Tele-Synaesthesia: the Telematic Future of the Senses
by Dr. Hugo Heyrman

"Art & Computers: an exploratory investigation on the digital transformation of art."
Doctoral thesis, Universidad de La Laguna, Santa Cruz de Tenerife, 1995.

Lecture at the Royal Academy of Science, Letters and Fine Arts of Belgium.
Department of Fine Arts, on December 17th 1997, Palace of the Academies, Brussels.

Published in 'Cyber Flux News', July 1997, and in the 'Encyclopedia of Postmodernism',
Victor E. Taylor, Charles E. Winquist, London and New York, Routledge, 2001.

Synopsis: The new media and the Internet enable us to experience different kinds of information which are of a specifically telematic nature and for this reason effectively differ from the usual forms of communication. By linking the concepts tele and synaesthesia to each other, we deal with the fact that the transmission of data creates a synaesthetic effect: tele-synaesthesia, synesthetes are in some sense, people of the future. At the end of the 20th century, the practicable units of time have become digitalised, magnified, and incredibly accelerated. The modalities of our sensorial perception become interactive by means of electronic mechanisms of control and selection. A tele-culture is emerging, subjecting both the perceptual and the conceptual to —strictly speaking— continuous revision.
Keywords: Synaesthesia, Telecommunication, Multimedia, New Media, Sensorial experience,, Interactive art, Internet, Cyberspace, Tele-culture, Telematic culture.

"The computer is a spiritual machine" —UMBERTO ECO

In the course this lecture, we propose the formulation of a hypothesis: namely tele-synaesthesia. Synaesthesia is derived from the Greek words 'syn'(together) and 'aisthèsis' (perception). Up to a certain degree, everybody is slightly synaesthetic (to perceive = synaesthetic and synoptical). Synaesthesia is a sensorial faculty which refers to a blurring of the normal differences and borders between the senses: image and sound intermingle, at times feeling and taste intermix, in short: all sensorial interrelations are possible. Tele (also derived from the Greek) stands for 'far' and for occurring at great distance. The hypothesis we are testing here boils down to the following assessment: our consciousness, our body and senses will be confronted with new experiences, with synaesthetic qualities that are instantaneous and —above all— multi-sensorial as a result of the new media (the proliferation of informatics and of knowledge).

"The content of a medium is the previous medium", Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) wrote. A necessary consequence of this principle entails the fact that a person who searches for a deeper inner meaning is bound to invariably end up with the previous medium:

  In the case of writing, this means speech.
  In the case of photography this would be painting and the graphic arts.
  For the radio, it is both the narrative and concerts.
  For film, it is both photography and theater.
  For interactive media, this would be opera, theater, film, television and the 'Gesamtkunstwerk' (total work of art).

At present, the concept of synaesthesia is connected with the time-honored notion of the 'Gesamtkunstwerk', the category of the theatrical, the attack on the sensorium commune (the central point of convergence of the nervous system).  We know that one stimulation of the senses automatically leads to another by means of association.  Therefore, synaesthesia is an important factor in every creative act and each form of interpretation. The same goes for mediums, but, in this case, it takes place on a meta-level: Cybermedia. They blur the boundaries between internal and external spaces (a quintessential point of this concise thesis, is the postulate that this blurring of boundaries can be considered as a question of subtle synaesthetic graduations) and, because of the blurring of differences (between what is here and what is there), our senses become tele-senses. Virtual worlds have already emerged in a great many divergent domains. As of yet, one could find applications in the field of the arts, scientific visualisation, virtual universities, cinematographic animation and simulation, teleconferencing, tele-jobs, virtual voyaging, virtual museums, virtual sports, virtual robots, teleshopping, tele-medicine, tele-studying and the like. Virtual reality does not only make the inconceivable quite conceivable, but equally makes it functional. The latter in order to demonstrate that these new media do in fact bring about a synaesthetic effect.

