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Synesthesia, hallucination, and schizophrenia in art

Updated: Aug 8


rainbow eye
by Harry Quan via Unsplash

Synesthesia, Hallucination, and Schizophrenia in Art


Introduction

The binding problem describes the gap between our understanding of signal transduction and the way we experience the world. Synesthesia, hallucinations, and schizophrenia appear radically different, but they all share common threads, and studying art can improve understanding of these conditions.


Throughout history, from cave art to the psychedelic 60s, artists have used countless substances to alter consciousness and enhance creativity. Synesthesia, a blending of senses, has been reported for 300 years, and thanks to science, it is no longer disregarded as imaginary (Steen, 2001). The validation of synesthesia had many sociocultural implications, sparking philosophical debates and scientific investigations on the nature of perception, consciousness, talent and creativity, and significantly impacting 20th century art history (Safran, 2015).


Psychedelics, synesthesia, and schizophrenia all influence an artist’s experience and subsequently their work in specific ways. These states of consciousness affect creativity in ways that can be empirically measured and subjectively analyzed. The artist’s experience of life encompasses the context of the painting; as such, an artist can never be fully separated from his/her work, as the artist's experience of life is the energetic context from which the artwork materializes. Universal themes can be extracted from these three disparate perspectives.


Synesthesia in Art

Neuroscientist R. Cytowic defines synesthesia as physical sensation of one sense accompanied by perception in another; it is regarded as real, vivid, and outside the body, instead of being imagined by the mind’s eye like hallucinations (Steen, 2001, p. 203). It is reliable over time yet inconsistent across individuals, consciously perceived, and often taken for granted as a continuous, obvious, and integral part of their sense perception (Ward, 2008, p. 128). Ramachandran and Hubbard (2003) found “synesthesia causes excess communication amongst brain maps” and “a propensity towards linking seemingly unrelated concepts and ideas—in short, creativity.” Correspondingly, there is an association between personality profiles of the condition and level of engagement in creative arts. Scientists postulate atypical or unusual experiences may “endow [synesthetes] with a richer knowledge base of associations” (Ward, 2008, p. 129). However, Nettle and Clegg (2006) found there is also an association between schizotypy, imagination, and artistic inclination, as well as openness to new experiences (Furnham et. al., 2004). Synesthesia is to be distinguished from metaphorical associations such as those between warm colors, major scales, and upbeat mood (Berman, 1999, p. 16). It is possible that a “weak form of synesthesia” is common to all people” (Steen, 2001, p. 203).


Another Life by Melissa McCracken
Another Life by Melissa McCracken

Art by Melissa McCracken
Art by Melissa McCracken

Accurately representing artists’ perceptions may necessitate some rule-breaking, which characterizes modern art; although it looks abstract, it is a ‘realistic’ depiction of artist’s perception (Safran, 2015). Synesthetes tend to be attracted to simple, uncomplicated, though not purely geometric shapes, their rhythm, repetition, and pure brilliance of vibrant color (Steen, 2001, p. 207). David Hockney, a contemporary British-American painter with color-sound synesthesia (chromesthesia), clearly displays vivid colors and flow of lines in a way that suggests intuitive understanding of hue (Figure 1). Considering the intentions of the artist, the viewer finds deeper meaning in what might have previously been simply a visually arresting painting. Hockney’s senses reportedly blended music, shape, color, and space, allowing music to dictate his choice of materials. As viewers, we may see the earthy greens, blues, and browns as essentially monochromatic and saturated to the point of low contrast, but Hockney doubtlessly saw an infinite variety of these three colors and felt no need to add more. The geometry of the plots of land and the way the blues smoothly soften with distance meshes well with what we see in the natural world, despite obvious distortions in the foreground.


garrowby hill painting by David Hockney
Figure 1: Garrowby Hill, David Hockney

Wassily Kandinsky, a famous artist, is a suspected synesthete. He paints abstract works that are incredibly difficult to analyze yet are aesthetically pleasing with their colors, forms, shapes, lines, angles, curves, and thickness. Two 1923 works, Circles Within a Circle (Figure 2) displays both chaos and order, while the chaotic scattering of shapes and forms of Composition VIII (Figure 3) is simultaneously irrational and intentional. The main difference is the implication of dynamic and calm, psychologically influencing the viewer. Synesthesia weaves together a rich and resonant relationship between the senses, with artists frequently reporting that certain perceptual combinations “feel right” and getting excited when associations match. Thicker, multi-colored lines and conflicting colors generate visual dissonance, but as a whole, the painting inexplicably “works.” Kandinsky believed certain colors and shapes signified emotions that could be combined to reflect the harmony of the cosmos through the circle, the most elementary and symbolic of forms, and this is particularly inherent through overlapping circles, checkered patterns, and thick lines reminiscent of beams of light (Figure 2).


