On the Science of Thought

“Monday Musings” for Monday June 8, 2015

Volume V. No. 23/231


Socrates “…Contemplates Bach”

Science Series Part III          


By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA, DSc (Hon)*

We have spoken of synesthesia, a wonderful phenomenon where being exposed to one set of stimuli, like reading a book or listening to a lecture, ushers in other stimuli or sets of stimuli and sensations, such as music or envisioning paintings. Synesthesia is defined as experiencing several senses when one sense is in use. These people are called synesthetes.

Several readers have written and wondered if this is a genetic, inherited and inborn attribute, naturally occurring, or could it be acquired. The answer is probably yes to both. Raising children in a rich environment of words, music, poetry, dance, discourse, reading and even arguing and intellectual disagreement will inculcate a sense of awareness and appreciation in children to realize and enjoy the expanse and abundance of life, its possibilities, and what it can offer. To that extent, you can teach a child to use their God given multiple senses as fully as possible. However, to some, synesthesia comes naturally. History is full of examples of people of note who were synesthetes. Journalist Robert Sapolsky cites ”the Russian composer, Scriabin started but never finished an orchestral work called, “Mysterium,” which was to specify different colored lights and odors at various points in the score.”  Scriabin is a prime example of an synesthete.  As an aside, we remember the late pianist Vladimir Horowitz in 1986, on his last trip to his homeland, Moscow, played Scriabin to a tumultuous and emotionally charged no-dry-eye audience. Horowitz was a personal friend and former student of Alexander Scriabin. Horowitz, too, was a synesthete. Faithful readers of this space recall last month, we applauded the scientific magazine PLOS One. A recent study published in PLOS One explains the phenomenon of “grapheme synesthesia” where letters or numbers are perceived as having color. The study concludes that the letter A evokes the color red; B, orange; C, yellow; D, green; E, blue; F, violet, repetition of these colors produces a rainbow.

Back to the question: synesthesia, genetically inherited or acquired?

I was reading or shall I say re-reading (for the umpteenth time) Plato’s Symposium. This is a recording of the dialogue between his teacher, Socrates, and in this instance, a young man named Phaedrus, a student or interlocutor of the Master, Socrates. Reading this conversation brought fresh insight and better understanding of the nature of love. As a result, it brought an exciting and different experience. As I read and re-read the speech, the conversation and the poem, learning about “soul love-agape” and not “body love-eros,” I saw the perfect symmetry, verbal counterpoint of a fugue subject, balancing sophist vs. philosopher, humanist vs. the divine; temporalist vs. eternal, rhetoric vs. dialectic, opinion vs. knowledge, appearance vs. reality, body vs. soul, esse–being vs. videri—seeming, profligacy vs. progress, parsimony vs. economy, solipsism vs. introspection; secularism vs. eschatology, licentiousness vs. liberty, idolatry vs. idealism, convenience vs. commitment, etc….,  and suddenly I saw Socrates as a conductor coming to the podium and all these speech components playing together and producing the rich and sumptuous music of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti… Oh, what a feast of verbal and musical complexity of counterpoint and beauty. What a perfect fugue subject!  It was the beautiful poetry of Plato, the engaging and satisfying philosophy of Socrates and his elenchus, the exciting and life giving music of Bach and the symphony of life, the moment, here and now, laying down the ground work for the ether of tomorrows…

I believe every child ought to be exposed to the work of Plato. Perhaps you might wish to include the collected work of Plato, all of his work, 1810 pages, as a part of your child’s birthday or Christmas gift. Also, with the present ought to go the gift of commitment that you will read the book to your child and encourage verbal dialogue and intellectual engagement with your child.


*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association; Life Member, American Medical Association; Life Member, Southern Medical Association; and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012).



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