… lend your ears to music, open your eyes to painting, and … stop thinking! Just ask yourself whether the work has enabled you to “walk about” into a hitherto unknown world. If the answer is yes, what more do you want?
—Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944)
SOMETIMES, I AM not sure, upon telling other people that I am a synesthete, whether they think I have some sort of disease. Or when I jokingly describe this condition as my personal little 24/7 LSD trip, I sometimes feel this second of silence with a vibe of sudden discomfort, whether or not people start wondering to allow their children anywhere close to me any longer. Yes, of course, I am joking, but let me still assure you: I am neither sick nor some sort of drug dealer …
So, what is it with this strange, suspicious word?
What is a Synesthete?
What is Synesthesia?
a colorful osmosis
In metaphorical terms, I like to describe it as the ongoing colorful osmosis with the world around me. In scientific terms, synesthesia is a neurological condition, known to medicine for over two hundred years. It was first discovered in 1812, and at the time was thought to be a mental disorder or a type of insanity. The Greek term Synesthesia means joined sensations (as compared to Anesthesia = no feeling, no sensation) and describes the neurological experience of the blending of the senses. A sensual experience in one part of the brain triggers an automatic, additional, seemingly unrelated reaction in another part of our brain that is physically experienced by the synesthete.
One of the most famous examples is the experience of seeing color upon hearing music, or vice versa, hearing music upon seeing color. But synesthesia has many faces: whenever we meet a consistent, automatic reaction of cross-wired senses in their physical manifestation, we are dealing with a form of synesthesia. For some, letters or numbers always appear in different colors (Grapheme-Color-Synesthesia), for others, seeing colors creates a specific taste in their mouth (Lexical-Gustatory-Synesthesia), to name only a few more examples. For a very long time, the topic was not regarded as a proper subject for serious scientific studies. However, over the past decades, the scientific interest in synesthesia reemerged, as people became more interested again in the neural differences of the human perception. And synesthesia gives us a pretty good insight into the amazing world of how fundamentally different we experience reality as human beings. What is real?
The world is all that is the case.
—Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951)
I have two primary forms of synesthesia. (I sometimes have more than two, but as I experience them only in occasional forms, I will neglect them at this point).
The first is a form of CHROMESTHESIA, also called sound-to-color synesthesia. In my personal case, it relates to spoken words and languages. The sound of a word or the voice of a person speaking triggers a color experience for me. Living with three languages in daily life (German, English, and Hebrew), e.g. my German Dienstag is a light pastel green, while my English Tuesday is turquoise and my Hebrew Yom Shlishi more of an Indian yellow. Similar occurrences happen with the individual sounds of other people’s voices. As I was riding on the bus the other day, there were two Russian men sitting in the seats in front of me, talking rather loudly to each other in Russian. While one of them spoke in large deep dark burgundy bubbles, the other sounded like smaller olive green color splashes …
Ljósið | Music: Ólafur Arnalds | Video: Esteban Diacono
My second form of synesthesia is called AUDITORY-TACTILE SYNESTHESIA. A wider variety of sounds and auditory stimuli result in the physical experience of a tactile sensation. Specific sounds attack specific parts of my body. Sometimes those are uncomfortable, sometimes, they can be very comfortable experiences. And with sounds, I mean in my case all, often profane sounds occurring in daily life … reaching from the sound of running water, the sound of a person reading a newspaper to the tapping sounds of fingers on a computer keyboard etc etc etc.
One of my lasting childhood memories is sitting in my grandmother’s living room, learning Latin or French vocabulary for school with her. Whenever I didn’t know a word, Grandma took a pen and wrote it down (to come back to it once later) on whatever she had close at hand, be it the packaging box of medicine or a newspaper. I loved this sound of the pen on the package (which caused me this unique tingling physical sensation) and often made believe that I didn’t know a word (which in fact I knew), just so she would start writing it down. Back then, I naturally had no idea that such a phenomenon called Synesthesia even existed, but I did wonder already then if I was a little weird. I guess I had a point. 😉
being a »synnie«
However, it took me until a lot later — after I had already studied art and visual communications — that I exposed myself to these childhood memories again and started relating them to a deeper understanding and study of synesthesia — of MY synesthesias and how they have always affected my life in how I perceive the world.
It is an interesting fact that people like us often end up in creative professions. (The list of famous synesthetes reaches from Leonard Bernstein to Billy Joel, Vladimir Nabokov, David Hockney or Marilyn Monroe and many others.) Given the theme, it doesn’t surprise, but I often think, it is also something else: we have trouble functioning in daily life.
Routine is a tremendous challenge. Focus an even greater one, as living with synesthesia ultimately means to constantly keep pushing the synesthetic experience into the back of our primary perception and consciousness, in order to be able to function and work like a normal person. Sometimes a more, sometimes a less successful enterprise. I have learned that I have to carefully watch my sleep patterns. When I am sleep deprived, I often have no more resources to work against the flood of sensations.
But I don’t wish to complain. I wouldn’t want to miss it all. Living a colorful life is a lot more fun! And with this thought, the question came up, what this different form of perception can do outside of myself.
For what would be truly surprising would be to find that sound could not suggest colour, that colour could not evoke the idea of a melody, and that sound and colour were unsuitable for the translation of ideas, seeing that things have always found their expression through a system of reciprocal analogy
—Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867)
a more unified brain
Today, I integrate synesthetic concepts into my teaching. I went as far as to develop special creativity workshops that focus on introducing this colorful world of an enriched perception of reality to my students, adults and children alike. Synesthesia is a wonderful tool for developing creativity by introducing a whole new range of sensual experiences.
Research today not only assumes that the percentage of synesthetes goes beyond first estimates of about 1 in 20.000, and affects about 4% of the population, but that we might, in fact, all be born with this condition (though those are currently still more assumptions). Most of it simply could be lost on our road into adulthood, through the way society shapes us and affects the developments of our brains, by cutting us off from these elementary sensual experiences. Additionally, what we do know is that it seems to be an inherited condition that is handed on genetically. So, yes, to answer your question, my kids have it, too.
Even though the synesthetic experience comes automatic and involuntarily for the synesthete, research, along with a fascinating study by the University of Sussex, has shown that certain synesthetic sensations and experiences can be trained and (re)-learned for everybody. One of the most surprising outcomes of the study was that those who underwent the training also saw their IQ jump by an average of 12 points, compared to a control group that didn’t undergo training.
Our memory clearly functions on a higher level when we are able to connect information with additional sensory experiences. The design world already takes advantage of this and knows what is called synesthetic design (please watch the wonderful example of the NIKE commercial at the end of this post) to incorporate as many of our senses as possible in the process of product development. And recent scientific experiments with the (lab controlled) usage of LSD ( … here we go again 🙂 ) showed the ability of a more cross-wired brain to eventually break through addictions and problematic behavior patterns.
We are only at the beginning of understanding the immensity of this fascinating world.
Advertising meets synesthesia in this add for the new Nike Air Max sports shoe.
© Yehudis Jacobowitz | Hidur Design Works