Ideasthesia – Art, Genius, Insanity, and Semiotics

Is it possible to feel an idea? Is it possible that rational thought and emotive, sensory, or otherwise phenomenological experiences are tied together?

I think this is an important question to ask because so much of what is dictated by culture seems to separate these two modes of experiencing the world around us. We tend to believe that the hyper-rational, Apollonian, Sherlock Holmes-types are at odds with the hyper-emotional, Dionysian, you’ve-got-to-feeeel-it-man types. In some sense, this was shattered by our understanding of synesthesia, the psychological phenomenon of experiencing physiologically abstractions.

So a synesthete would experience the letter ‘A’ as red (actually one of the more common synesthesia experiences). Note, this isn’t just imagining or associating the letter ‘A’ with the color red, this is when a person with this ability actually sees every letter ‘A’ as a vivid, clear-as-blood red. They would assume it was you accidentally leaving a highlighted letter in word document, or actually hearing a sharp, tinny sound every time they saw a thin, clear line.

This is a pretty cool little psychological fact, but it is taken one step further by the notion of ideasthesia – that one can feel or physically experience an idea. Instead of a letter or a sound or a single word as being physically felt, an entire idea or construct or abstract is experienced phenomenologically.

But this seems abstract in and of itself, right? Like, what would it mean to ‘feel’ an idea? The classic example, linked to here, would be to imagine two shapes. One is a curvy splatter, kind of like the old 90s Nickelodeon logo, and the other is an angular, jagged, pointy sort of shape. Which would you call Kiki and which would you call Bouba?

An overwhelming majority (95% according to one source) would say that the splatter is Bouba and the pointy thing is Kiki. But why though? Bouba and Kiki are random sounds, absolutely meaningless and the figures were similarly meaningless. Some contend that it is a linguistic effect, since ‘K’ is an angular letter and ‘B’ is more rounded. Yet, there seems to be a consensus on which is which, even cross-culturally to some extent. Because just the idea of the pointy shape feels like a Kiki and the blobbier shape feels like a Bouba.

Another way I think it is felt is when we talk about highly polarizing topics, often political or religious in nature. In the podcast You Are Not So Smart, David McRaney talks about being confronted with a differing view point as having a gut-wrenching, physically effect on him. Researchers pointed out that the feeling is so strong that it actually elicits a fight-or-flight response.

But it’s just words, right? It’s not like someone saying “I don’t believe in universal healthcare” or “You should have the right to pull the plug in a coma” actually makes it so, or will cause it to happen to you. It is simply one person’s thought, so why does it trigger such a deep-seated emotion? The researchers in the episode hypothesize that the core ideas are related to you identity which is being threatened, but I think the explanation is somewhat simpler and stranger. It’s because the ideas actually feel dangerous to you. This is why what feels perfectly rational to you feels irrational to others.

It also makes more sense when talking about geniuses or highly gifted individuals. Although they exist, Dr. House-type hyper-rational savants aren’t usually what you hear about when you look at the biographies of highly intelligent or gifted peoples. Da Vinci, Goethe, Tesla, Einstein and others all seem to describe an intensely phenomenological approach to creating their works. Even in what is traditionally considered to be more rational pursuits, like math, have occasional introspective debates about whether string theory or higher order mathematics is created or discovered. The seems like a question about whether one feels out a thought or collects and constructs evidence to make a case.

What’s more is that, while I think most people can feel an idea to some extent (kiki vs bouba), gifted peoples and geniuses are more sensitive to these ideas and can thus navigate it better. Sensitivity seems to really be the hallmark of gifted individuals, so much so that I remember reading about how some gifted students have to wear special socks because the inner stitching is too distracting.

I remember when I was younger (around elementary school) there was a girl who was in our schools gifted program who everyone could not stand. She seemed to have a hairline trigger and would snap at just about anything. I realize now that she was simply incredible sensitive to other children and didn’t really know how to handle it maturely. I can imagine if this sort of sensitivity applied to ideas and thought processes might actually be a huge reason why geniuses can handle seemingly large and complex thoughts that are a struggle for the rest of us – they aren’t just thinking through it, they are also feeling their way through it.

