Reply to Gazzaniga

Richard E. Cytowic MD p00907 at psilink.com
Tue Dec 7 10:21:26 EST 1993


BACKGROUND:
	The %New York Times Book Review% published Michael
Gazzaniga's singularly uninformed and wildly
misrepresentative "review" of my second book on synesthesia.

 	Readers' (irate) responses were recently published.

	My reply to the Times, and Gazzaniga, follows:
	--------------------------------------------

	I must respond to Michael Gazzaniga's inaccuracies and
misrepresentations regarding The Man Who Tasted Shapes
(10/24). 

	First, synesthesia occurs in approximately one in a
hundred thousand individuals, not one in a million as he
erroneously states. He could have mentioned that it is three
times more common in women than men, that a considerable
segment of synesthetes are left-handed, that it runs in
families (including that of Vladimir Nabokov), or that,
despite its rich albeit old literature extending back two
centuries, modern neurologists had neglected synesthesia
until the appearance of my 1989 textbook. Rather than
discuss substantive issues or what this fascinating
experience means to the rest of us, Gazzaniga instead
elected to paint me as "sophomoric," a mere "clinician" who
is clueless as to research going on in such hallowed halls
as Gazzaniga's own academy. This dismissal is both
convenient and lazy.

	I adore clever insults, while gratuitous ones fail to
amuse. Your gentle readers should know that I am recognized
by my peers as the world's authority on synesthesia. The Man
Who Tasted Shapes tells the story of synesthesia in a more
personal way than the earlier text that I wrote for
scientists. I am puzzled that he recommends it only "if you
don't care about the substantive aspects of synesthesia."
Since mine are the only books on it ever written in English,
where else does the professor suggest that interested folks
turn?

	What Gazzaniga dismisses as "bad science" was first
published in peer-reviewed journals, and then subsequently
after comparable editorial review. You will find me in Who's
Who in the World, Who's Who in Science and Engineering, and
on the editorial boards of two brain journals, executing the
kind of informed critique that Gazzaniga could have offered
your readers. He ventures and passes judgement in an area in
which he is stupendously uninformed, thus neither objective
nor entitled to an opinion. As for the charge that I'm a bad
writer, I suppose the New York Times Magazine was wrong in
asking me to write the cover story about James Brady's brain
injury, not to mention those who nominated it for the
Pulitzer Prize. I wonder if Gazzaniga knew that the American
Association for the Advancement of Science uses my current
chapters that explain the "standard" and "new" models of how
the brain works as guides in their Science + Literacy
project?

	Gazzaniga first botches the definition of synesthesia,
surely a simple task. Just as the word anesthesia means "no
sensation," so synesthesia means "joined sensation" in which
one sense involuntary evokes another. Sometimes all five
clash together. A synesthete might describe the color,
shape, and feel of someone's voice. Or, seeing the color
red, one might detect the "scent" of red as well.
Gazzaniga's claim that synesthetes "hear sudden sounds (not
thunder) when they see lightning bolts" is false. Five
senses have ten possible pairings. Synesthetic relationships
usually operate in only one direction, however, yielding
twenty possible permutations. Yet some senses participate
far more frequently than others in synesthetic blendings. To
persons with colored hearing, for example, speech and music
are not only heard but also a mlange of color, shapes,
movement, scintillation, and brightness. So, it is common
for sound to induce visual photisms, but, as the living
authority, I have never encountered a reverse case of sight
inducing sound as Gazzaniga describes.

	His next mistake, hurtful to those who have
synesthesia, is calling it a "disorder." While high-tech
probes by myself a decade ago and by British researchers
just recently show that synesthetic brains are
physiologically different than nonsynesthetic ones, I have
never considered it a disorder in the usual sense. Indeed,
those blessed with synesthesia would not give it up for
anything in the world, even when embarrassed or ridiculed by
hard-nosed scientists.

