your head; different tones and textures for different notes. Vladimir Nabokov was one, so is artist David Hockney, in fact one in a hundred of us could be a person with synesthesia, the surprising cross-wiring of the senses in the brain.

My guest today heads up one of the top centres in synesthesia research based at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. By day he’s a leading neuroscientist but by night he writes novels, and he’s just been in Australia to perform with Brian Eno at the Sydney Opera House a piece based on his totally intriguing new novel called Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives. So meet the energetic David Eagleman.

From later in the show, we hear a few more words on the extraordinary phenomena known as synaesthesia, which we learn is surprisingly prevalent in modern human populations:

…synesthesia is a condition that about one per cent of the population has, and some researchers have estimated that there are maybe 152 reported forms of synesthesia. They have a mixture of the senses, so for example if you have synesthesia you might hear music and it causes you to physically see colours, or more common versions are things like the numbers and letters of the alphabet having colours, or textures or shapes, or genders or personalities. You might taste something and it makes you feel like you’re feeling something on your fingertips, or you might hear something and that puts a taste in your mouth.

For one synesthete, for example, whenever he hears the name Derek it tastes like earwax to him, it puts the taste of that in his mouth. And for other people, you know for different words, it puts the taste of cinnamon in their mouth, or some metallic taste in their mouth and so on. It’s not just that they’re being silly or metaphorical or artistic, it’s actually that there’s cross-wiring in their brains so that from the parts of their brain that care about hearing, and the parts or their brain that care about taste, there’s a little bit of cross-talk going on, so particular auditory experiences will trigger gustatory experiences.

There are many different forms of synesthesia but what they all have in common is that they represent a blending of the senses. And it used to be thought that this was very rare but we now know that it’s really quite common, it’s at least one per cent of the population. So to come back around to your question, because of this increased cross-talk in the brain it has been suggested that maybe synesthesia is related to creativity and metaphor, because essentially that’s what it is for somebody to be very creative or to speak in metaphor, is to find parallels across different domains in the brain.

I’m not sure to what extent this a trait that applies only to our modern selves, or whether synaesthesia is something we’ve inherited from our archaic past – did Neanderthals or H. heidelbergensis or even H. erectus experience these weird fluctuations in their neural circuitry, and if so, to what extent if any has this impacted on speech, language, numeracy or even seemingly irrational belief systems which incorporate divine and omniscient beings living in abstract realms to which our souls are said to migrate shortly after our mortal demise? Do other primates share this with us, or are our own brains unique in that only our particular neural configurations are capable of fusing disparate functions into unexpected reconstructions of what seems real to us?

On that subject, here’s a quick look at some of the content in the book ‘Sum‘, which receives a fair amount of coverage elsewhere in the show – for example, this on consciousness, and by default, the concept of creation:

Questions like how consciousness comes about, how do you ever string together tens of billions of pieces and parts and get something out of it that has private subjective experience.  So if I were to hand you billions of Tinkertoys, you know those little toys you put together, and you start hooking them up so that when you touched this, that happens and so on. At what point would you add one more Tinkertoy and say ah, now this is having conscious experience?

We don’t even know what the theory would look like on that. I mean here’s another way of looking at it. When I was a child I absolutely expected that by the time I was this age we would have robots, that we would have C3PO serving our dinner and cleaning my room and so on. The best we have is the Roomba vacuum cleaner, and it turns out that things like intelligence is really, really hard to figure out. and even things like computer vision is very, very difficult.

Without our specific brand of consciousness it seems improbable that any complex living creature like our selves would be able to even conceive of a grand Creator, Architect, Programmer or Technician, but there is no doubt that such ideas are by now almost indelibly imprinted on our mind-set. However when it comes to describing the type of god or afterlife that many people believe in, their depictions tend to be somewhat workaday, and to a great extent moulded by models that have been portrayed by our families, religious educators and the clergy:

So when I sit next to people on aeroplanes and I ask them what their opinion is on whether there’s a God, or what they would look like, or what an afterlife would look like, it turns out there’s such a lack of creativity, everybody just says whatever their parents have told them. So this book is all about really mentally stretching on spatial scales and ideas of gender and number and all sorts of things.

And mentally stretching such ideas is exactly what this book does – whether you’re a confirmed atheist, a devout agnostic or fully subscribed believer, all the short stories in this book should give you pause for thought and more than a moment or two of inner reflection – indeed we’re told that the book has been equally well received from many quarters of the religious divide, no mean feat for such a book, especially in these days of entrenched fundamentalism that everywhere abound. Here’s a quick look at some of the ideas Eagleman offers up for consideration:

If you stopped someone on the street and said, ‘Hey, what do you think the afterlife is about?’ Of course everybody just has in their mind whatever their parents or their community has told them, and when you really start putting those ideas under the spotlight, what you discover is they’re ridiculous. So for example the one where God is getting frustrated in having to do this binary categorisation into good and evil. it’s a perfect example of how goofy the story is because people are much more multi-dimensional than that, they are much more complex than that.

And so in that story God decides to sort of revolt against that structure that she had set up and she instead invites everybody to come into Heaven and to be a part of Heaven. And what ends up happening actually if I can just read the last line here: ‘So she brings everyone to Heaven and everyone’s achieved true equality and the communists are baffled and irritated because they have finally achieved their perfect society, but only with the help of a God in whom they didn’t want to believe.

The meritocats are abashed that they’re stuck for eternity in an incentiveless system with a bunch of pinkos. The conservatives have no penniless to disparage, the liberals have no downtrodden to promote, so God sits on the edge of her bed and weeps at night because the only thing everyone can agree upon is that they are all in Hell.

Eagleman is also featured in a May 2009 edition of another podcast, ‘Little Atoms’, hosted by Neil Denny, and if you want to grab a copy of the book, for yourself or deserving other(s), there are two main options – you can for example order it online from places like Amazon and numerous other digital outlets.

If however, to paraphrase Matt Haynes, editor of, and writing in the latest print edition of ‘Smoke – A London Peculiar’ you believe “electricity is nothing but a demented cavalcade of charged particles over which no human could ever hold dominion”, just visit your local book-store instead, and they’ll take things from there.

2 thoughts on “David Eagleman: Heaven, Hell and Synaesthesia

  1. …this a trait that applies only to our modern selves…

    …especially in these days of entrenched fundamentalism…

    I don’t know about synaethesia, but there’s certainly nothing new about entrenched fundamentalism.

    So when I sit next to people on aeroplanes and I ask them what their opinion is on whether there’s a God…

    I wish I could say things like that so effortlessly. Anthropologists are truly not like the rest of us.

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