Brain Drain – Synesthesia, An Unexplored Art

Posted by Divya Bansal
January 9, 2017

How many times has it so happened that on hearing the violin, you felt a tickle in your body? Or just the idea of going to office or school, or in general to work, on a Monday made you associate it with the colour blue. You may have also formed a connection between the abstract concepts of time and distance when you would have considered 1980 to be farther than 1990. When you hold a flower, you could complement its shape, its colour or smell or even the feel of the petals. If any of this has been experienced by you, you probably are a synesthete.

Synesthesia, as a concept, is the production of a sense impression relating to one sense or part of the body by stimulation of another sense or part of the body. This could occur in any combination and any number of senses. To put it in other terms, it is a cross-modal perception or multi-sensory integration. To break it up, ‘syn’ means together and ‘aesthesia’ means perception. The concept however faded into scientific oblivion post the rise of behaviourism because it was a subjective experience and behaviourists considered a study of such experiences a taboo.

The most common form, however, is the one relating letters and numbers to colours. Usually, this triggering of the senses happens automatically or involuntarily and is something that cannot be learnt which also is a testimony to the fact that synesthetes are consistent in their associations. By consistency, it is meant that their associations, say between colours and numbers, wherein a particular number triggers the visualisation of a particular colour, is something that will remain for eternity and is not subject to the time period in which the person is confronted or the mood of the person.

As a result of this, it can be safely concluded that it is not a subjective experience and makes for an interesting study as well. This phenomenon is something that to a non-synesthete may appear more or less like a gift. You can gauge that by yourself with the following example. Danial Tammet set the European record for pi memorisation wherein he was able to remember 22,514 digits in five hours merely because he was able to relate numbers to colours. Inspite of such an achievement, few synesthetes consider it to be a neurologically challenging condition. Synesthetes consider it a totally normal phenomenon and they assume everybody else sees the world or the events happening around them in the way as they do. In the larger picture, it is just a difference in the perceptual experience. But when they explain this to a non-synesthete, that’s when such baseless conclusions are confounded.

One experience that can be closely linked to this concept and that would have been experienced by all of us is that of the usage of metaphors in literature pieces. A metaphor is applied to an object of action to which it is not applicable. For eg.- “She is fishing in troubled waters”. So something that is not so easy to be attained has been translated to fishing in troubled waters. This does not mean that the writer is a synesthete but that is as close to it as he can get using words. Synesthetes perform in the

Synesthetes perform in the superior range of the Weschler Memory Scale. Within their overall high intelligence, synesthetes have uneven cognitive skills. While a minority are frankly dyscalculic, the majority may have subtle mathematical deficiencies (such as lexical-to-digit transcoding). Right-left confusion, and a poor sense of direction for vector rather than network maps are common. At times the sensual experience is intense enough to affect rational thinking.

The spatial location of objects is also strikingly remembered, such as the precise location of kitchen utensils, furniture arrangements and floor plans, books on shelves, or text blocks in a specific book. Perhaps related to this observation is a tendency to prefer order, neatness, symmetry, and balance. Work cannot commence until the desk is arranged just so, or everything in the kitchen is put away in its proper place.

To the synesthete, there are moments of sensory overload because it is a lot of information to process. However, at other times, because of the relation they can forge between the various senses, their memories are usually stronger. They are also creative in the sense that they visualise most of the stuff, whereas a non-synesthete would have to memorise it.

Types of synesthesia

Synesthesia can either be projective or associative. In the projective kind, the person can see the relation, while in the associative kind, they feel the connection. By the terminology alone, one can conclude that the former kind is a stronger and rather more intense form. Of the various forms of synesthesia based on the senses being linked, is chromesthesia which links sound to color. This form is prevalent in about 18-40% of the synesthetes and is the second most common one after the grapheme-color synesthesia, the one relating numbers to colors.

People could be quick to associate loud tones to brighter colours when compared to the softer ones. Newton proposed that musical tones and color tones had common frequencies as did Goethe in his book, The Theory of Colors. David Hockney, on the other hand, uses the same concept to paint opera stage sets. Probably he had increased activation in the visual areas of the brain in response to sound. This is common with chromesthetes. Also, it may not always be as beautiful or colourful as it may sound. A phenomenon named misophonia may arise which triggers negative experiences because of specific sounds. This is probably even banked upon by the music producers of a horror movie to instill fear in the minds of the audience. One can safely imagine getting goosebumps by the visuals and the audio of such a movie. Here too, there has been interlinking of the senses and can qualify as a synesthetical experience, something that was intentional on the part of the producers.

The main cause for this phenomenon is the cross talk between regions specialised for different functions. Basically excitation of the senses by the stimulus and the inhibition of the sensation stimulated go hand in hand. However in syntesthetes, the feedback is disinhibited. The neurons and synapses that are supposed to be contained within one sensory system cross onto another. The neural connections according to a few scientists are probably something that all the kids are born with and the non-synesthetes end up losing it as they grow. Richard Cytowic in his research has mentioned that the limbic system was responsible for this condition. The limbic system has several structures that are responsible for regulating our emotional response. For chromesthetes, the visual cortex is the area of the brain responsible.

Use of study and its applications

Study of Synesthesia gives a good insight into cognitive and perceptual processes. It could help in making us understand how we perceive the world and more over how the brain is organised in order to undertake these tasks. The concept can be used as a pain reducing mechanism in order to shift attention. Study has it that it is particularly useful in food tasting where in a synesthete can relate the smell and taste to colors and shapes which by their pleasantness or nastiness help them to qualify the food better.


The creative arts

A wide number of artists have wanted to explore the co operation of senses. Synesthetic art may, however, refer to either art created by synesthetes or art created to elicit a synesthetic experience in the general audience.

Anne Salz, a Dutch musician and visual artist, perceives music in colored patterns. She describes her painting inspired by Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins as “the colors of a blanket or cover made of autumn leaves.”

She explains that the painting is not a copy of what she hears; rather, when she listens to music, she perceives more colorful textures than she normally perceives and she is able to depict them in the painting. She also expresses the movement of the music, as its energy influences the pictorial composition.

Synesthesia, therefore is an unexplored concept that prevail in and around people, knowingly or unknowingly. The fun part is that it lets one explore the numerous untapped sections of the brain, which, if used wisely can do wonders for human evolution.