In our home we have a giant medical encyclopedia. It’s fun because any time I pick it up there’s something for me on practically every page. Actually, it has one thing wrong — it needs to be loose-leaf. Researchers are always coming up with new stuff that isn’t in there yet. To Dyslexia, Attention Deficit Disorder, and Autism, for example, I must now add Synesthesia.
Synesthesia is apparently a fairly rare condition where people are able to see sounds as colours or smell shapes. One in two hundred of the general population may have it. Different senses blend and transpose with one another. For example, a person might experience the beep-beep-beep of a truck backing up as a series of red dots. In some people numbers or letters are linked with colours. Synesthesiasts also commonly show poor ability at arithmetic, lack right-left orientation, and have trouble finding directions. “Synesthesia is seven times more common among artists, novelists and poets,” says Vilayanur Ramachandran, a neurologist at the University of California at San Diego. “Artists often have the ability to link unconnected domains, have the power of metaphor and the capability of blending realities,” he says. Furthermore, those who have it may act as if they are wired on drugs — while feeling everything is normal. A sort of welcome hallucination. A common report from these artists is that they don’t need drugs because their imaginations and idea banks are already in a state of overflow.
It’s all due to some genetic cross-wiring, goes one theory — odd connections in the fusiform gyrus of the temporal lobe. Ramachandran says that a gene responsible for the “leakage” will eventually be found.
You’re going to have to excuse me. This painting on my easel needs a little more “Etude in E flat minor.”
PS: “Everyone may be born with Synesthesia. Infants may experience their world as a jumble of interwoven sensations. In degree, in most children, the different senses slowly grow apart until they’re distinct.” (Carol Mills)
Esoterica: Thankfully, most experts do not consider Synesthesia to be a disorder. Those who have it are generally glad they do. Research into the capability is giving new information about the normal brain, aspects of memory, concentration and creativity. In The Man Who Tasted Shapes, Richard Cytowic quotes a man who said, “Waiter, this chicken doesn’t have enough points.”
The following are selected correspondence related to the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.
No joke here
by Pat Weekley
Synesthesia? Hmmmm….Well, now I know my situation!! I am an artist. I have always had trouble with math… I can add and multiply but have trouble with subtraction and division. I have to stop and think about right and left and all my friends and family know I get lost very easily. I, myself, often joke about that saying when I go to bed at night I tie a string on my big toe and the other end on the bathroom door in case I need to get up in the night… Funny… I just thought it had something to do with being ……… blonde!!
Wagner had it
by Marina Morgan
When Richard Wagner saw the set designed for the first staging of his opera Tristan and Isolde, which was, I believe, in blues, he flew into a rage and started to destroy it, to the dismay of the set designer. He insisted that the set be in darkish reds, or he wouldn’t let the opera open. His royal mentor humored him. Around the time physicists were discovering wavy particles in the twentieth century, they realized that light waves correspond with sound waves in pattern; the speeds and ranges are different. The key in which the opera was written corresponded with the colour that Wagner insisted be the scheme for the set design. He’d been correct; the other colour had, in fact, been “wrong.”
(I think I have it right on the colour order for the story, but I may, in fact, have reversed them. The reversing of things is the only symptom of synesthesia, (apart from trouble with arithmetic) that I consistently display!)
Synesthesia and Cymatics
by Asheley Elizabeth
I too just stumbled onto this amazing ‘cross wiring of the senses’, and have been consumed in researching it for the last few weeks. You know the feeling, when you hear someone else mention it and there is a ‘click’ of synchronicity. Love it! I find it fascinating because it links the senses together. For example, why is ‘A’ red to more than 50% of Synesthetes? Although synesthesia is individualistic, there are resounding ‘trends’ when the senses overlap. I am also studying Cymatics. It is the visual representation of sound frequencies, another overlapping of the ‘senses.’ One of the key forerunners of this research was Hans Jenny. In one of his books there is a specific visual representation of the vowel ‘A’; now, would a Synesthete hear that frequency and see red? As a visual artist, I bring the world together through my senses like a living, breathing multi-dimensional collage. Our world has been broken down into so many black and white facets (religion, politics, consumerism, confusion, exhaustion, war). Like Synesthetes, artists are bringing these separate systems together, showing that they can contain the same space and actually resonate in harmony with each other.
