G# Is Turquoise: Synesthesia

Composer Olivier Messiaen invented a new method of composition specifically to render his bi-directional sound-color synesthesia.

Composer Olivier Messiaen invented a new method of composition specifically to render his bi-directional sound-color synesthesia.

Synesthesia: a concomitant sensation; especially:  a subjective sensation or image of a sense (as of color) other than the one (as of sound) being stimulated.
-Merium Webster Dictionary

Fascinating, isn’t it? The term literally means “joined perception,” and there are a variety of ways in which this can manifest. Some people may smell a texture or see smells, for example. The most common form is seeing different colors in response to particular letters or numbers. This raises all kinds of questions about a synesthete’s experience of the world and, of course, their experience creating artwork. Some renowned artists are speculated to have had synesthesia, such as Duke Ellington, David Hockney, Wasily Kandinsky, and Orhan Pamuk; how does this change how we view their artwork? Does that even matter?



Anatomy of a Neuron // Source: http://askabiologist.asu.edu/neuron-anatomy

Anatomy of a Neuron // Source: http://askabiologist.asu.edu/neuron-anatomy

For a long while, synesthesia was dismissed as a result of overactive imaginations or as a side-effect of a mental illness, and it is only in recent years that it has been accepted as a condition with a neurological basis.

The cause of synesthesia remains a bit of a mystery to scientists, but it appears to be (a) an inheritable trait and (b) to be caused by “crossed-wiring” in the brain. Sean Day, researcher and president of the American Synesthesia Association, has pointed to myelin as a possible cause.1

Bear with me here: neurons use electrical signals to pass messages to each other. Dendrites at one end of the neuron collect signals from neighbor neurons, and that electrical signal is sent to the soma, the main cell body. Then, the signal travels down a long, thread-like projection called the axon, which is wrapped in a sheath of myelin, and leaves the neuron at the synapse, which is located at the opposite end from whence the charge was collected.

Myelin is a white, fatty substance that only forms around the axon of the neuron, and it acts as an insulator. In fact, the “white matter” in the brain is basically an area of  high-density myelin-wrapped axons. Sean Day claims that people with synesthesia tend to have more myelinated neural connections, or “hypermyelination,” in the sensory areas of the brain, and thus, this increased structural connectivity allows for these areas to communicate in unique ways.1

There are two main hypotheses to explain this structural development. According to one, there is increased growth and connectivity between areas of the brain which usually distinct.7 The other hypothesis postulates that the sensory cross-talk occurs due to a lack of proper inhibition. In a normal brain, excitation (when a neuron relays information to another, which can lead to the physical growth of a neuron) is balanced with inhibition (restricting the flow of information). However, a brain experiencing synesthesia will have localized areas where the inhibitory networks are blocked.7


Source: Eagleman, David M., and Melvyn A. Goodale. “Why Color Synesthesia Involves More than Color.”


There is no official method or standard for diagnosing synesthesia, but researcher Richard Cytowic, developed a few general guidelines 2:

1. Involuntary and automatic: “It is a passive experience that happens to someone. It is unsuppressible, but elicited by a stimulus that is usually identified without difficulty. It cannot be conjured up or dismissed at will”2

2. Projected: Most experience the effects as if they occur in the real world, not simply imagined.

C. Durable and generic: The particular association do not change over time, and it is simple, not elaborate or highly detailed.

D. Memorable: Often, the secondary perception is remembered better than the primary perception. “‘She had a green name – I forget, it was either Ethel or Vivian.’ In this example, it is the synesthetic greenness and not the semantic label that is recalled. In other words, if Ethel is a green blob, the next time you see her you don’t say, ‘it’s Ethel,’ you say, ‘It’s the green blob: therefore, it is Ethel.’”2

E. Affective: It evokes emotional reactions. “The experience is accompanied by a sense of certitude (the “this is it” feeling) and a conviction that what synesthetes perceive is real and valid.“2

Carol Steen "Vision" (1996). A representation of a synesthetic photism experienced during acupuncture.

Carol Steen “Vision” (1996). A representation of a synesthetic photism experienced during acupuncture.