	In his fourth and most egregious traduction Gazzaniga
states that "the main idea" of my book is that "these
bizarrely combined sensations are caused by a convergence .
. . of the senses in the brain." To believe this is to
assent to the very linear, localized, and hierarchical model
of brain organization that I take pains, in an entire
chapter, to clarify as pass. While that model was useful
thirty years ago, it unfortunately remains the one with
which most people are familiar.

	It turns out that our brains are not at all passive
receivers of the energy flux that bombards us, as outmoded
models have led us to believe. Instead, contemporary models
show that brains are active explorers in seeking out the
stimuli that interest them. The various senses separate out
as perception unfolds from inside our brains outwards into
the world. The holistic experience of synesthesia is a
%normal brain process% prematurely displayed in a handful of
people; in the rest of us it remains unconscious. Facts like
these turn upside down commonly-held assumptions about how
our minds normally process the world. 
	
	Gazzaniga then puts words in my mouth by attributing
that "Dr. Cytowic also believes the existence of synesthesia
is conclusive evidence that emotions play an important role
in human life." I do not. That emotion plays an important
role in human life is obvious to all who pause to reflect on
everyday experience. One hardly needs to examine synesthesia
to see what is plainly evident. Thus, declaring "a
neurologist says a rare brain disorder proves that humans
are irrational beings through and through," is detractive.
What I do discuss and unambiguously label as an
%implication% of synesthesia is how non-verbal processes of
the limbic brain, which we sometimes call "inner knowledge,"
often play a decisive role both in how we think and how we
act. This view is opposed to the common notion that we are
highly rational animals with computers in our head that make
reasoned decisions. Christopher Cherniak's Minimal
Rationality proves the obvious--that humans are mostly
irrational. Synesthesia confirms Cherniak's conclusions, but
doesn't itself prove cause and effect as Gazzaniga has me
saying. 

	The point of my book is how readily all of us reject
direct experience and how intensely we identify with the
rational and the external--precisely the parochial world of
experts that Gazzaniga inhabits. The question is whether his
missing the point is deliberate or just spectacular
ineptitude. Readers of all ages have had no trouble grasping
that synesthesia is the dive, while "the main idea" is the
bigger ocean into which I plunge with the reader. As Oliver
Sacks put it, "I do think it amazing how you have used what
might seem to be a tiny or unimportant subject to provide a
peephole into so much of the brain and mind." 

	For a scientist like me to say that we are more
emotional than rational is to confirm what humanists have
long been shouting. That such an assertion disturbs some
people (especially you-know-who) indicates how culturally
addicted we are to "objective" and "scientific" points of
view. To those who ask if machine tests have verified that
synesthesia is "real," I reply, "Real to whom? To you or to
those who experience it?" The reluctance to accept
subjective experience without some technological
confirmation shows how ready we are to reject any first-hand
experience. Our insistence on a third-person, "objective"
understanding of the world has swept aside all other forms
of knowledge.

	For example, in the course of studying Michael Watson,
the man of my book's title whose senses of taste, touch, and
smell merged, we came to a point of using rather
sophisticated technology when Michael became frightened, not
that we might uncover some medical abnormality, but because
a machine might prove that his synesthesia wasn't real. He
was ready to accept the judgement of a machine over his
lifetime of first-hand experience. Synesthetic experience is
of course differentiated even though qualitatively different
from our own. Yet Gazzaniga has me claim that all humans are
"steeped in pure, undifferentiated experience." Absurd.

	Now Gazzaniga notes that "synesthesia itself is quite
rare," while "the idea" that the senses "converge in common
brain structures" (there he goes again!) is being hotly
pursued in the lab. Yet inexplicably I have "not mention(ed)
a word of it," he scolds. The impression is that the
professor has caught me with my pants down. Your readers
will not easily know that the idea of sensory convergence is
wildly disparate from the experience of synesthesia. The
phenomenal quality of ordinary cross-sensory associations
(e.g., recognizing a bowling ball by its sound or touch
rather than by sight) and the experience of synesthesia are
worlds apart, yet Gazzaniga conflates the two concepts. He
can paint me as a buffoon only because readers won't know
that he is talking apples and oranges. 