Let us be saved
by Patricia D’Annunzio Mahoney
Thanks for writing about synesthesia. With a resounding bravo, I say thank Goddess that it exists for us. I am truly angered that everything in the medical and psychological profession (society as a whole!) is a regression to the mean. If something isn’t average, it’s abnormal. Since when did society advance in any way via the ‘normal’? It is truly the creative genius of those outside of the mainstream who have made the significant changes in the course of human development. It’s sad that our contemporary culture is so geared to weeding out all that is creative, unusual, spontaneous, and joyous. It all reminds me of the “Third Rock from the Sun” sit-com episode where one of the main characters gets active in her condominium association; she ends up enforcing the tan laws, i.e., those rules that dictated that every decoration (rugs, carpets) in the condos had to be tan. Eventually, she was ousted because her tan nazi tactics so constricted everyone’s personal choice. Let us all be saved from the ‘tan police’ of our society! I am thrilled to be an artist! I am grateful for this opportunity to feel the wind with my eyes, to love the earth with my ears, and to taste the fire with my tongue.
Genetic basis for synesthesia?
by Cath Simpson, Newfoundland
YESSS!!! I love my synesthetic world and was astounded to discover (in my teens) that not everyone saw music in colours without any, ahem, enhancing substances. Throughout my life I’ve met many other synesthetics. Living in Newfoundland, I’m starting to wonder if our long-isolated island population has an inordinately large proportion of synesthetics, as we do of left-handers, University presidents, and Giller Prize nominees. In a recent gathering of five Newfoundland women, one was synesthetic for numbers and colour, and two of us were synesthetic for music and colour. In fact, we both ‘saw’ the same colours for the same piano notes (warm brown for E flat above middle C, bright green for E, etc.) — something we both considered a fluke. I say ‘saw,’ because as you probably know, it’s a kind of mind’s-eye seeing, as if it happens somewhere between the eye and the brain, yet nonetheless real for that. It’s definitely genetic — my son, a talented musician and linguist, is even more synesthetic than I.
Today is a beautiful orange
by Liz Schamehorn, Washago, Ontario, Canada
Ever since I was a kid, numbers and days of the week have had colours. One is dark blue, two is silver gray, three is orange, four is chestnut brown, five is yellow, six is white, seven is green, eight is dark brown, nine is light tan. Double numbers don’t register. Monday is dark blue, Tuesday is silver gray, Wednesday is orange, Thursday is dark brown, Friday is green, Saturday is red, and Sunday is yellow. Today is a beautiful orange day on the river even though it’s only Tuesday. Does anyone out there see music as colour? My choir is singing Carmina Burana next weekend. I’d love to know what colour that is!
Has to go to the beach to smell the seaweed
by Wendy Edelson
I am a watercolorist, a children’s book & packaging and other stuff illustrator. My entire life I’ve reveled in the often joyful, sometimes just odd idiosyncracies of Synesthesia. When I was a child I thought everyone was “this way.” My own form has manifested itself in accompanying scent with color. I will smell certain perfumes (my other passion, perfume, aromatherapy, etc) & my brain will be completely flooded with a certain color & not what one might assume, i.e… genuine rose madder… the scent of a rose garden after a rain shower. For some reason when I smell the briny scent of seaweed I am momentarily infused with a kind of quinacridone gold. It is quite entertaining. It doesn’t work both ways however. If I squeeze a blob of quinacridone gold onto my palette…. I don’t smell seaweed. Go figure…
Relationship between music and visual art
by Brent Laycock, Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Synesthesia is something that I have lived with (and somewhat enjoyed) all my life. I’ve noticed in recent years an increasing awareness of this phenomenon in the media and public. When I began school, I noticed that every letter and word had a colour associated with it, and this has often been useful as a mnemonic device. As well, all through my artistic career, I have been fascinated with the study of the relationship between music and visual art. I continually find that many solutions to visual compositional problems can be found through thinking about what the painting “sounds like”. It’s an interesting field.
Being in the senses
by Nicoletta Baumeister, London, Ontario, Canada
I am definitely afflicted by this effect. It seems especially present when I’m tired, hungry, or after periods of intense concentration especially in in-depth conversations, or work sessions in the studio. If I have to drive immediately after a painting session, I have to shut off the radio and drive slowly as everything transforms into waves of colour and form. Somebody talking becomes sensations of pressure, which then have colour and taste. I’ve always looked at it as a highly dynamic state of “being in the senses”, instead of the more static state of being in the brain; a state of intuition instead of verbal thought. Synesthesia eh? It sounds very close to anesthesia, feels like air escaping from a balloon and has the colour of carmine shot with rose and lemon yellow hovering on top.