Circles Within a Circle, Wassily Kandinsky
Figure 2: Circles Within a Circle, Wassily Kandinsky

Composition VIII, Wassily Kandinsky
Figure 3: Composition VIII, Wassily Kandinsky

Hallucination in Art

So far, developmental synesthesia has been discussed, but drug ingestion can also induce hearing colors and tasting sounds. Like synesthetes, those who hallucinate may be overcome by overwhelming beauty of vivid imagery, urgency to paint to express, and they reportedly often apply pure, bright colors straight from the tube (Safran, 2015). Both conditions display lack of uniformity and may involve loss of environmental boundaries (especially the emotional dimension of synesthesia), better color perception, and strangely, impaired motor perception (Safran, 2015). There is not only a scientific but also an artistic basis for this link. Klüver found recurring geometric patterns in different users, or “form constants,” including lattice patterns like checkerboards and amorphous shapes. This work also pointed to a "geometry of the mind" common to synesthesia, illusions, hallucinations, migraine auras and ordinary perceptions and can even be seen in primitive art. According to neuroscientist Richard Cytowic, a limited number of perceptual frameworks appear to be built into the nervous system. Cross-modal experiences that influence both synesthetic and psychedelic art appear to mix symbolic, associative and metaphoric efforts (Ione, 2009). Many studies of psychedelics also uncovered universals like optical and kinetic art, tendencies for the wild and explosive, and oscillation between the visible and visions to evoke change in consciousness of viewer or at least convey the user’s experience.


Psychedelic Art by Alex Grey featuring elements of birth and death
Psychedelic Art by Alex Grey

The psychedelic movement uncovered the natural human proclivity towards uncovering personal meaning in life and spiritual awakenings through exploring consciousness. In many individuals, LSD seems to confer euphoria, greater access to the unconscious, past experiences, and buried memories; precipitate ego dissolution, make thought processes fluent and flexible, intensify and widen attention to broad cosmic ideas and sharpen tiny details, increase capacity for visual imagery and fantasy, accelerate the rate of creative thought process, increase awareness of internal body processes and organs, and deepen capacity for spiritual experiences (elucidate relationship between soul and matter). It is clear that hallucinogens profoundly alter perception and subsequently sense of self. Artists that participated in Janiger’s LSD project said it changed their style and gave them new understanding of the use of color, form, light, and the way things are viewed in frame of reference, as well as insight into nature of art and aesthetic idea.

Intense psychedelic experiences may inspire focus on depiction of emotion, resulting in bolder lines and less emphasis on technical execution (Tart, 1972). Artists were more influenced by illogical, non-linear experiences. Hertel found the dominant changes were more expressionistic style, greater intensity of color and light, line, and texture (Rios, 2003), specifically alteration of boundaries between object and surroundings, movement, elimination of superficial or extraneous elements, fragmentation, and distortion. According to Barron, artists spoke of increased richness of imagery and pleasurable sensory and peak experiences, flow, sense of purpose, and connection to everything. Those that respond most intensely to LSD prefer less structure and more spontaneity, score higher on tests of aesthetic sensitivity and imaginativeness, and tend to be less competitive. Correspondingly, paintings were marked by apparent disregard for conventional structural detail; artists said they felt a greater degree of freedom and originality, self-recognition, resolution of personal and artistic difficulties, and freer thinking beyond what has been taught. Art for art’s sake attempts to express or reproduce the inner state of the artist.


rainbow vibration visionary art by alex grey depicting mother father and child
Visionary Art by Alex Grey

Schizophrenia in Art

Similar to hallucinations, schizophrenia involves loss of ego boundary. Conversely, it involves a reduction to an immediate, minimal, conscious experience of oneself. It is marked by disturbances of the minimal self and an abnormal sense of body, body ownership, and agency. Schizophrenia also enshrouds awareness of the stable sense of self, narrative, memory, personality, and body. Arnold Ludwig has asserted that mental illness contributes to artist creativity (Rustin, 2008). Artist Bryan Charnley lived with schizophrenia; his medication controlled most of his symptoms but curbed his creativity. He deliberately stopped and started medication in order to fully experience his illness and to record it in his paintings (Rustin, 2008). In the art world, the head and identity are importantly interrelated. The skull, often seen as the vessel of the soul, can’t protect against inside attack, resulting in fear of loss of self as memories fade and descend into unconsciousness.


self portrait of man with schizophrenia
Bryan Charnley self-portrait. May 18, 1991.

