Synaesthesia. What does this word mean to you? You may never have heard it before. You might have an inkling of what it means. You might be a synaesthete yourself.
Synaesthesia is (typically) Greek – it pretty much means “mixing of the senses”. There are many types, because we have many senses, and they can be mixed in a variety of different ways. The most common kinds are colour-grapheme synaesthesia and colour-auditory synaesthesia. Fairly self explanatory, but to clarify: colour-grapheme synaesthesia is when printed letters or numbers cause the synaesthete to experience particular colours (well, see above!) and colour-auditory synaesthesia is linked to music, voices or “noise” producing an experience of colours. The colours experienced are internally consistent: if a synaesthete experiences a middle C as blue, it is ALWAYS blue. If a sharp rap on the table is experienced as a flash of white light, then this will always be the case. That is not to say that all synaesthetes experience middle C as blue or a knock on wood as white flashbombs, but those are some examples.
Various neurobiological theories exist, trying to explain synaesthesia. The most popular is that synaesthetes have unusual, cross-sensory connections in the cerebral cortex, which have been “improperly pruned” during development of the nervous system. It’s difficult to know for sure, but what is certain is that these vivid, cross-sensory experiences are very real, and for more people than you might expect.
What advantage might it hold for synaesthetes? Well, a lot of incredibly creative people have utilised their quirk to their advantage: for example, the physicist Richard Feynman reported seeing equations in colour, which no doubt helped him to visualise his work (and may well have helped him win that Nobel prize!!). Kandinsky on the other hand claimed to be a colour-auditory synaesthete: he used music to illicit colourful tones in his minds eye, and utilised this as part of his artistic process, creating “visual symphonies“.
So what? It’s an interesting quirk, but why research it? It doesn’t seem to cause any harm, so why should neuropsychologists (including me, a mere student) be interested in studying it?
And here in lies the big question. What can what we know about synaesthesia help science in any way? Yes, it’s really interesting, but does it have any practical applications? This, according to Dr Jansari (with whom I had a meeting yesterday) is the big So What? We need to be able to answer that, in order to make a study out of it actually worth doing.
One possibility is that artificial synaesthesia (i.e. helped by computers) could be utilised by people with sensory deprivations, to help them experience the world in a more holistic way. Sounds impossible? Might not be – the intriguing Steve Mann (also known as Mann as Cyborg) started an experiment in the 1980s (using his weird and wonderful wearable computers) to map senses to other senses (synaesthetic synaesthesia, if you like) – such as experience sights as sounds, and so forth. This has made very slow progress (or at least seems to – Mann’s own website is a bit of a shambles and it is very hard to get any information on him), but you may have, in the past couple of years, about a gadget that allows blind or visually impaired people “taste sight”. The concept is phenomenally weird, but most reports I’ve read have said that it is actually pretty effective.
So there might be a point to researching synaesthesia, after all, beyond my natural British obsession with the weird.
So, are you a musical synaesthete? Do you see colours or shapes when you hear music? Or do you know anyone who is? I would love to hear from you!
- The UEL Synaesthesia Research Team
- The neuropsychology of synaesthesia
- Oliver Sacks – Musicophilia
- The Synaesthesia Battery