Researchers and Reflections:
Mirrors of the Mind
I've noticed an interesting pattern
over time. To my surprise, I've received reflection photographs from several
researchers, each of whom who had no idea any other had done
the same. I was thrilled and delighted when the images arrived.
They floated into my inbox and consciousness like mirrors in the mail.
The fact that these hard-thinking scientists felt inspired to take, and then share reflection photographs after
hearing me lecture on how I do mine, told me two things. One, that
my lesson "took": that I pierced their consciousness in such a way that
they found themselves willing to act as I do. Like mirror neurons, they
tried on my eyes to get a closer look at how I see, which is my ultimate goal: to help people see.
take a photograph of a reflection, you must compose your image upside down -- an
odd and difficult task. Eventually, it is simply easier to give
in and rely on other parts of your mind to compose the image. So, in an
oxymoronic way, seeing in reflection "forces" you to let go, to
trust what you feel.
Second, these images opened a unique window into the
mind of the researcher. Remember the Heisenberg Uncertainty
Principle that states every object observed is changed by the experience? Well,
I am the voice from the other side, the voice of
the object that was watching them the whole time they were watching me.
I have learned that we change each other through our
interchanges. And while it is hard for me to quantify what I have
them, it is a great deal. Their questions and responses provide a
framework onto which I can project what I intuitively know but
do not usually speak.
My hope is that by
sharing information with them, I might assist in their search for the
key that unlocks the secrets of
synesthesia, might provide a small hint of how to break the
code of what must certainly be The Dead Language of Childhood. It
is fascinating to see how researchers learn from the
give-and-take of encounters with a live subject. Their reflective
photographs show me better than words how they
process and learn. In addition,
their pictures induce my synesthesia, each in a different way.
Reflection photographs are much more than mirrors of the sky: they are
Dr. Karthik Sarma
Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy
University of Texas Medical School at Houston
Houston, Texas USA
"Melange" by Dr. Karthik Sarma
I met Dr. Karthik Sarma at the Univeristy of Houston Medical School
where he works in the Synesthesia Lab with Dr. David Eagleman. Karthik
has graduated medical school and is planning a residency in Neurology
and Psychiatry. He is currently completing a Master's in Behavioral
Science. When he sent me this beautful reflection which he took, he
asked me to tell him what I hear. This is my reply:
I hear ancient strumming from the quivering
lines while the
interplay of shadow on reflection evokes a
feeling of expansion which sends me oscillating between the
The juxtaposition of arc and angle, produced by the round
leaf inside the triangle of flowers, produces a sensation of
counterpoint. But my most visceral response is evoked by the flower
on the right: when I look at it, I feel wet around my edges. All
three of the flowers are dancing.
When I read Karthik's words below, I wondered how different we
really are. As he describes them, his creative process and relationship
to light are so similar to mine, I wondered if my synesthesia (or his
lack of it) was no more than a thin veil of unawareness between us.
Could his looking at reflections help to dissolve or ameliorate or thin
out that layer to reveal the wondrous? I think of synesthesia as a
perceptual curtain or sheath that is part of the layering of
consciousness: becoming aware of one's synesthesia is removal of the
IN THE WORDS OF KARTHIK SARMA:
This was in a forest in South India
during the monsoons. A few lilies floating around beneath a dreamy
evening sky. Dusk approaching, calm, wild surrounds of the pristine BR
Hills. And the lilies seemed immersed in the reflection of the sky,
somewhat like the interplay of sensations we see in synesthesia. It has
a calming effect on me, the green, the grey, the twilight. Tell me what
you think, what you hear? Just seeing some of your pictures made me
feel good. I love to capture a moment in my mind and on my camera and
would give anything for that. When I succeed, the high I experience is
better than most other feelings of pleasure.
I am not synesthetic but I do know that
certain feelings I have, few others comprehend. It is when I can't
effectively share some of these, that I feel a bit off. I love the
reflection, the play of light and that is the essence of photography.
If you think of it, that perhaps is the essence of sight itself. I am
glad I was able to shoot that picture and then even share it with you.
Needless to say, meeting you, getting to see your art made me
appreciate my picture better.
Dr. Crétien van Campen
"Gestalt in Gent" by Dr. Crétien van Campen
Dr. Crétien van
Campen is a
psychologist, writer and synesthesia researcher outside of Amsterdam. He has written a book on synesthesia, Tussen zinnen
Synesthesie of hoe de zintuigen samenwerken (Between Senses.
Synesthesia or How the Senses Cooperate). Crétien takes the unique view that synesthesia is a cooperation between the senses rather than a confusion of the senses.
We met at Rockefeller University in
2003 when we both gave presentations in a Neurogenetics Lab.
ago, I sent him an e-mail to ask if his book had been translated into
English yet. He answered no, then asked if I would be interested in
reading a rough translation. When I said yes, he began to write one.
initial job was editing, to make sure his English sounded natural to a
native ear. But as I
lifted linguistic layers to identify correct meaning below, I found
that I didn't
always agree with his conclusions.