Charnley’s self-portrait series delineated the last 4 months of his life before his suicide in 1991. His final portrait, a swath of hues and strips of colors stranded in space and time, had no shapes or forms to communicate to the observer where self begins and ends (Figure 4). As he put aptly, “I feel I am always divided against my self by myself.” Contrary to the typical profile of schizophrenia, he displayed lucid, astute, and insightful descriptions of his internal landscape (Hur, 2014).


Bryan Charnley’s Final Self-Portrait
Figure 4: Bryan Charnley’s final portrait was still sitting on his easel upon his suicide. July 19, 1991.

Because his work is a direct expression of his inner world, he may be considered an Outsider artist, one who maintains an independent attitude in spite of societal norms, values, and mainstream culture (Rustin, 2008), similar to most psychedelic artists, in which self-expression takes precedence over fame.


Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night (Figure 5) is a shockingly realistic depiction of the phenomenon of turbulence for a man who experienced lapses of consciousness, depression, and mood swings resulting from a disorder of the auditory nerve, vertigo, and secondary psychological problems, explaining the psychotic episode that led him to cut off his own ear to silence the disturbing auditory hallucinations. His medical problems affected his life and artwork, and he painted The Starry Night while in asylum. This work is highly acclaimed and widely regarded as creative—of course, the scene is not a real place; it is a speculated blend between Provence and his home village Brabant. The stars and brushstrokes are reminiscent of religious imagery that may have been influenced by a particularly inspired state.


Starry Night, Vincent Van Gogh
Figure 5: Starry Night, Vincent Van Gogh

Historically, synesthetes have been wrongfully considered confabulators, drug users, or schizophrenics. Notably, Van Gogh was sent away by his piano teacher for relating sounds of keys to specific colors (Safran, 2015). Historically, lack of conformity and the rarity of the condition “prevented many twentieth-century scientists from taking synesthesia seriously” (Berman, 1999). As a result, synesthetes have frequently refrained from telling anyone about them for fear being called mad or a charlatan (Berman, 1999). As many artists have described, the modern-day vestige is disapproval, disbelief, and misunderstanding. Despite his unique and brilliant perceptions, stigma and isolation, as well as bizarre behaviors and thoughts all contributed to Van Gogh’s suicide, and possibly Charnley’s.


Discussion: The "Hard Problem" of Neuroscience

"What is consciousness?" is considered the "hard problem" of neuroscience. Answering this question can reveal the origins and nature of consciousness and the role of consciousness in the universe. Some people raise concern that we are pitting the material world against creativity (Cottrell, 2015) and doubt whether neuroscience is equipped to answer this huge question. Starting with "easier" questions such as, "What is perception?" and "Why/how do entheogens generate hallucinations?" and "Why/how do we sleep?" is a reasonable approach, but reductionism presents a perpetual peril. Will mapping the brain connectome with increasingly greater resolution be able to measure up to the value of individuals' diverse subjective experiences?


Understanding the brain requires interdisciplinary collaboration across science, psychology, philosophy, and art. From a panpsychism perspective, a philosophy shared by eminent professors Stuart Hameroff and Sir Roger Penrose, consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe. They argue that decision-making is a quantum computational process from which consciousness emerges, with interesting implications for identity, spontaneity, and free will.


The mind-body connection enters the domain of psychologists. We have yet to define the relationship between brain and its contents: identity, experience, beliefs, sensations, perceptions, thoughts, emotions, subconscious, unconscious, and behaviors. Interpreting perception, intuition, emotions, imagination, visions, and dreams can help puzzle the meaning of elements of the human experience.


An inner conflict arises between human desire for certainty and the spirit of curiosity. However, science need not be at odds with art or spirituality. Indeed, to unlock barriers to innovation, scientists must critically think big-picture, open their bodily channels to receive creative insight, resourcefully integrate and interpret data, and tell a compelling story to push the bounds of knowledge and expand our awareness.


Art is necessary for illuminating humanity. Creative pursuits have a therapeutic effect on humans, creating coherence, ease, and flow in the body. In fact, art therapy is a recognized tool for patients with neurological disorders. Because the content of consciousness is a fundamental feature of art, it can be used to help understand a patient's experience.


