Ever wondered about the poets in your congregation? How they think, how they find words for their thoughts?

You know them, right? These are the people who have an uncanny ability to capture life’s moments with especially evocative words and phrases that are well positioned to call out from their readers and hearers emotional reactions. Some of them may benefit from a marvelous condition of the brain called “synesthesia” (syn – Greek root for “together” and aisthesis – Greek root for “perception”).

We’ve Known About Them for Years

Synesthetes (SIN-ess-theetz) have been with us, at least known by that descriptor, since the late 1800s. (Who knows how far back into history this amazing phenomenon might stretch?) In 1880 Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, published a paper in the journal Nature describing this phenomenon. According to his research, synesthetes are people who experience the world in a marvelous comingling of senses. They seem to blend sensory inputs, especially as they describe their sensations in words.

About six years ago, two respected brain researchers in California, Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Edward M. Hubbard, revisited this phenomenon and found that this mixing of sensory input occurs at a junction in the brain where several brain structures in close proximity process inputs from the brain’s separate senses. For reasons not entirely clear, some individuals experience what can be described as “signal leakage” or “cross wiring.” So synesthetes might experience numerals as colors or food as shapes.

On further examination, the two neuroscientists found that highly creative individuals are more likely to experience synesthesia, and that there may be a strong connection between synesthesia and skill in metaphor construction and use.

(A quick note: all of us are able to use cross-sensory terms to describe our daily encounters with reality. For example, is cheese actually “sharp” or a shirt actually “loud”? Synesthetes are probably just more gifted in these descriptive abilities than the rest of us.)

Making Metaphors

Brain theorists and psycholinguists have for years surmised that one of the brain’s most universal characteristics is making metaphors. “Something is like something else” is a shortcut to recalling memories, an efficient way to gather together remembered experience, words, intent, or movement for use in the present moment.

Think, for example, how the remembered progression of musical chords helps our brains predict how a completely new hymn might be sung. Or recall how you are able to construct a sermon by using visual cues or simple examples to some biblical or doctrinal truth. Another example of the worth of metaphors (and similes, of course) can be found in Jesus’s constant use of parables (“The kingdom of heaven is like a…”).

As one kind of mental map, metaphoric language helps you imagine and encounter the world around you efficiently and effectively. Without this skill, your brain would treat every situation as entirely new, thus expending tremendous energy on the situation and leaving you open to danger or opportunity.

Back to the Synesthetes and Poets

They’re out there in your congregation, people who understand the power of metaphor. Some may be synesthetes, and some may not write a word of actual poetry. But they see and experience the world in ways that are different from those of people without these abilities. How to identify and what to do with poets (and synesthetes)? Try these ideas:

  • Listen to their ways of describing ideas. Their language may include words such as “like,” “as,” or “That reminds me of . . .”
  • Ask gently whether they ever hear colors or taste shapes. Ask for examples, and be ready to be amazed.
  • When you come to know and recognize the poets (could they be called “metaphoricians”?) rely on them in the moments when you want to find seemingly unrelated connections among ideas, situations, or people. (Metaphors are especially helpful in those circumstances.)
  • When you’re too close to a problem, too flummoxed with in-your-face details, ask a poet for some time to talk about the situation. Start the conversation with affirmation for the poetic person’s abilities, describe your situation, and then ask, “What’s this feel like to you?” or “What’s the big picture here?”
  • Even if only once, try describing sensory experience from one sense in the language of another sense. To pun the invitation further, see if this activity makes sense to you or to the people around you.

Heading Toward the Bottom of the Screen

The power of abstraction—a function of metaphor making—is a signal feature of understanding the Christian faith, God’s action in history, or your response to God’s abundant blessings. Poetic folks, including synesthetes, may be helpful to you as you connect the abstract matters of faith and God’s will to the concrete elements of everyday living. Enjoy your encounters with these marvelously gifted people.

Bob Sitze is the author of  Not Trying Too Hard: New Basics for Sustainable Congregations (Alban Institute 2001) andYour Brain Goes to Church: Neurobiology and Congregational Life (Alban Institute 2005). He serves as Director for Hunger Education for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.


Other articles in this 5-part series

Parsing Platitudes

The Charismatic Leader and the Brain, Part 2

The Charismatic Leader and the Brain, Part 1

Brain Science: Coming to a Church near You