We'd go back and forth like shuttles on a loom, agreeing, disagreeing,
agreeing, disagreeing, an exchange between researcher and synesthete
that was ultimately enlightening for us both. In the end, we had both altered our view. Done entirely by e-mail,
it felt like a transatlantic game of Cat's Cradle, the string held
between two hands -- one his, one mine.
Once, to make a point, I gave him an assignment. I sent him to my
website to look at my image "House of
Leaves" and suggested he study the levels of transparency in the
water. It is an excellent image for
practicing multi-level vision because you can be in more than one place at
a time just by varying your focus. As with most acts of teaching,
however, I had no way at the time to know if he understood. He didn't mention
it, we got busy editing, and then I forgot. Soon after, he sent me
the remarkable reflection above. When I read his words (below), I saw that
he had more
than understood; he had incorporated the lesson inside.
WHAT I SEE:
On the right, I see a
massive Teutonic headdress lying on its side, its spikes provided by
turrets and steeples. They remind me too of what you might see on a
helmet. On the left, I see a little red mouth that is actually a boat
to its reflection.
IN THE WORDS OF CRETIEN VAN CAMPEN:
Reflection on a reflection in Gent
December 2005, I gave a lecture on synesthesia at the Academy of Fine
Arts in Gent, Belgium. I spent a few days in this magnificent Medieval
town that once was a center of trade in Europe. The canals and the rich
decorated facades of mansions and storehouses remember that gothic
time. Before leaving for Gent, I had been corresponding with Marcia
intensively, and taking my walks with a camera in my pocket through the
historic centre, my eyes were drawn by the reflections on the water.
With the pictures of Marcia on my mind, I tried to picture some
reflections. But they failed (as I could see in the small window of my
Instead of taking pictures I started
to look again with my own human eyes. And slowly my ‘doors of
perception’ were opened. First, I just saw reflections of mansions in
the water, but soon I discovered more layers. I perceived the floating
plants and dirt on the surface that decorated the outlines of the
mansions. I saw the changing clouds that gave and took the light like
in a Rembrandt painting. Sometimes a fish down deep came by. More than
my camera could ever do, my eyes showed the layers of the visual world.
My eyes could change focus from layer to layer, from the floating
plants on the surface to the white and black clouds deep down. I
discovered the richness of the visual world in the reflections on the
water. Somehow it was more interesting than the visual world above
The last morning in Gent, I strolled back to the station
with my suitcase. And suddenly I was struck by a strong visual
“Gestalt” arising from the water. I took my camera and just clicked.
Later I realized this spontaneous picture was better than all the
reflections I had taken the last days. I don’t know what makes it
quality. It was not me, the situation was there and I clicked.
Cretien van Campen
"Een reflectie op reflecties in Gent"
In december 2005 gaf ik een lezing
aan de kunstacademie in Gent in België. Ik bracht een paar dagen door
in dit prachtige Middeleeuwse stadje dat ooit een belangrijk Europees
handelscentrum was. De kanalen en de rijk versierde façaden van
herenhuizen en pakhuizen riepen herinneringen op aan de glorieuze
Voordat ik Gent
bezocht had ik intensief gemaild met Marcia. En terwijl ik door het
historische centrum slenterde, met een camera in mijn jaszak, werd mijn
blik getrokken naar de weerspiegelingen op het water. Met de foto’s van
Marcia in gedachten, probeerde ik enkele weerspiegelingen op het water
te vangen met de camera. Maar ze mislukten (zag ik in het kleine
venster van mijn digitale camera). In plaats van te fotograferen,
besloot ik maar weer met mijn eigen ogen te genieten van de reflecties
in het water. Eerst vielen me de weerspiegelingen van de herenhuizen
op, maar al snel ontdekte ik meer lagen. Ik zag de drijvende planten en
wat vuil op het wateroppervlak, die omtrekken van de herenhuizen
decoreerden. Ik zag de veranderende wolkenpartijen die als in een
schilderij van Rembrandt het licht gaven en namen. Soms kwam een vis in
het diepe voorbij. Beter dan mijn camera ooit zou kunnen, lieten mijn
ogen de lagen van de zichtbare wereld in het water zien. Mijn blik
stelde wisselende scherp op verschillende lagen, van de drijvende
planten op het wateroppervlak naar de witte en zwarte wolken in het
diepe. Ik ontdekte de rijkdom van de zichtbare wereld in de
weerspiegelingen van het water. Op een of andere manier vond ik dat
interessanter dan de wereld boven water.
Op de laatste
ochtend in Gent, wandelde ik met mijn koffer terug naar het station.
