Synaesthesia: The Crossing of the Senses
"We interpret one sense by another."
medicine has known about synaesthesia for three centuries, it keeps forgetting
that it knows.
Richard Cytowic, in "Synaesthesia: Phenomenology and
a Review of Current Knowledge"
Could you imagine going through life every day seeing sound, hearing colour,
tasting shapes, hearing smells or tasting colours. These are some of the ways a
synesthete experiences the world. One synesthete describes the experience of
listening to a saxaphone as a writhing mass of neon-purple snakes hovering in
the air another describes a mint as a cool, smooth glass tube.
fingertips. You have a neighbor whose consistently green voice grates against
his consistently deep blue suit. Nobody seems to understand. There are things
you hear, things that you touch - that you cannot talk about. You don't believe
yourself to be mad, or if you are, you no longer believe in what the word
implies. You don't believe you're hallucinating...hallucinations should make
less sense. This...this is an abundance of sense. " - Omar Kamel
Scientists have known about synesthesia for centuries. There is now a
resurgence of interest in synesthesia and multi-disciplinary research into this
unique condition, which colours (quite literally) certain individuals
perceptions of the ordinary world, is now being conducted. The word synesthesia
comes from the Greek words syn meaning together, and aisthesis
meaning perception. It literally means a joining of sensations. Researchers view
it as a window into thought itself.
Althought there is some dispute, the first reference to synesthesia was
probably in John Locke's "Essay Concerning Human Understanding". Locke shares
with us the story of a blind man who felt "betrayed" when he learned what the
colour scarlet meant. When his friend asked what he had thought scarlet was, the
man answered "like the sound of a trumpet." It is also credited to Aristotle and
Pythagoras. Pythagoras considered synesthesis to be the union of the illusory,
constant, daily, repetitive, mundane world with the real, genuine world of
universal and abstract concepts and ideas and, as such, was the greatest
philosophical gift and spiritual achievement.
Synesthesia is clinically defined as an involuntary physical experience of a
cross-modal association. This means an involuntary crossing of two or more
senses. If you stimulate one sense it causes a stimulation in another sense as
well. There are 31 possible combinations of the senses but usually there are
only two senses which cross, and this brings the number of potential
combinations down to 20. The pairings are generally one way, sound may create
colour but colour will not create sound.
Synesthesia is divided into two categories, Two Sensory and Multiple Sensory.
The most common type is the crossing of two sensory modalities, such as
Coloured-Hearing or Chromaesthesia (seeing sound, hearing colour, experiencing
colour linked to words, letters and numbers). Sound creating the perception of a
colour is the most common form of synesthesia. Synesthetes of this type
experience both written and spoken words in a wonderfully vivid experience of
colour associations. They can see music, smell colors or taste words.
Coloured-Olfaction occurs when a smell creates the perception of a colour.
Coloured-Gustation is a taste which stimulates a specific colour.
Tactile-Gustation is the taste of something experienced as a shape. Multiple
Sensory Synesthesia is the crossing of 3 or more senses.
Synesthesia may be idiopathic (developmental), the person has always
experienced synesthesia, or non-idiopathic, the result of a known event or
condition which was acquired and created the synesthesia.
Ideopathic Synesthesia occurs in an uninhibited natural state, has strong
genetic factors and is felt to be a natural state of development particularly
within the first 4 months of life. There are three theories which try to explain
Coloured-hearing; unity of the senses or linkage theory, crosstalk theory or the
theory which suggests it occurs at the higher cognitive/cortical level of the
brain. Brain imaging tests show that words activate the synesthetes' brains'
language, vision and colour processing centres. Non-Ideopathic Synesthesia can
be caused by seizures, drugs, neuron degeneration, brain damage, spinal cord
damage and concussions. The only symptom shared with a schizophrenic would be
the ability to see things others do not. The synesthetes experiences are not
like a hallucination and it has not been considered a mental illness or disorder
for a long time.
The synesthetic experience is a left brain response and has been associated
with a decreased blood supply to the neocortex. Researchers have found an
increased blood flow in the parts of the brain that handle colour perception
when synesthetes are listening to words. Control subjects did not show the same
pattern. This supports synesthesia as genuinely taking place in the brain. It
may be that synesthetes have extra dense neural connections between areas
dealing with hearing and vision. Some ongoing research is focusing studies away
from Coloured-hearing in the direction of Coloured-smell and are working with
children to see how synesthesia may affect learning to read.
The estimates of the number of people who are synesthetes vary greatly from
one in 2,000 to one in every 25,000 people. Studies have indicated that women
are more likely to be synesthetic - again the ratio varies from 3:1 in the
United States to 8:1 in the United Kingdom. It occurs most frequently in left
handed and ambidextrous individuals. It is a unique brain experience which gets
frequently linked to artistic genius. It is considered a source of inspiration
for creative brilliance but sources disagree that it is more common in creative
people or artists.
Most synesthetes function at a very high level, are highly intelligent and
typically have excellent memories. Trouble telling left from right and a poor
sense of direction are also common with synesthetes. Difficulties with math are
not unusual, although noted Physicist Richard Feynman is synesthetic. It is also
quite common for synesthetes to report frequent experiences of deja vu,
clairvoyance, premonitions, the feeling of a presence and precognitive dreams.