M. McLuhan and B.R. Powers offer an explanation for this phenomenon in their publication: Global Village: "If man is able to transpose the workings of his central nervous system into electronic circuits, he will be on the brink of externalizing his consciousness in the computer. One could conceive of consciousness as a projection of internal synaesthesia towards the outside world, which in general coincides with the traditional description of common sense. Common sense is this specific human ability to translate one particular kind of experience towards all other senses and to present the result of this process as one global mental image." [1]

Which are the telematic and synaesthetic characteristics of digital art? Stricto sensu, the very term of Cyber art (interactive art, digital art and/or is a provocation in and of itself. For, in general, art is defined as craftsmanship, spontaneous, honest, original, etc., but, by the same token, these very descriptions are at the same time predisposition's against the computer as a machine. One thing has become clear, however, the changing relationship between art and computer technology reveals itself as a permanent creative challenge. Quite relevant to digital art is the possibility and the potential of worldwide diffusion via the WWW (World Wide Web). At the same time, interactive art implies embarking on an adventurous journey and exploring immaterial spaces. By browsing and freely navigating through Cyberspace, virtual worlds are within reach. Experiencing the world by means of computer technology; to see, hear, feel and interact and to share these experiences with others is the very essence of Virtual Reality (VR). And, at the same time, this entails that by means of the inter-media, and especially via VR, age-old dreams of artist about synaesthesia’ resurface... and become true. In this context, we speak about:

Optimising the modalities of experience

By synchronising images, sound, movement and haptic experiences, electronic media are able to bring about the intermingling and fusion of one medium into another, resulting in making colours audible, visualising sound and making words palpable. Consequently, by being on-line, one is in extenso connected with each other (in 'real time') by means of image, sound and touch/feeling. Cyberspace is a collective mental environment/ambient indeed.

This leads us to the point where we can reflect in some more detail upon the impact and the consequences of the thesis of tele-synaesthesia we established above:

  Interactive multimedia and electronic networks create uncharted possibilities of interconnection, thus enabling us to expand the reach of our sensorial perception.
  The new interactive relationship between consciousness, body, senses and our techno-culture consists within and of the human experience as a purposeful subject/object that can be designed as a virtual body.
  It is the start of the exploratory expedition of the (enhanced, extended) human senses (tele-senses) in cyberspace; consequently, tele-synaesthesia will constitute a new global challenge.

In his publication "The Unity of the Senses: Interrelations among the Modalities", L. E. Marks of Yale University states that: "Synesthesia serves as a means to unify different forms of art by means of a psychological unity of the senses. Since synesthesia refers to the transmission of qualities from one area of the senses to another, to the transposition of text into sound, or of sound into colour, odour or taste... and since the different artistic disciplines, poetry, painting, sculpture, music and dance are all based on appealing to different senses, synesthesia brings about connections between these senses and can equally reveal resemblance's and analogies as it can point at resemblances or differences between artistic disciplines." [2]

It is apparent that we can retrace synaesthesia in all artistic disciplines. In keeping with these considerations, we can establish and confirm that synaesthesia has always constituted a basic principle underlying all aesthetic experience of art.  With the emergence of new media, however, the very concept of art itself has become tele-transmittable, extensive and responsive, as cybernetic space offers a new type of perspective: telecontact and interaction. The dissolution of the familiar time and space coordinates leads us into a virtual world. We experience a return to the assessment of being totally unprepared, a condition which implies that both the perceptual and the conceptual are, strictly speaking, subject to continuous modification. This leads us to a first formulation of our thesis:

  Tele-synaesthesia: virtual interactions between the tele-senses, developed by means of new technological means in order to overcome the constraints of the human senses.

Tele-synaesthetic experiences are important explorations as they offer us a better insight in the nature of both our natural senses and of our electronically empowered/enhanced senses. Indeed, our senses constitute our most vital source of information with regard to sensorial adaptation to the ambient surrounding, as we can deduce from the underneath table:

Receptors of the human senses [3]
Type: number of receptors:
Vision . . . . . . . . . . . .


Smell . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10.000.000
Taste . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10.000.000
Pressure . . . . . . . . . . . 500.000
Pain . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 300.000
Cold . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 100.000
Hearing. . . . . . . . . . . . 35.000
Warmth . . . . . . . . . . . . 10.000

As opposed to this table, Sean A. Day of the National Central University of Taiwan, points out that the senses are usually (more or less) classified according to their importance; from the least to the most important this would give: Smell - Taste - Touch - Hearing - Vision. [4]

In his publication "Synesthesia: A Union of the Senses", the American neurologist Richard E. Cytowic states his definition of synaesthesia: "The word synesthesia means common sensations. To begin with, perception is not a linear process. Information is not only being processed into the brain, but rather into the entire body as a whole. It is a sort of trunk, of radix, in which all sensations originate... It is the very seed that spawns sensations." [5]

In the above, Cytowic concludes that synaesthesia is part of the multiplex model of the brain. According to him, natural synaesthesia might be some sort of fossil cognitive remnant, a condition in which corrections and rectification's are being hindered and hampered and in which sensation consequently stands closer to what the essence of perception means.