Today, between 1 and 4% of the population are believed to have some form of synesthesia. There are over 60 types, though these fall under two basic categories. Perceptual synesthesia (a.k.a. projected or synesthesia proper) reacts to information perceived by the senses, which allows people to “see” sounds or “taste” shapes. Conceptual synesthesia (a.k.a. associative, cognitive, or category synesthesia) is triggered by abstract concepts. People who experience this type couple certain abstract categories, such as people’s names or months of the year, with some kind of sense, such as a smell or a color.


Let’s get this straight: synesthesia does not warp your senses.  It adds to a person’s initial sensory perception but does not replace one perceptual mode for another.

“With my colored musical timbres, I both hear and “see” the sounds; the visual images don’t replace the audial sensations. Both sensory perceptions may thus become affected and altered in the ways they function and integrate with other senses.”4 -Sean Day

It’s like adding supplemental information, which, for the artist, is a blessing and a curse.

Wassily Kandinsky. "Composition VIII"  (1923)

Wassily Kandinsky. “Composition VIII”

Obviously, there is some kind of relationship between synesthesia and creativity. In an interview with Vladimir Nabokov, Richard Cytowic discussed how the gene for synesthsia allows for one area of the brain to be highly connected with another area. Research has also found that having “one kind of synesthesia gives a person a 50 percent chance of having a second or third kind, meaning that the gene expresses itself in two or three separate areas in that person’s brain.”5 If this hyper-connectivity begins to spread throughout the brain, not in just one or two areas, then we would have a VERY creative individual: “One would have a generalized talent for cross connecting apparently unrelated concepts, which is the definition of metaphor: seeing the similar in the dissimilar.”5

Perhaps, says Cytowic, this is why the gene has not evolved out of the species and why it remains rather prevalent in the population. “When the gene expresses itself in sensory parts of the brain, people are outwardly synesthetic. But what are they like when the mutation expresses itself in non–sensory brain parts such as those concerned with memory, planning, or moral reasoning? Might it contribute to increased creativity, thereby making humans smarter as a whole?”5

So, although we tend to think of such “conditions” or neural abnormalities in a negative light, synesthesia seems to me to be something that can positively influence the artistic community. Aside from offering unique perspectives on the world, synesthesia gives neuroscientists and (on a less technical scale) the general population an opportunity to learn more about how we process perceptual reality. After all:

“synesthesia is a consciously elevated form of the perception that everyone already has. Minds that function differently are not so strange after all, and everyone can learn from them.”5


1. Carlsen, Audrey. “Some People Really Can Taste The Rainbow.”NPR. NPR. Web. 14 May 2014. <http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2013/03/12/174132392/synesthetes-really-can-taste-the-rainbow>.

2. Cytowic, Richard E. “Synesthesia: Phenomenology and neuropsychology.”Psyche 2.10 (1995): 2-10. Web. 15 May 2014. <http://www.theassc.org/files/assc/2346.pdf&gt;.

3. Rouw, Romke, and H. Steven Scholte. “Increased structural connectivity in grapheme-color synesthesia.” Nature neuroscience 10.6 (2007): 792-797. Web. 15 May 2014. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17515901>.

4. Day, Sean. “Definition.”Synesthesia. Updated 2001. Web. 15 May 2014. <http://www.daysyn.com/Definition.html>

5. “When Senses Intersect.” Scientific American Global RSS. 12 May 2009. Web. 15 May 2014. <http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/when-senses-intersect/>.

6. Costandi, Mo. “Synaesthesia – Crossovers in the Senses.”Theguardian.com. Guardian News and Media, 19 Nov. 2010. Web. 15 May 2014. <http://www.theguardian.com/science/2010/nov/19/synaesthesia-cross-overs-senses?CMP=twt_fd>.

7. Eagleman, David M., and Melvyn A. Goodale. “Why Color Synesthesia Involves More than Color.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 13.7 (2009): 288-92. Web. 15 May 2014. http://www.eaglemanlab.net/papers/EaglemanGoodaleTICS2009_TextureSynesthesia.pdf



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