Holcombe, A.O., Over, H. J., & Altschuler, E.L. (2007). Old roots of a theory of synesthesia in Rousseau's Emile and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Society for Neuroscience, San Diego, California.

Abstract

Although for most of us, the sensory modalities seem distinct and unconnected, synesthesia shows in a fascinating fashion that in some, at least, they are intertwined. The recent growth of synesthesia research has led to renewed interest in the hypothesis, articulated by Maurer and Maurer in 1988 (1), that we all begin life as synesthetes; developmental pruning of neural connections eventually yielding more segregated senses. Apparently unrecognized in the literature are the roots of this idea in the Age of Enlightenment. Rousseau, describing his theory of development in 1762, hypothesized that if "a child had at its birth the stature and strength of a man, that he had entered life full grown like Pallas from the brain of Jupiter... all his sensations would be united in one place, they would exist only in the common 'sensorium'." (2) Five decades later, Mary Shelley brought the idea into popular literature, with the humanlike creature of Frankenstein describing his birth thus: “It is with considerable difficulty that I remember the original era of my being: all the events of that period appear confused and indistinct. A strange multiplicity of sensations seized me, and I saw, felt, heard, and smelt, at the same time; and it was, indeed, a long time before I learned to distinguish between the operations of my various senses." (3) After so long ago inspiring both philosophy and literature, this idea is finally becoming testable, thanks to the rise of the neurosciences.
1. Maurer, D. & Maurer, C. (1988). The World of the Newborn. New York: Basic Books.
2. Rousseau J-J. (1762). Emile, Book 1, Section 138.
3. Shelley MW. (1818). Frankenstein, Ch.11.

Lay-language summary for press book

The present decade has seen a resurgence of scientific investigation of synesthesia. Synesthesia is a perceptual phenomenon whereby for some people, stimulation of one sense can evoke perceptual experience in another. For example, in colored-hearing synesthetes listening to a particular tone can evoke the experience of a certain color. In one colored-hearing synesthete, the C note might cause them to see blue, and the D note might evoke red. Other forms of synesthesia also exist that link sensory modalities in other ways, such as words with tastes, letters and numbers with colors, and tones with smells. Of course, non-synesthestes also have associations between things like numbers and colors but non-synesthetes do not actually see the associated color if it is not physically present. Synesthesia provides the opportunity to study a real merging of the senses, and may provide clues to how the senses cooperate in normal functioning. Currently the reason that some people are synesthetic is unknown, and the neural mechanisms are only beginning to be explored. One theory, which has been attributed to Daphne Maurer, is that all of us begin life as synesthetes, with the functioning of our different senses intertwined or merged. According to this theory, all infants experience some form of synesthesia due to an excess of connections between brain areas which subsequently are pruned, leading to the cessation of synesthesia for most people. This theory of early integration of the senses has long historical roots that extend into the Age of Enlightenment, although this seems to be unrecognized in the recent scientific literature. Enlightenment philosophers, in their aim to understand what is possible for human societies, were concerned with the "natural state of man" before a person is influenced by culture and civilization. In 1762, Jean-Jacques Rousseau described his theory of development in the important book Emile and suggested that at birth, the senses were merged: if "a child had at its birth the stature and strength of a man, that he had entered life full grown like Pallas from the brain of Jupiter... all his sensations would be united in one place, they would exist only in the common 'sensorium'." The emerging speculation about human nature at the beginnings of life, exemplified by Rousseau, was exciting for many, including Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. Mary Shelley, only 19 when she wrote Frankenstein, was quite familiar with Rousseau; indeed her mother wrote a famous treatise condemning Roussea's attitudes towards women as articulated in Emile. Mary, in contrast, appreciated Rousseau's ideas so much that they guided her concept of Frankenstein's creature. The dramatic creation of a new being provided a showcase for Shelley to mirror Rousseau's ideas about the natural state of man. The aspect of this relevant to present theories of synesthesia is articulated by the creature when describing his first experiences: "It is with considerable difficulty that I remember the original era of my being: all the events of that period appear confused and indistinct. A strange multiplicity of sensations seized me, and I saw, felt, heard, and smelt, at the same time; and it was, indeed, a long time before I learned to distinguish between the operations of my various senses." Both this idea and Rousseau's are similar to the modern theory that synesthesia reflects a merging of the senses early on before they largely separate. Now, after so long ago inspiring both philosophy and literature, this idea is finally becoming testable, thanks to the rise of the neurosciences.

Other early neuroscientific ideas also appear to have influenced Shelley. The concept of animating a nonliving entity may have reflected the work on neuromuscular function during the decades before the novel was written. The first experiments showing that electricity could evoke muscle contractions in animals had been done, and Galvani in Italy even passed electrical current through the heads of decapitated criminals and evoked facial grimaces. Reanimation of the dead might be possible, it seemed, and Mary Shelley reacted by producing a timeless novel exploring intimately related themes of human nature, science, and ethics. Nearly two hundred years later, neuroscientists today have yet to create a creature like Frankenstein's, but their advances continue to inspire awe, raise new ethical issues, and provide insights into human nature. We’ll need many more Mary Shelleys if literary and mainstream society is not to be outrun by neuroscience.

References
Maurer D & Maurer C (1988). The World of the Newborn. New York: Basic Books. Rousseau J-J (1762). Emile, Book 1, Section 138.
Shelley MW (1818). Frankenstein.
Kaplan PW (2002). The real Dr Frankenstein: Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein? Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 95(11):577-578
Goulding C (2002). The real Doctor Frankenstein? Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 95(5):257-9.


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