18 November 2007

Hearing Colors, Tasting Shapes

Synesthesia is a perceptual phenomenon whereby otherwise normal people have 'tangled' senses. The real information gathered by one sense (e.g. sight) is accompanied by a perception in another sense (e.g. touch or sound).

Imagine that every time you saw the number 4, it would be eggshell blue; or every time you heard an F tone you saw a crisp purple arc half a foot in front of you.

Synesthetic perception can occur between any 2 senses. Probably the most common type of synesthesia is grapheme—color (chromatographemic) synesthesia. For the life of the synesthete, letters and numbers are tinged with a particular shade or color. Attending a cocktail party a few years ago, I was chatting about the subject when a handsome stranger suddenly blurted: ”4 is Green! Lettuce is 4!” In his 40s, this eavesdropping attorney had never known there was a name for this peculiarity in his perception. Like most synesthetes, he assumed everyone saw the way he did until an experience at school had him realize he was ‘different’, & he had never mentioned it to anyone until the day we spoke. He later discovered that his father also saw certain letters and numbers shaded. Research does indicate that synesthesia is to some extent hereditary.

Synesthesia usually doesn’t interfere with day to day life. There are 8 times as many synesthetes working in the creative professions – artists, poets, writers, musicians – than in the general population.

Many synesthetes find that having linked senses assists them in tasks of memorization. Musician Noriko Nagata who sees colors in sounds (chromestesia – colored-hearing synesthesia) reports, “As I was receiving professional education in music (I also have a sense of perfect pitch), the resonance of a sound and the image of a color have always been deeply connected. When it came to composing music, I would think, "I will make blue colored music", or think, "What were these codes I remembered in pink and beige?" during a test on guessing the right code names of tension codes. It has been my habit since I was small to feel colors and memorize things in colors using this way.”

Examples of some more elaborate forms of synesthesia follow:

Some synesthetes taste shapes: ergo the statement, ‘There aren’t enough points in the chicken.’ The taste of roast chicken made this synesthete feel a round shape in his hands, as if he were rubbing a bowling ball instead of feeling the prickly shape he expected. (Cytowic, “The Man who Tasted Shapes”, MIT Press p.11)

Others upon hearing a sound see light, color and identifiable images. ‘Presented with a tone pitched @ 250Hz amplitude 64db, S saw a velvet cord with fibres jutting out on all sides. The cord was tinged with a delicate, pleasant pink-orange hue… Presented with a tone pitched @ 3000Hz amplitude 113db, he saw a whisk broom that was of a fiery color, while the rod attached to the whisks seemed to be scattering off into fiery points. The experiments were repeated during several days and invariably the same stimuli produced identical experiences.” (Baron-Cohen & Harrison, "Synaesthesia: Classic and Contemporary Readings", Blackwell Publishers, Cambridge, MA, p.102)

MIT's 'The Synesthetic Experience' has a couple of on-line demos simulating synesthetic experience, and accounts of first-hand experiences of synesthesia.


Krissa said...

Cool post!
I'm a synesthete myself--I see smells, music, tastes, and just about everything else in colors.

Simone said...

Thx for the comment. Your synesthesia sounds fascinating. How did you discover you perceived the world 'differently' from most people?

Krissa said...

Well, my older brothers both have synesthesia too, to a smaller extent than I do.
One day I mentioned something about it to one of them, and he told me that it was called synesthesia, and that not everyone saw things the same way. I was rather shocked that not everyone had it. :-)

Simone said...

That's great! More research seems to point to heredity (see new post 'fusiform gyrus').

About 10 years ago I attended an experimental music concert where the musicians had invented instruments that employed microtones. When one tone was hit my mouth would fill with the taste of tangerines & when another tone was played my mouth filled with the taste of blood. I actually ran out of the room terrified that I'd ruptured something. Have been fascinated by synesthesia ever since.

Thanks for your comments!

Krissa said...

How fascinating!
I can see how that might be rather unsettling! :-)

I've never gotten a real strong sound-> taste reaction--only once in a while, and it's fairly weak.
But everything you can think of is in color for me.
I go to concerts and watch all the pretty colors and patterns the music makes.

Malta Kano said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
simone said...

Your concerts sound gorgeous. Other than that one show I attended, I haven't had other synesthetic experiences. However I have successfully used post-hypnotic suggestion with clients to have them more 'alert' to particular colors or sensations. At one point I had a couple of musician friends who wanted me to experiment with artificially 'inducing' synesthesia, hypnotically, to see how it would affect their experience of playing and composing. Something I want to pick up again at some point.

If anyone is reading and curious about participating, email neuromaggio@gmail.com.