It may offer insight into the oft-observed correlation between madness and intellect. Maybe that’s what’s really going on in schizophrenia. It’s not just a disconnect of thoughts, but an oversensitivity to the ideas that breed those thoughts that elicits instinctive, reactionary emotions much like our fight-or-flight responses to polarizing thoughts. The hallucinations are another manifestation of the weaker sensory experience of benign symbols and thoughts.

Not all is doom and gloom however. I think one positive insight that this offers is another way to educate children. With more research, we may be able to help children feels their way around abstract ideas and concepts. This is somewhat, in a roundabout way, attempted by Bret Victor and other similar programmers who wish to show how intuitive math can be. Teaching that one has to be a hyper-rational Vulcan in order to be a smart STEM major might actually be dissuading very capable children from pursuing a degree in math or physics or computer science.

It also has positive implications in theories of art as well. I was talking with a friend of mine who double-majored in art and math and we were talking about how the two seemed incongruent. I was talking about how engineering seemed to kill any artist ambition I once had (I used to want to be an art major, but I took engineering to be ‘practical’, ugh) and my friend was worried that the same thing would happen to her. We also spoke about how it seems more common to hear about engineers who become artists than artist who become engineers.

The flip side is when you hear scientists talk about how research is a form of art. But I find it hard to believe anyone, least of all actual scientists, would accept art as a science. In reality though, ideasthesia seems to indicate that the ‘art’ of research that scientists refer to and what we traditionally perceive as art is actually the same method of feeling out an idea.

And we should also note that our modern separation of the two is a recent phenomenon. In the ancient Islamic empire, music was actually considered a science because it was the careful measure of frequencies, arranged to rhythm according to seemingly inviolable rules (such as the circle of fifths). We might do better to view accept that art and science can be one and leads to greater fulfillment.

Robert Pirsig suggests as such in the much-acclaimed Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, where he lays out the ‘Metaphysics of Quality’, his personal philosophy of a ‘romantic’ worldview and a ‘classical’ worldview in combination will yield ‘Quality’ or what we would define as good. Experiencing ‘Quality’ has been called many things, including Zen, Nirvana, and more recently ‘Flow’.

When I wrote previously about Icons and Idols, I mentioned briefly (I believe) about imbuing objects with meaning. I don’t know how that manifests in everyone, but that’s how it manifests for me – think zen-like feeling of balance and serenity, where I know exactly what I’m working on and how to handle it, even if it is a totally abstract idea like making an engineering drawing or writing a blog post.

I wish everyone could experience at least once a deep, full experience of ideasthesia.


2 thoughts on “Ideasthesia – Art, Genius, Insanity, and Semiotics

  1. Very interesting. A biology grad student commented off-hand that he had more respect for the sciences than the humanities. I bit my tongue, because I figured he might not have had enough experience with the humanities to realize its flexibility and value, nor how scientific it can actually get.

    I have a question for you. Do you think an education in the sciences followed by a career in the arts is more of a waste of a seat in a classroom than an education in the arts followed by a career in the sciences? In terms of “use” of the education (direct or otherwise).


    1. Thanks for the comment! I don’t really know how to answer your question. I don’t really think any education is a “waste” in any sense. The obvious example would be Steve Jobs, in a commencement speech he gave before he passed. At one point early in his life he audited classes based purely on interest and one of those classes was Calligraphy. He claimed that if never attended that class, the Mac would never have had the fonts and lettering that he supposed put a great deal of time into and arguably contributed to the success of the Mac. That is an outlier case of how an art seat ‘wasted’ would have been more of a loss than a science seat ‘wasted’, I suppose.

      I guess no then. Part of the thinking goes that if someone spent four years studying engineering and then becomes an actor, you might be tempted to say “Why is he doing something so frivolous as acting when he could be making something useful for society?” but I have a lot of issues with that thought.

      1) the actor owes you nothing and owes himself everything,
      2) It’s his life and he has rights on himself he should fulfill
      3) smells like exploitative greed rather than genuine interest in societal or personal fulfillment (although that could be me casting aspersions)
      4) As an engineer, I can tell you for a fact that a lot of engineers/technical people are deadweight and don’t “contribute”
      5) What’s “frivolous” is point of view – If music is frivolous, then HR is downright corrosive to society

      and I could actually go on. But I will stress again, the is no such thing as lost or wasted education. All knowledge can be useful, given the right time and opportunity. Sorry for the lengthy answer, haha


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