	Gazzaniga's reference to Aristotle is so taken out of
context that an apology is in order. I am appalled that he
should pervert it as my leaving readers "with the
impression" that "basic research derives from high-flown
discussions," that this is where I got my "idea about the
sensory structures in the brain," and, worst of all, "that
is how science works."

	His distortion seems reckless given that I offer the
anecdote of how Aristotelian common sensibles came to mind
while I was painting the ceiling as a glimpse of what goes
on in any creative mind. It shows how creative people are
always thinking about a problem, thus maximizing the
likelihood that any chance occurrence will be useful. My
insight while painting the ceiling is no different from
Kekule's "benzene" dream about snakes biting their own
tails, or Donald Glaser's insight, while watching the
bubbles rise through his beer, that invisible subatomic
particles could be detected by the bubble trail they left
when passing through a liquid.

	Despite what we so often see in popular media, science
is much more than machines and "doing things." Since the act
of thinking is neither sexy nor sufficiently visual, the
media focuses on externals and too often leaves the
impression that technology is used for fishing expeditions.
This is especially true in medicine--let's get some tests
and see what comes back instead of thinking through a
diagnosis. Where the word diagnosis, meaning "through
knowledge," once referred to the physician's knowledge of
both human body and spirit, it now means a deferral to the
machine. Gazzaniga apparently believes only in technical
tour de force; I say that knowledge and ideas must always
precede experiment and its accompanying technology.

					***
	
	So much for the facts that aren't facts. The Man Who
Tasted Shapes unclothes a narrowness and remarkable lack of
curiosity among many supposed "experts." This nakedness
understandably upsets them, even though my demonstration is
calm and clearly reasoned. So it is the content of my
revelation, and not its form, that disturbs. I don't mind
substantive criticism in return, though objectivists can
rarely restrain their passion because they are so
emotionally attached to their position and, most of all, to
being right. 

	Although I do not know Gazzaniga personally, former
colleagues say that he is ultimately too clever by half in
writing like a politician, selling what sells at the time.
It's like running a pig farm for thirty years while claiming
that you were going to be a ballerina. By that time, pigs
are your style. In his October 24 review, for example, he
berates me for painting a big picture of the human mind
rather than recounting the details of "basic research." Yet
a month earlier, in the September 24 issue of Science, he
writes, "Some little experiment looking at an effect that's
isolated from the total functional story of the mind just
won't cut it anymore." Which way does he want it?

	Though known to take different sides of an argument,
cognitive scientists like Gazzaniga who lack experience in
either clinical medicine or the biologic roots of
neuroscience have their most vested interest in the argument
that the brain is a computer, the mind some abstract
program. This idea is extremely attractive to people who
think theoretically because it liberates them from having to
learn the biological complexities of neural tissue. I argue
that humankind can go no further based upon our popular
concepts of the mind as a machine. What I offer Gazzaniga,
and what he refuses, is a lifting of that barrier. 

	The ivory tower from which "the beauty of modern
knowledge" flows does not filter out inanity, by the way.
Gazzaniga believes, for example, that monkeys are smarter
than the right hemisphere of humans. (A whole monkey brain
weighs about 50 grams, whereas the human right hemisphere
weighs twelve times as much at 600 grams.)

	If capable of such fantastic conclusions, is it any
wonder that the professor gives your readers an uninformed
tirade rather than a reasoned and convincing argument? His
passion only illustrates my point that we are more emotional
than rational. More disturbing than recklessness, however,
is his demonstration of how efforts to puff yourself up may
sometimes reveal your true size. If you were the size of a
monkey brain, this would be most embarrassing.

		------------------------------------------
NOTE: I was unable to obtain copyright permission for
uploading the original Times review. If you wish to see it,
or other reviews, e-mail me a request, as I am told that
single mailings comply with "fair use" restrictions.
	The book in question is "The Man Who Tasted Shapes: A
Bizarre medical mystery offers revolutionary insights into
reason, emotion, and consciousess." Jeremy Tarcher/Putnam
Publishing. (1993, 250pp) ISBN 0-87577-738-0
	Richard E. Cytowic, MD / Washington, DC



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