Synaesthesia in Frankenstein

One of the new ideas in synaesthesia research is that affected people perhaps don’t develop mixed senses as their brains develop, they just fail to lose them. It seems most children might start with naturally mixed senses before perception becomes segregated through pruning of the fuzzy neural pathways.

I’ve just noted an interesting article in Cognitive Neuropsychology on how this idea actually has long historical routes, and even influenced Mary Shelly’s cryopunk classic Frankenstein.

Although Mary Shelley was only 19 when she wrote her timeless novel, Frankenstein (1818), she combined contemporary philosophical and moral issues with a vision of the danger of emerging sciences that still has relevance today. The specific idea of early unity of the senses, very likely inspired by Rousseau, was articulated by Frankenstein’s creation in his first-person account of his early 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. [Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818), chapter 11]”

Shelley goes on to present the creature as very humanlike, and it appears here that she wished to show that this extended to the earliest moments of his mental life. With the publication of Frankenstein, the unified-senses idea was thus brought into the popular culture, and Shelley’s words were probably read by some cognitive neuropsychologists in elementary school, even if they paid little heed to the sentiment. The idea also lived on within philosophy and, later, in the science of psychology.

In their professional career, very many cognitive neuropsychologists become acquainted with William James, and indeed the majority should recognize the phrase “one great blooming, buzzing confusion”. Most also recognize this as referring to the world of the infant, but few are probably aware that James was writing about his view that information from different senses is first fused in a child before later segregation.

Link to article.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

4 thoughts on “Synaesthesia in Frankenstein”

  1. I’ve never heard of that approach before, absolutely fascinating. If this is true I wonder if it has anything to do with why childhood memories are so fuzzy.
    Also, great blog overall, a friend of mine just showed it to me.

  2. I think its so interesting that the life and perceptions of early infancy are such an impenetrable mystery to us despite the fact that we all experienced them firsthand at some point.

  3. Yep, definitely not a new idea. As the Holcombe et al. article shows, it was the default position a century ago.
    Daphne & Charles Maurer also put forward the position in their 1988 book “The World of the Newborn”. Daphne in particular has published intermittently on it since.

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