“What would be truly surprising would be to find that sound could not suggest colour, that colours could not evoke the idea of a melody, and that sound and colour were unsuitable for the translation of ideas, seeing that things have always found their expression through a system of reciprocal analogy.” Charles Baudelaire
A simple definition of synesthesia is that it is a “crosstalking” or overlapping of sensory experiences that for most people remain separate.
Researchers find a higher proportion of creative people are synesthetes.
The image is from the book “The Hidden Sense: Synesthesia in Art and Science.”
The publisher explains that synesthesia occurs “when two or more senses cooperate in perception. Once dismissed as imagination or delusion, metaphor or drug-induced hallucination, the experience of synesthesia has now been documented by scans of synesthetes’ brains…”
The author “reports that some studies define synesthesia as a brain impairment, a short circuit between two different areas. But synesthetes cannot imagine perceiving in any other way; many claim that synesthesia helps them in daily life.”
The quote by French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) comes from the article “Art and Synesthesia: in search of the synesthetic experience” by Dr. Hugo Heyrman, a lecture presented at the First International Conference on Art and Synesthesia in 2005, Universidad de Almería, Spain.
Dr. Heyrman writes, “My starting point is the hypothesis that ‘synesthesia-phenomena’ are at the roots of all artistic practice.”
He also quotes neuroscientist Dr. Vilayanur S. Ramachandran (from ‘Hearing Colors, Tasting Shapes’, Scientific American, May 2003): “Synesthesia is seven times more common among artists, novelists and poets, and creative people in general. Artists often have the ability to link unconnected domains, have the power of metaphor and the capability of blending realities.”
[Book by V.S. Ramachandran: "The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human."]
A summary of the book “Wednesday Is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia” by Richard E. Cytowic notes, “Synesthetes rarely talk about their peculiar sensory gift – believing either that everyone else senses the world exactly as they do, or that no one else does. Yet synesthesia occurs in one in twenty people, and is even more common among artists. One famous synesthete was novelist Vladimir Nabokov, who insisted as a toddler that the colors on his wooden alphabet blocks were ‘all wrong.’ His mother understood exactly what he meant because she, too, had synesthesia.”
In her Psych Central article “3 Fascinating Facts About Our Brilliant Brains,” Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. quotes neuroscientist David Eagleman from his book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain: “For some people, there are magenta Tuesdays, tastes that have shapes and wavy green symphonies.”
Eagleman gives more examples in his book: “…the feel of sandpaper might evoke an F-sharp, the taste of chicken might be accompanied by a feeling of pinpoints on the fingertips, or a symphony might be experienced in blues and golds.”
People with “spatial sequence synesthesia” have locations for time and other numbers. For instance, “They can point to the spot where the number 32 is, where December floats or where the year 1966 lies.”
Video: “Synesthesia: A film by Jonathan Fowler” – “In this documentary, Dr. David Eagleman of Baylor College of Medicine explains this condition, and four synesthetes explain how they perceive the world.”
More common with artists
In her article “Are You a Synesthete?,” Darya L. Zabelina, M. S., says “Four percent of the population, when seeing number 5, also see color red. Or hear a C-sharp when seeing blue. Or even associate orange with Tuesdays. And among artists, the number goes to 20-25%!”
She explains, “The primary perspective of the cause of synesthesia is a mutation that causes defective pruning between areas of the brain that are ordinarily connected only sparsely. Therefore areas that are disconnected within a human brain retain certain connections in synesthetes, which causes unusual associations.”
In “First person: One singular sensation,” Lily Dayton (Special to the Los Angeles Times February 20, 2012) writes about her experience “when someone’s telling you a story and you get that amazing tingly feeling in your scalp, like their words are massaging your brain.”
She also writes about having a conversation with her father, who shares these kinds of experiences, about “the thrilling roar of the vacuum and the way the song ‘Ave Maria’ could feel like wing beats grazing our foreheads.”
In her longer article “The blended senses of synesthesia” she writes about even more connections: “If you ask Emma Anders about the number five, she’ll tell you that it’s red. She’ll also tell you that five is a mischievous, self-centered brat — like a kid throwing a temper tantrum at a party.
“Two is yellow, three is purple, four is an intense sky blue,” says the 21-year old student at UC San Diego. “An eight is very noble and kind of held together, almost like a parent figure to five. Nine is a brown-haired guy, and he’s pretty calm — but he’s really into seven.”
She says Anders also “ascribes colors to flavors and smells. (Vaseline, for instance, smells burgundy, and a green apple tastes yellowish-orange.)”
A cognitive advantage
Dayton notes that David Brang, a UC San Diego neuroscientist says “nature provides a strong hint that the brains of synesthetes may have some kind of cognitive advantage.
“The genes for synesthesia appear to be dominant, and family trees depict the trait marching through the bloodline. This high degree of heritability suggests the genetic mutation that causes synesthesia provides some significant evolutionary benefit.”
She adds, “Brang’s hypothesis is that the benefit is related to creativity, enhanced perception and overall smarts.
“So far, studies have found that so-called colored sequence synesthetes (who experience color when they see numbers or letters) have a heightened ability to discriminate between similar colors, while mirror-touch synesthetes (who experience touch sensations when watching another person touch themselves) are more sensitive to touch in general.”
What about you? Do you experience any kind of synesthesia?
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Last reviewed: 20 Feb 2012