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  • Educator Danko Nikolić
  • Director Paula Spagnoletti, Celine Keller
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Research on ideasthesia began by the discovery that synesthesia is not a phenomenon of crossed-senses, as it has been traditionally hypothesized. Rather, the phenomenon is driven by the semantics of the stimulus: It is the detected meaning that induces the synesthetic experiences. Soon after that it became clear that the meaning of a stimulus also affects the sensory experiences in everyday life.

Sensory experiences are connected by rich networks much like semantic associations. Even monkeys have sensory associations. These discoveries pose important implications for our questions about the mind-body problem and the origin of phenomenal experiences. A list of important unsolved philosophical problems is available here. Some of them are mentioned in a TED-Ed Lesson on what we still don’t know.

One study demonstrated empirically that meaning mediates synesthesia by asking synesthetes to learn using a novel set of Glagolitic letters. Another demonstration was provided when the same symbol was shown either in the context of letters or digits. A number of other studies also demonstrated a role of semantics in synesthesia, and a good review is provided here.

McGurk effect may be also considered as a demonstration of ideasthesia.

In the past, several philosophers made conclusions consistent with the notion of ideasthesia:

Martin Heidegger wrote, "What we ‘first’ hear is never noises or complexes of sounds, but the creaking waggon [sic], the motor-cycle. We hear the column on the march, the north wind, the woodpecker tapping, the fire crackling… It requires a very artificial and complicated frame of mind to ‘hear’ a ‘pure noise’. The fact that motor-cycles and wagons are what we proximally hear is the phenomenal evidence that in every case Dasein, as Being-in-the-world, already dwells alongside what is ready-to-hand within-the-world; it certainly does not dwell proximally alongside ‘sensations’; nor would it first have to give shape to the swirl of sensations to provide a springboard from which the subject leaps off and finally arrives at a ‘world’. Dasein, as essentially understanding, is proximally alongside what is understood." (Martin Heidegger: Being and Time 34: 207)

Ferdinand de Saussure in his work on linguistics pointed out that words referred not to actual objects in the world but to our concepts of those objects.

In his book “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance” Robert M. Pirsig explores the question: what is quality? He argues that it results as a combination of two factors: rational and romantic. The romantic component is focused on being "In the moment" but not on rational analysis. In contrast, the rational component seeks to know the details and to understand the inner mechanics. Pirsig concludes that both aspects of life are needed for quality. It can be argued that Pirsig advocates a sort of a maximization of ideasthesia. The romantic component that relies more on feelings and less on the meaning, may be the aesthesis side of ideasthesia, while the rational analysis, as it requires extensive semantics dissection, may be the idea part of ideasthesia. Therefore, paraphrasing Pirsig, high quality of life may be achieved only when both sensations and concepts are strong. (i.e., when ideasthesia is maximized)

A TED-Ed Lesson describes how full artistic appreciation of Michelangelo’s Statue of David requires understanding of the role that this piece of art played (i.e., its meaning) for the politics in the 16th-century Italy.

The theory of ideasthesia suggests that explaining the origin of phenomenal experiences (or qualia) must involve a successful theory of semantics. A question of how a physical or biological system can achieve proper semantic understanding of the surrounding world is a difficult problem, and is related to the problem of creating artificially intelligent systems able to match our human intellectual capabilities. Recently, a theory on practopoiesis has been introduced to explain the organization of biological systems that is necessary to provide semantic foundations for ideasthesia.