Neuromagic: The Harmony of Synesthesia

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Come on you raver, you seer of visions, come on you painter, you piper, you prisoner, and shine! …. Shine On You Crazy Diamond – Pink Floyd

Syd Barrett, Wassily Kandinsky, Duke Ellington, Vladimir Nabokov, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jimi Hendrix, Richard Feynman, Lady Gaga… all geniuses that helped shape their world. And all synesthetes.

Synesthetes ‘suffer’ from the extraordinary neurological condition Synesthesia and experience automatic involuntary cross-sensory stimulation. They’re read numbers and letters in colour, hear sounds in colour, taste in colour and even touch in colour. The crossed wires in their heads leave them just sane enough to survive outside asylums and just mad enough to lead lives of invention, art and profanity.

The ’60s saw an explosion of pop culture as advances in communication technology brought art to larger and larger audiences. This also made the interconnections between media more important as people’s cultural vocabularies grew richer and more demanding. Painters traced the lines of mass-produced palimpsests, and literary references littered music and cinema… two media that were now inextricably interlinked.

Jefferson Airplane advised, ‘Feed your head’ and Norman Bates assured us that, ‘We all go a little mad sometimes.’

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The term color organ was coined in the eighteenth century, long before neon energy and printed soup cans, and referred to a tradition of mechanical (and then) mechanical/ electro-mechanical devices built to represent sound or accompany music in a visual medium. One hundred years later, Johann Wolfgang van Goethe proposed in his book Theory of Colour (1810) that musical and colour tones shared common frequencies, echoing Sir Isaac Newton’s observations.

In the 1980s, Steve Mann regarded the Internet as a ‘Sixth Sense’, which could be mapped to the other five senses by way of such synthetic Synesthesia. Lady Gaga said in a 2011 interview that, ‘When I write songs, I hear melodies and I hear lyrics… but I also see colour.’

An example of a synesthete who sees the months of the year in colour

The word Synesthesia has been used for 300 years to describe very different things, from poetry and metaphor to deliberately contrived mixed-media applications such as Son et Lumière shows, which is also a song by America progressive rock band The Mars Volta from their 2003 album De-Loused in the Comatorium. There are over 60 reported types of Synesthesia, but the five most commons forms are:

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Grapheme to Colour Synesthesia is the most common. Author of Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens Pat Duffy might see blue cats as an adult, but is it so surprising that as a child she ‘realised that to make an ‘R’ all [she] had to do was first write a ‘P’ and draw a line down from its loop.’ Pat Duffy experiences Grapheme to Colour synesthsia, where  graphemes (individual letters of the alphabet and numbers) are ‘shaded’ or ‘tinged’ with a colour. Recent research has unearthed commonalities across letters, for example ‘A’ corresponds with red and ‘S’ is distinctly pink.

Cassidy Curtis talks about her experience of synesthesia in a 1988 interview. When she was learning Hebrew, she found that ‘each letter acquires the letter of its English transliteration’, for example mem becomes a dark blue like ‘m’, and chet becomes green-and-pink like ‘ch’. Cassidy also describes accents and punctuation as adding little flecks of spice to a word and, although the colour does not change ‘grave, acute and circumflex, accents are all flecks of dirty brown-black, and the little circle over the letter ‘A’ is milky-white… like the letter O.

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According to Danko Nikolić of the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt, concepts can trigger synesthetic experiences, and the colour associated with the number seven, when presented with the sum 5 + 2, is yellow.

In literature, Synesthesia is seen as a Romantic ideal in which one transcends one’s experience of the world. Synesthete Nabokov repeatedly brings up the condition in many of his novels, starting with Speak, Memory. ‘I am puzzled by my French on which I see as the brimming tension-surface of alcohol in a small glass. The word for rainbow, a primary, but decidedly muddy, rainbow, is in my private language the hardly pronounceable: kzspygv.’

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Sound to Colour Synesthesia causes one to experience voice, music and various environmental sounds in colour – ‘something like fireworks’ according to Richard Cytowic, or shapes that shift, distort and fade when the sound ends. Some of history’s most iconic musicians are considered to have experienced this type of Synesthesia – although their oft-tragic deaths sometimes prevent diagnosis. In one study, an individual experiences Sound-Colour Synesthesia when he listens to Pink Floyd’s ‘Goodbye Blue Sky’ – a tribute song to Barrett, while another trigger is Radiohead’s OK Computer, which is discussed in the 1998 rockumentary Meeting People is Easy.

The sound often causes a difference in hue, brightness, scintillation and direction, and although studies have shown the synesthete to rarely agree on the colour the sound gives, there are certain trends: loud tones appear brighter than soft tones and lower tones appear darker than higher tones.  (can we find a way to avoid repeating ‘tones’?)

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Number Form Synesthesia causes a mental map of numbers (surely colour?) when thinking of numbers, months of the year, and/or days of the week. This numerical-spatial association could make 1990 might appear to be further away than 1980, or might create a (three-dimensional) view of a year as a map.

Personification – a part of speech that high school English class would not be complete without. But ‘Ordinal-linguistic personification’? Sounds daunting, or like something you need a special ointment for. This may be a ‘neurological condition’, but I would have appreciated a classmate who thought, as Cakins did, that: ‘Ts are generally crabbed, ungenerous creatures. U is a soulless sort of thing. 4 is honest, but… 3 I cannot trust… 9 is dark, a gentleman, tall and graceful, but politic under his suavity.’

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Imagine the word ‘blue’ tasting inky or the letter ‘f’ like sherbet. It does for James Wannerton, who has Lexical to Gustatory Synesthesia, which makes individual words and phonemes cause taste sensations. Wannerton reports, ‘Whenever I hear, read or articulate words or word sounds, I experience an immediate and involuntary taste sensation on my tongue.’ This is constrained by early food experiences: if the synesthete has not tasted a certain food – say coffee as a child – then they would have not synesthetic experience of coffee as an adult but would continue to have synesthetic experience of a food that is no longer produced. This is just one the condition’s bizarre mysteries.

Artists, composers, poets, novelists and digital artists have used Synesthesia as a source of inspiration. Synesthetic art historically refers to multi-sensory experiments in the genres of visual music, music visualisation, audio-visual art and abstract film, which contrasts with neuroscience’s concept of Synesthesia in the arts as the simultaneous perception of multiple stimuli in one experience.

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Tom Wolfe writes in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test that ‘the notion that A in the past caused B in the present, which will cause C in the future, when actually A, B, and C are all part of a pattern that can be truly understood only by opening the doors of perception and experiencing it.’ Like Hunter S Thompson, Tom Wolfe was a pioneer in New Journalism, though Gonzo was more than just writing as it offered a new way of perceiving the world. Gonzo painted life in colours that clashed and tickled our senses.  

As Hunter S Thompson said, ‘When the going gets weird, the weird turn Pro.’ One is often wary of the unknown, especially when it’s defined as a ‘neurological condition’. Synesthesia is a visual topic, in some ways impossible to explore on paper, but maybe you’ve experienced it in a song, a flash of lightening, a kiss. Maybe you experience it every day and never knew it had a name.   

‘I make out a schoolbus…glowing orange, green, magenta, lavender, chlorine blue, every fluorescent pastel imaginable in thousands of designs, both large and small, like a cross between Fernand Liger and Dr. Strange, roaring together and vibrating off each other as if somebody had given Hieronymous Bosch fifty buckets of day-glo paint and a 1939 International Harvester schoolbus and told him to go to it.’
― Tom WolfeThe Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

Originally published in Issue 24 (jan/feb/mar) of one small seed magazine, 2012

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