Plotseling werd ik getroffen door een sterke visuele “Gestalt” die uit
het water oprees. Ik pakte snel mijn camera en klikte. Pas later
realiseerde ik dat deze spontane foto beter was dan alle reflecties die
ik in de voorgaande dagen had gefotografeerd. Ik weet niet wat de
kwaliteit van deze foto precies bepaalt. Ik was het niet, misschien was
het “het beslissende moment”, de gelegenheid was er eenvoudigweg en ik
Cretien van Campen
Dr. med. Markus Zedler
Department of Clinical Psychiatry and Psychotherapy
Hanover Medical School
"Blick aus dem Fenster" by Dr. Markus Zedler
"View From the Window"
Dr. Markus Zedler is a psychiatrist and synesthesia
researcher in the Department of Clinical Psychiatry and Psychotherapy
of the Hanover Medical School in Germany. We met at the American
Synesthesia conference last year in Houston where we both made
presentations. When I learned he is a clinical psychiatrist, I became
very excited. I had never met a researcher from that medical specialty,
though I had often wondered why. I asked Markus what made his team from
Hanover different in this respect. His answer was glib, telling and
true: “Well,” he said, half tongue-in-cheek, “You know, Vienna and all
Is it any wonder that his beautiful reflection looks
a dream? It could even be a scary dream, except for the safety of the
yellow. I noticed too that if I cover the sky, the house turns into a
child's drawing with exaggerated geometry and distortion in
perspective. For me, though, the power of this image lies in its archetypal
overtones and undertones. After I received it, I was flipping through
a book of dream-inspired art when voila! I came upon a painting by a
artist painted sixty years ago and instantly felt a gestalt of
recognition: for despite superficial differences, archetypically they felt the same, as if they had reinvented the same shape. I
took this revelation as evidence that we cannot help ourselves: we are destined to unconsciously
repeat certain necessary patterns. It is one of the things that ties us
together throughout time. When I recognize this connection, it reassures me that the universe is friendly.
I find that the imagery of reflections is often
the same as dreams. When you compose
upside-down, you cannot help but project internal states of being onto
what you see. In that sense, your eyes function like emotional
periscopes that pull up data you read outside. In the case of
Markus Zedler, what does the data reveal? What images from his interior
life did he pull up and put on his screen?
His title "View
from the Window"
is redolent with multiple meaning. It immediately makes me ask,
which window, which
view does he mean? Is it the window through which he was looking when
he came upon this scene? Or, does he mean the
window within the reflection? If so, what would be the view? How would
he get to that window? He would have to climb
into his photograph, walk into that house, go up the steps, turn around
and look out: only then, what would he actually see? He'd see
himself, looking from the other side, face-to-face with his
doppelganger or deepest
self none of us normally sees. Such
is the nature of reflections. Hopefully, Dr. Zedler will soon give us
some hints about the picture's meaning in his own words.
Dr. Edward M. Hubbard, PhD
NUMBRA Post-Doctoral Fellow
INSERM Unité 562 - Neuroimagerie Cognitive
Service Hospitalier Frédéric Joliot CEA
4 pl. du Général Leclerc
"Reflecting on Paris" by Dr. Edward M. Hubbard
Dr. Edward M. Hubbard has a Phd in
Cognitive Neuroscience and is currently doing his Post-Doc in
the neural bases of numerical cognition and synesthesia at the
French Institute National de la Sante et Recherche Medicale
(INSERM). I met Dr. Edward M. Hubbard at
Rockefeller University in 2003 when we both gave presentations at a
Neurogenetics Lab. We met again at subsequent conferences on
synesthesia, most recently in Houston at the American Synesthesia
Association meeting last year. I know Ed best, however, from his
writing. He is one of the best science writers I have ever read. His
contributions to the American Synesthesia List, where he writes lengthy
informative responses to questions by synesthetes, are so well-written,
I save them for their writing value alone. He makes science, which is
clearly his passion, accessible and understandable. I was surprised and
delighted to receive his wonderful reflection in my e-mail.
What I SEE:
I hear a chord of color when I look at Ed's reflection, though I
noticed something interesting. If I cover up the blue with my hand, the
sound goes away. At the same time, I become aware of the doubling of
the red and yellow which I had not noticed before. That awareness in
itself suppresses sound. If I cover up the green, I still recognize the
possibility of sound, but I cannot hear it. If I cover up the blue AND
the green, the music goes away completely, even as a possibility. This
has more to do with the positioning of the colors and the doubling of
two of them than it does with the colors themselves. If I could put the
Paris lights in my hands, I would keep rearranging them to see what
other combinations produce a chord.
IN THE WORDS OF DR. EDWARD M. HUBBARD:
always loved the reflection of light on water, especially at
night. I remember falling asleep as a child, with my head on
hands looking out at San Francisco from my window, the lights of
The City reflecting off the waters of the The Bay. Now,
living in Paris, I find myself attracted to the same thing; the lights
of the City of Lights, reflecting off her most famous waters, the
When I took this picture, I was particularly attracted to two things.
The first thing is the brightly colored lights along the quay that
lines the far side of the Seine, and the comparison with the
yellowish-white lights from the buildings. The second was the
pattern of light off the waves. What I find interesting here is
the two patterns of waves, those far from the viewer, where the
calmer water reflects the colored lights, and those close to the
viewers, where the choppy water, churned by the passage of a tour
boat, reflects only the diffuse colored light, and more white light
from the buildings further away.
In some ways, too, this picture gives me the impression of two
different artistic styles. The upper half of the picture seems
almost hyper-real, with its brightly lit, angular geometric forms,
while the bottom half is colorful and has no clear forms, but is
Edward M. Hubbard