Fifteen percent of people with synesthesia have someone in their immediate
family with autism, dyslexia or attention deficit disorder. The experience is
different for every individual. Those people who see letters as coloured will
see different colours than another person with the same condition. Most
initially self-reference and assume that everyone experiences the world as they
These sensations are involuntary and cannot be held back or brought on,
although their level and intensity may vary. The sensation is not in the persons
imagination but is projected into their environment. One woman describes it as
somewhat like a television screen about 6 inches in front of her face. The
sensations are durable and generic. If red means "a" to you, it will always mean
"a". The sensations are memorable - if you met someone and their name evoked the
taste of chocolate, it is easier to remember the taste than the name, but the
taste will help to recall the name. The sensations are emotional and viewed with
a sense of ecstasy, achievement and satisfaction.
In his 1966 autobiography "Speak, Memory" Vladimir Nabokov, the Russian-born
novelist, tells stories of arguing with his mother about the proper colours of
letters in the alphabet. His mother was a synesthete as well - it often runs in
families. "The long 'a' of the English alphabet . . . has for me the tint of
weathered wood, but a French 'a' evokes polished ebony. . . . . there is steely
'x', thundercloud 'z' and huckleberry 'h'. ...Since a subtle interaction exists
between sound and shape, I see 'q' as browner than 'k', while 's' is not the
light blue of 'c', but a curious mixture of azure and mother-of-pearl.".
Olivier Messiaen is a French avant-garde composer who attributed his success
to synesthesis. "Whenever I hear music, or even if I read music, I see colors .
. ." Alexander Scriabin was a Russian composer and pianist. He was one of the
first synesthetes to thoroughly catalogue his colour-note associations. C# was
violet and E was "pearly white and shimmer of moonlight."
Wassily Kandinsky, the Russian born abstract artist, embraced synesthesia.
Some historians maintain he was an invented synesthete who used it for
self-promotion as synesthetism was in vogue among the European avant garde. "The
violins, the deep tones of the basses, and especially the wind instruments at
that time embodied for me all the power of that pre-nocturnal hour. I saw all my
colors in my mind; they stood before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were
sketched in front of me. "
David Hockney is a British painter who designed sets for the New York
Metropolitan Opera. "When it came time to paint the tree for Ravel, I put on the
tree music from the opera, and it had a certain weight and color. The music
would dictate the shape."
Synesthesia is very specific condition but pseudosynesthesia also occurs
frequently. Pseudosynesthesia can occur without intention, triggered by drug use
or learned associations, or as an act of creation expressed through literature,
music, and art. Hashish and opium are the most mentioned substances. A great
many writers who used them wrote on and under the influence. Frequent references
were made to hearing and smelling colors, seeing sounds, and even seeing
feelings while they were high. The Caterpillar and the hookah (a hashish water
pipe with four long stems to accommodate four smokers at once) in "Alice in
Wonderland" by Lewis Carroll is a perfect example.
Mescaline, peyote, LSD and magic mushrooms can produce pseudosynesthetic
experiences. Peyote is sacred to many Native tribes and is used in spiritual
ceremonies. They generally produce the coloured-hearing variety. Another
possible cause of pseudosynesthesia is thought to be learned association. This
is quite controversial as it has also been offered as an explanation of actual
cases of synesthesia. The theory suggests that the repetition of pairing the
sensations creates the automatic association of those two sensations, i.e.
repetition becomes habit.
The Spanish mystic and Kaballist, Abraham Abulafia (1240-1291?), used a
meditation on the Name of God called Hokmah ha-Tseruf, The Science of the
Combination of the Letters. The letters of the Divine Name were to be studied in
different combinations to break the mind free of mundane understanding and
enhance abstract perceptions. He compared the resulting experience to the
sensation of listening to music with the letters of the alphabet becoming
musical notes. It was meant to break the seals of the soul and, in so doing, one
would discover the psychic resources of the mind and ease emotional suffering.
Synesthetes are "wired" a little differently than a "normal" person -
although the only normal people I know are people I don't know very well yet. It
certainly sounds like an enriched experience. My vivid imagination seems pale
now when I try to picture what images and sounds a concert, an art exhibit or a
child's laugh might evoke for a synesthete. Psychologists, neurologists and
neuro-scientists are all hopeful that studying this unusual and extraordinary
gift may shed some light on the amazing capabilities of the human brain and the
mysteries of our consciousness.
Cytowic, in "Synaesthesia: Phenomenology and Neuropsychology
a Review of
A History of God
The 4,000 Year Quest
Judaism, Christianity and Islam
by Karen Armstrong 1993
"Ah, the Blue Smell of It"
TIME Magazine, May 28, 2001, page 42
target=_blank href="http://www.discover.com/dec_99/featsyn.html">Do you see what
they see? by Brad Lemley
Discover, December 1999
Suggested News Resources
- Food for Thought: Synesthesia's Effect on Taste
- A chef with the disorder could invent flavor combinations that others had never even thought of. For example, Heston Blumenthal is a chef with grapheme-color synesthesia.
- Why There Are Hardly Any Super Chefs With Synesthesia, The Strange Sensory
- Food prepared to evoke a synesthetic experience — tastes that trigger colors, perhaps — might just not taste very good.
- Can you taste a colour? The scientific cocktail night
- She announces herself as someone who has synaesthesia – a condition where people's senses get criss-crossed so that they can taste words or see noises. We're told that this condition is the inspiration for tonight's event and then taken through some ...
- The neurologist with mirror-touch synesthesia
- FOR CENTURIES, SCIENTISTS have known that some people's senses get crossed. Some of us hear words in colors. Others see music in bright bursts or glimmers.
- Affective computing: How 'emotional machines' are about to take over our lives
- One day she stumbled across the role of emotion in human intelligence while reading The Man Who Tasted Shapes, neurologist Richard Cytowic's book about synaesthesia – the condition whereby people's senses are crossed, so they can taste shapes or ...
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