Synesthesia is an interesting neurological condition in which stimulation of one sense causes an inappropriate stimulation in another one. Information from one sense (like sound) is taken into the brain, but this information also stimulates another sense (like taste), causing synesthetes to “taste sound” or “smell sight” or “see sound.”
It’s not a matter of metaphorical association; it’s involuntary and automatic and very vivid. These experiences are consistent for synesthetes, meaning that if the sound of a french horn tastes like chicken one day, they will report the french horn tasting like chicken weeks, months, and years later. This is the main test of synesthesia—impressions and associations remain basically the same over time. Many synesthetes don’t know that their sensory impressions are unusual, and often find them pleasant or neutral.
There are many ways that the senses can be crossed, and therefore there are many types of synesthesia. Synesthetes normally only have one or a few types. The most common form is called grapheme/color synesthesia: people with this type hear or see words or letters in color. For example, one might associate the letter T with the color orange, or G with green. It is also common for sound to produce color: flutes are yellow, or Beethoven’s Fifth is undulating green and brown stripes. “Ordinal linguistic personification” is when time segments, like days of the week or months, are viewed as having personalities. A “Spatial sequence” or “number-form” synesthete views time as a three-dimensional shape. A newly-documented form of synesthesia, “visual motion/sound” is when a movement that is seen results in a sound being heard. Almost any combination of senses can occur, however, and there are many more types than just these.
Synesthetes can also be broken down further into two more categories: “associators” and “projectors.” Projectors experience their sensory impressions outside their bodies, as if it was projected on a screen in front of them. Someone with projecting grapheme/color synesthesia will see the letter D on the page as green instead of black, or someone with projecting sound/color synesthesia will see a large blue square at arm’s length when they hear a trumpet. Associators, the more common type, experience their sensory oddities in their heads. Associating grapheme/color synesthetes will read a black and white page and know that it is black and white, but will always picture the letter S in their head as yellow, and Z as purple.
Though it is believed to be a genetic condition, synesthesia is also sometimes reported as a temporary experience by those under the influence of psychedelic drugs, stroke victims, people having a temporal lobe epilepsy seizure, or as a result of blindness or deafness.
Though the cause of synesthesia has not yet been identified, there are a few theories about why it occurs.
- One theory suggests that the brains of synesthetes are literally cross-wired, and that when the area of the brain that normally receives information from the eye, for example, is stimulated, the hearing-area of the brain is activated as well. This theory has been verified by brain scans.
- Others think that in synesthetes, when the senses receive information the limbic system, which is the center of emotion in the brain, is affected. The impressions of the synesthete are caused by seemingly unrelated fragments of memory that pop up in the mind.
- In the years following our birth, the number of brain-connections, called synapses, that we have decreases dramatically. A third group suggests that this “brain-pruning” of unnecessary systems does not occur or occurs less in synesthetes, meaning that they have extra connections, leading their brain to make strange associations.
- The existence of temporary synesthesia lead researchers to a fourth conclusion: that in synesthetes the “feedback” of the brain, which is usually stopped, is left to run amok, meaning that the impulses are free to inhabit various parts of the brain.
Synesthesia has been linked to a chromosome associated with autism and epilepsy, and the three conditions sometimes occur together. Synesthetes are more likely to be creative people, including artists of every variety, and often lack ability in math and a sense of direction. Many also report that their synesthetic impressions improve their memory. For example, if one notices that a friend’s phone number is all yellow and orange numbers, they are more likely to remember it because the colors are so vivid.
Synesthesia is of interest to researchers both for its own sake and because understanding these anomalies will give scientists clues as to how the normal brain works, and how the average person’s sense experience happens. There are many facets of the brain that are still not understood, and Synesthesia research is helping us to understand what the brain is all about.
Synesthesia has been part of the scientific and artistic consciousness for hundreds of years, even though science has only been making strides in understanding it in the last century. Throughout the ages, many artists have created mixed-media art that reproduces synesthetic impressions, and many artists are synesthetes that are inspired by their impressions.
The Greeks called the timbre of music its “color” and tried to quantify and classify it for study. Isaac Newton and German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe independently proposed that musical tones and color tones shared frequencies, showing that they thought that the two senses were linked and interrelated. Newton wrote that the spectrum of colors and the musical octave coincide.
In the early twentieth century, Alexander Scriabin made a “color organ,” a piano with colored keys, to accompany his symphonic work “Prometheus: Poem of Fire.” Though he was very specific in his directions of what key should be what color, he was not a synesthete himself. His invention followed a pattern he constructed by combining the color wheel and the circle of fifths. However, the instrument never caught on, and the piece was rarely performed using it even during the composer’s lifetime. This is the most famous example of a color organ, but by no means the first or the last. Many varieties have been built. Before the nineteenth century, color organs were made that would cause colored pieces of paper fly into the air when a certain key was pressed. With the invention of the gas light, color organs began to make use of the new technology, and became more complex.
Carol J. Steen is a contemporary artist who uses her Synesthesia to create her artwork. This painting is a representation of what she saw once during a visit to an acupuncturist as her eyes were closed. Her strongest form of synesthesia is touch to color, shape, or movement, but she sees the alphabet in color as well. She first realized something about her was different when she commented on how pretty the letter “A” was with its shade of pink, and a classmate told her she was weird. At age twenty, she brought up the yellow color of the number five at the dinner table, and while her father agreed, her brother and mother were confused. She discovered the name for her unique skill from an NPR program. Now, she sees orange when she feels pain, and has used this skill to help her dentist identify a tooth that needed a root canal. She co-founded the American Synesthesia Association, which focuses on education and research about the condition.
Photographer Marcia Smilack was first told about Synesthesia in college, by a friend who was a psychology major. She was shocked to finally understand why the first note she had played on the piano was green, and why sound always created sight for her. She takes a picture of any scene that inspires in her a feeling of touch or a taste, which are mainly reflections in water. She took the above photograph when the red of the roof felt like velvet to her, and the white felt soft like Santa’s beard.
This is a painting by Anne Salz, a Dutch artist and musician with synesthesia. The inspiration for this painting came from Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins.
One of the best and best-known examples of synesthesia in art is the Disney movie Fantasia. It features eight well-known instrumental pieces accompanied by animation. Though it wasn’t very popular at the time of its release, it has grown into a classic and has been hailed for its avant-garde qualities.
Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky was a Russian painter, born in 1866, who painted the first modern abstract art and heard musical notes as he painted. For example, yellow sounded to him like middle C on a piano or a blast of trumpets. He said that different combinations of colors produced chords, and this helped him paint.
Though Piet Mondrian was not a synesthete himself, his abstract art often has synesthetic elements. For example, the inspiration for the above picture is sometimes said to be a map of a busy subway, and sometimes the music that he liked to dance to. Either way, this painting has a strong rhythmic component, which cannot often be said about visual art.
Next time: my own experiences as a synesthete.