by Carol J. Steen
Did you know that Billy Joel is a synesthete? (sound/color) Other synesthetes include: Nabokov, Richard Feynman, Olivier Messaien, Rebecca West, Franz Liszt, Somerset Maugham, and David Hockney. Synesthesia is an ability where people’s senses are joined, and as an example, sounds are heard in color. Numbers, letters, and words are in color and this particular form is the most common form of all. But there are numerous other forms of synesthesia that are far less common, such as colored pain. It has not been found to be true that all synesthetes experience difficulty with arithmetic, spatial navigation, or left/right confusion. For as many synesthetes who have these difficulties, there are an equal number who do not. I can assure you that Richard Feynman who won the Nobel Prize in Physics and who was a synesthete did not have these difficulties. And synesthetes do NOT act as if they are wired on drugs. Sorry, but that is just not true. Nor is synesthesia any sort of hallucination, welcome or otherwise, nor does synesthesia have anything to do with drugs or with our minds being in a ‘state of overflow.’ This misinformation is sensational, and incorrect. No expert considers synesthesia to be a disorder. On the contrary, most consider it to be a gift and I know of some who have admitted they wish they had synesthesia. The following are some sources that your readers may find valuable:
Discover Magazine. (Dec. 1999) http://www.discover.com/dec_99/featsyn.html
Smithsonian Magazine, (Feb. 2001)
The first synesthesia website was created at MIT. It is still one of the best and has a rating of 2 stars from the Encyclopedia Britannica. http://web.mit.edu/synesthesia/www/synesthesia.html
There is also a website for the International Synaesthesia Association:
The MIT Press journal, Leonardo, has several articles on synesthesia in its recent editions. An article I wrote is in their June issue, Volume 34, Issue 3 entitled: “Visions Shared: A Firsthand Look into Synesthesia and Art”. This link will appear broken in an email, so please copy/paste all of it into the URL field on your browser.
Books on the subject are
Synaesthesia, Classic and Contemporary Reading, edited by Simon Baron-Cohen and John E. Harrison, Blackwell Publishers, 1997 ISBN 0-631-19764-8
The Man Who Tasted Shapes, Richard E. Cytowic, MIT Press, Copyright 1993, reprinted 1997
Bright Colors Falsely Seen, Kevin Dann, Yale University Press, Copyright 1998
Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens, Pat Duffy, H. Holt,
Synesthesia, A Union of the Senses, 2nd Ed., Richard E. Cytowic, MIT Press, Copyright 2002
(RG note) Carol is a co-founder and board member of the American Synesthesia Association, Inc., and North American Representative of the International Synaesthesia Association. I apologize if I misquoted or misunderstood material that is popularly distributed. There seems a wide range of opinion out there. For example: “While superficially resembling a drug-induced hallucination, synesthesia feels profoundly normal to synesthetes. After Joanne Innes, an assistant professor at Goucher College in Baltimore, realized that she saw the world differently than most people, she understood why she was never interested in experimenting with drugs like LSD: ‘There was too much going on in my head already,’ she quipped.” (Shankar Vedantam)
by John D. Vedilago, Göteborg, Sweden
I would like to add a new word to your medical dictionary:
Psychosynesthsia n. “The psychosis of ascribing and linking the normal, natural ability and desire to engage in artistic practice to mental aberrations, hallucinations, neurosis, genetic and physical disorders of the brain, eyes, ears (or lack of one in Van Gogh’s case), nose, hands, throat and mouth etc., anti-social behavior, drug and alcohol addiction, etc.”
Preparing to work time consuming
by Olinda Everett, Sao Paulo, Brazil
There is an ‘ailment’ missing in your medical encyclopedia. Apart from being dyslexic, autistic, synesthetic and having ADD, I also make my nearest and dearest endure the ubiquitous drawing tools/pads, the spreading paint blobs, and the nasty smell of solvents and glues. I have trouble doing art in one space only, either because the light is not right, or the subject is elsewhere, or because of space, or heat, or cold, whatever. My art materials are everywhere and I seem to spend much time — begrudgingly — clearing the decks so we can eat, cook, sit and relax in decent comfort. What would you call that? I used to feel very ashamed of this until I realized that only when all the desirable environmental conditions are right, can I take myself into whatever I am doing and produce something I consider reasonable. My art materials are me out there, and cannot be shifted without killing whatever intent was brewing. My family is tolerant and kind, but their patience sometimes is tested by having to trip over some ongoing project. There are serious drawbacks to these ‘ailments’ — and it took a long time for me to accept that they are not entirely a bad thing but rather the flip side of a great blessing.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2002.
That includes Denise Paquette who says, “I am a pianist and every time I play I am painting at the same time… in my head. The nuances I put in while playing make me think of the colors I put in a painting. So I am glad it is not a disorder.”
And Jacob Thrasher who says, “It’s a wonderful condition. Artists live in technicolor worlds that accountants know not of.”
And Yaroslaw Rozputnyak of Moscow, Russia who says, “A simple test: Try to touch sound record input contact from PC to different parts of your body. These have sound.”
And Tania Bourne of Victoria, BC who says, “You, Robert, are a deep terracotta red.”