Saturday, 1 November 2008

Synaesthesia (Part I)

Synaesthesia means “joined senses”. There are many different forms of synaesthesia: each of the five senses can be joined to each of the others leading to conditions where, for example, a certain taste or smell will trigger a visual or auditory response.

I am a synaesthete. I experience coloured hearing, and see visual representations of time. For example, when I hear squealing brakes I see silver zig-zags floating before me; when I hear kettle drums I see slowly-expanding, dark red, upright ovals; when I think of the year, I see before me the outline of an upright oval with the months of the year strung on it like beads, with February always in that two o'clock position, and the portion of time just ahead of the present always slightly expanded.

As synaesthetic experience is exclusive to the person who experiences it, while each particular synaesthetic experience is real and infinitely repeatable for its originator it can never be duplicated in anyone else—not even in another synaesthete, who will have his or her own unique response to every particular stimulus. So, other synaesthetes with coloured hearing will each experience their own, unique visual response to the stimulus of squealing brakes, while other reported synaesthetic responses to time include coloured days of the week, and a completely linear representation of the shape of a year.

Synaesthetic responses are fixed: I have always seen that silver zig-zag in response to squealing brakes, and always will. I won’t see blue spheres, or green clouds: for me, that squealing noise IS silver and zig-zag-shaped, and cannot be anything else. It is only when I try to communicate synaesthesia to others that I alter it: in my attempts to record the synaesthetic experience (to describe it, to write it down or to paint it), it is immediately translated from concrete experience into the more fluid realm of metaphor.

So, what does synaesthesia have to do with a blog about publishing?

Consensus is that we are all born synaesthetic but, as our brains and nervous systems develop and grow in those first few months, our senses separate. In synaesthetes, however, some of this sensory separation remains incomplete. Perhaps we all retain an echo of it: perhaps it is the faint, unconscious memory of a more complete, connected whole which we respond to when we read a subtly synaesthetic text.

Laurence Marks, a Yale University psychologist, has described synaesthesia as “the basis for metaphor”*; Pulitzer Prize-nominated neuropsychologist Richard E Cytowic has stated, “If it were not for synaesthesia, we probably would not have language”;** and V S Ramachandran, Professor of Neurosciences at the University of California, went further when he said, “We begin with a disorder that’s been known for a century but treated as a curiosity. And then we showed that the phenomenon is real, what the underlying brain mechanisms might be, and lastly spelled out what the broader implications of this curious phenomenon might be…. finally all the way to understanding abstract thought and how it might have emerged, metaphor, Shakespeare, even the evolution of language—all of this in this one little quirk… synaesthesia.”***

* Marks, Lawrence E. 1990. Synaesthesia: Perception and Metaphor. In Frederick Burwick and Walter Pape, eds., Aesthetic Illusion: Theoretical and historical approaches. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

** Cytowic, Richard E. 13 June 2005. Well, what is synaesthesia? Interview in Eyebeam Art and Technology Center online journal.

*** Ramachandran,V S. 2003. Purple Numbers and Sharp Cheese. Reith Lectures 2003: The Emerging Mind.


Peter Drobinski said...


This is very interesting - I'm looking forward to Part 2, not least because I'm a fellow synaesthete in a small way. From the earliest time I can remember, days of the week have always had the same colours. Mon-Blue, Tue-Yellow, Wed-Green, Thu-Brown, Fri-Red, Sat-White, Sun-Black.

I have had good natured arguments with a synaesthetic friend over their weekday colours, which are different, of course, but also much more particularly hued than mine. Perhaps mine are less well pinned down due to my slight red/green colour blindness!

Jane Smith said...

Peter, both my sons are profoundly colour-blind: they have issues with green (they usually know when something is red, but often confuse green for red or brown and have each painted beautiful pictures of green cats in their time) and with strong pinks and blues (they're convinced that the wild rhododendrons which grow on the track to our house have blue flowers rather than the strong pinky-purple ones that I see). What's really interesting is that they've both shown tendencies to synaesthesia, and have been flummoxed when it comes to naming some of the colours that they see as a result. From what I can work out their synaesthetic colour vision doesn't suffer from the same problems as their day-to-day colour vision. And I think that's fascinating!

Sally Zigmond said...

I'm yet to be convinced about synaesthesia alone being the basis for metaphor. After all, most of us are not synaesthetes (I wish I was! Most of the greatest artists, musicians etc were/are.) When writing I find metaphors come easily but to me it's more as a result of emotion and memory, so that sound of a football match on a cold Saturday afternoon is purple-grey and tastes of sardines on toast, because of my childhood experiences. I know this isn't the same thing at all and nothing to do with synaesthesia but it tells me that the creation of metaphor is more complex.

Peter Drobinski said...

This is really off the point, but as a person with colour vision deficiencies, shall we say, I can still recognise many different shades of green, red, and even brown. Part of the problem is being unable to describe the difference I see, or put a name to it. That may be colour blindness playing its part, but it may also be me failing to understand the connection between colours and the words we use to pin them down. Lime Green, for example, bothers me - which bit of the multicoloured limes I see in the supermarket does that refer to?! And don't get me started on 'Taupe".... (Please feel free to delete this, as it's not really on topic!)

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post, Jane. I'm not synaesthetic - thought like Sally I do have very strong sensory associations - but in writing I'm fascinated by transcendent states of mind and body (for instance, Anthony in A Secret Alchemy) and I often find that in trying to convey my characters' experience of such states I've resorted to mixing sensory information: for example, "the scent rang in my ears like bells"

I also think it's interesting that Saussure, busy separating words and texts themselves from the physical things they refer to, was in fact himself synaesthetic, so that certain word-sounds in fact had inextricable sensory content, which was different depending on whether the word was written or spoken.

Anonymous said...

Your description is EXACTLY how I envision the calendar year, down to February at 2:00. I can tell with assurance what color each letter of the alphabet is, and consequently, I can generally tell you the color of words. I've read that while those of us who can see the colors of letters may differ about them, we nearly always see the letter "O" as white. I also can see sounds. I think that is why I prefer symphonic music. It is an aural and visual experience for me.

As to its contribution to the creation of metaphor, I wish it worked better for me. I tend to be too literal in my writing.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jane,
Just playing catch up with everything and finally managed to get up to date with your blog - looking good! Have emailed you several times but didn't get a reply. Then had book to finish before deadlilne and only just remembered to look you up again. Speak when you get time. Debs xxx