With regard to our hypothesis, we can deduce from the above that perception is contextual in its inceptive stage and that this content can be considered as an activity. The quintessential difference between natural synaesthesia and tele-synaesthesia lies with the fact that electronic media are extensions of ourself, allowing for synchronisation and corrective interventions, thus bringing about a change/modification of our sensorial system and conceptions. In this respect, a processual, interactive approach to reality can be directive, since meaning is not a static data, but rather a type of activity.

This leads us to the last argument to buttress our thesis. In the opinion of the philosopher and phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1907-1961), synaesthesia stood for: the natural way of perceiving the world. In his Phenomenology of Perception, he wrote: "Synaesthetic perception is the rule, and we are unaware of this fact for the sole reason that scientific knowledge shifts and displaces the epicenter of our experiences, in such manner that we have been conditioned not to see or to hear any longer, or to feel in general anymore." [6]

We have assessed that the hypothesis of tele-synaesthesia is based on the fact that synaesthesia is a natural uninhibited impulse-condition of the senses and of intelligence: the very fundamental principle that underlies our aesthetic sensations. Synesthetes are in some sense, people of the future. The hypothesis consists of this; a new kind of digital telecontact emerges: tele-synaesthesia -- it is as if Einstein and Magritte were to meet each other in a virtual environment. These are advanced applications of new types of human experience. And the digital (r)evolution continues: hyper-networks result from the fusion of telecommunication with multimedia. We are witnessing a process of continuous technological integration, such as for instance Fuzzy Logic (vague, blurred logic) [7], and Artificial Intelligence (AI). [8] We could summarise the tele-synaesthesia hypothesis as follows:

  Tele-synaesthesia is the synaesthetic principle that is expanded and extended by means of the new media: the traveling senses.
  Tele-transmission of images, texts, sounds, data, graphic and of other types of signals (tele-haptic experiences, speech recognition and emotional computers are at present being developed).

In closing, we could conclude that all media become synaesthetic media, and that Cybernetic time is the most innovating component in this process. It is a dynamic meta-medium with relevant dimensions and perspectives in Tele-culture. And here, we touch upon the very core of the issue at stake: the process of digitalisation and of virtualisation changes our conception of time at a fast pace. In the not-too-distant future, we will increasingly inhabit a virtual environment in tele-synaesthetic and immaterial fashion. This raises the question: "In how far are we prepared for this?" As a society, how shall we learn the art and acquire the raison d'être for living together in a virtual multiversum ?"

What we aspire to is a human(e) world with optimum quality information, communication and quality experience, which will enhance our abilities to make better choices. In this way -- and linked with an alert self-awareness and sense of responsibility —the digital era will be able to optimise the quality of our life. And this future is already with us; only, it has not been distributed and divulged to just proportions, as of yet.

In the final instance, we need to be aware of the need for and necessity of a vision, for critical reflection and a clear insight into these ultra-rapid developments. The dictum that living equals growing is of the greatest importance for the fields of art and of technology; in other words, the sole limitations to scientific and artistic research are the boundaries of our dreams and of our imagination.

—Dr. Hugo Heyrman,
PhD, in Art sciences,
painter, new media researcher
professor, Royal Academy for Fine Arts
Antwerp - Belgium

[1] McLUHAN, M. & POWERS, B.R., The Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century, Oxford, University Press, 1989, p. 94.
[2] MARKS, L.E., The Unity of the Senses: Interrelations among the Modalities, New York, Academic Press, 1978, p. 427.
[3] FEENSTRA, L. & BEYER, N.H.H. & FOCK, R.O., Waarnemen, Uitgeverij Boom, Meppel en Amsterdam, 1989, p. 12.
[4] DAY, S.A., Synaesthesia Across Cultures, Lecture at the first ASA (American Synaesthesia Association) Convention, April 5th 1997, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA.
[5] MORGAN, Jas, Sensory Overmode, Interview with Richard E. Cytowic, M.D., Mondo 2000, Berkeley, in MegaMedia, 1994, n. 12, pp. 77-86.
[6] MERLEAU-PONTY, M., Phenomenology of Perception, translated by Colin Smith, London, The Humanities Press, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1989, p. 229.
[7] Fuzzy Logic is a type of technology that enables computers to be programmed in such a way that they can simulate/imitate the inaccurate, imprecise manner of humans.
[8] The notorious Belgian Pattie Maes (Associate Professor, MIT Media Laboratory) developed a new form of cloning: virtual software agents which are able to defend your personal desires and interests in Cyberspace. They constitute a sort of digital alter ego which can act in your name, as well as it can protect you against yourself.  

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