In conclusion, many cross-links exist between synesthesia, hallucinations, and psychosis in art, converging on the artist’s subjective experience, associations, awareness, interoception, perception, emotional state, morality, and concepts of social norms. This results in a tendency towards non-realistic representation (such as surrealism, expressionism, and abstract styles), and Outsider Art.


Visual elements of art may reveal innate human universals. Synesthesia and schizophrenia, both of which are considered developmental, share fear of stigma. There appears to be a conflict between the desire to be known and the fear of being misunderstood. The risk of stigma is greatest with conditions with perceived permanence. This fear is highly apparent in Bryan Charnley's art. Because the long-term effects of mind-altering drugs are unknown, psychedelic use also comes with a certain level of stigma, despite the transient nature of hallucination.


A thinning veil between the conscious and unconscious allows artists to access their intuition. This is highly apparent in synesthetic and hallucinogenic works, the creation of which often involves passion, fervor, and inspiration. Although the results are heterogeneous across the population, they share common geometric elements and sensory associations, revealing a neurological architecture for these forms of consciousness. Both synesthesia and hallucinations are associated with openness of personality and may involve cross-talk between novel parts of the brain, leading to new associations and links between seemingly unrelated concepts.


Finally, hallucinations and schizophrenia share a link through loss of self and ego death, evaporation of body ownership, and dissolution of the distinction between self and environment; however, in the case of schizophrenia, it may lead to feelings of despair and hopelessness, while psychedelics, despite their risks, are more often associated with perception of natural harmony, clarity, and connectedness with the universe.


Overall, art is a reflection of an artist’s experiences and identity. As a form of scientific data, it can point to common physiological features shared by particular conditions and states. Importantly, art uncovers universal truths about the human condition: a one-of-a-kind experience, enhanced access to the subconscious, a desire for belonging, and an inner voice that demands listening and self-actualization.


Further Reading

  • Artists

  • Synesthesia: Melissa McCracken

  • Schizophrenia: Bryan Charnley

  • Psychedelic Art: Alex Grey

  • Amnesia: Lonni Sue

  • On Panpsychism: Is Consciousness Universal? By Christoff Koch in Scientific American

  • Orch OR Theory of Quantum Vibrations in Microtubules: Elsevier Editorial

  • On the Math of Form Constants: Geometric visual hallucinations, Euclidean symmetry and the functional architecture of striate cortex: PubMed Article


References

  1. Berman, Greta. 1999. Synesthesia and the Arts.

  2. Cottrell, Barry. 2015. Only one mind: An artist’s exploration of consciousness.

  3. Grunenberg & Harris. 2005. Summer of Love: Psychedelic Art, Social Crisis and Counterculture in the 1960s. Retrieved from Google Books.

  4. Hur, Kwon, Lee, & Park. 2014. The crisis of minimal self-awareness in schizophrenia: A meta-analytic view. Retrieved from ScienceDirect.

  5. Ione, Amy. 2009. Review of exhibition – Synesthesia: Art and the Mind. Retrieved from JSTOR.

  6. Jamie Ward, Daisy Thompson-Lake, Roxanne Ely, Flora Kaminski. 2008. Synaesthesia, creativity, and art: What is the link? Retrieved from EbscoHost.

  7. Koetsch. 2011. Artists and the Mind in the 21st Century. Retrieved from PubMed.

  8. Krippner, Stanley. 1972. The psychedelic state, the hypnotic trance, and the creative act. Retrieved from drugtext.org.

  9. Rios & Janiger. 2003. LSD, Spirituality, and the Creative Process. Retrieved from Google Books.

  10. Rustin, Terry. 2008. Using artwork to understand the experience of mental illness: Mainstream artists and Outsider artists. Retrieved from PubMed.

  11. Safran & Sanda. 2015. Color synesthesia. Insight into perception, emotion, and consciousness. Retrieved from PubMed.

  12. Steen, Carol. 2001. Visions Shared: A Firsthand Look into Synesthesia and Art.

  13. The Illness of Vincent Van Gogh. Journal of History of Neurosciences. Retrieved from Lecture.

  14. Bressloff, P. C., Cowan, J. D., Golubitsky, M., Thomas, P. J., & Wiener, M. C. (2001). Geometric visual hallucinations, Euclidean symmetry and the functional architecture of striate cortex. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 356(1407), 299–330. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2000.0769

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