Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Brain and Synesthesia

Source: Wednesday is Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia
Retrieved from: podcast with Dr. Richard E. Cytowic, MD

Summary:  Synesthesia is an involuntary joined sensation that some people are born with. Two or more of their senses are coupled i.e. a voice is heard but is also seen, felt or tasted.  One in twenty-three people have some kind of synesthesia, the most common being that days of the week and months of the year are colored. One in ninety people perceive letters, numbers or written symbols as colored.
Dr. Richard E. Cytowic, Professor of Neurology at George Washington University has studied synesthesia for more than thirty years. He has witnessed a paradigm shift in neuroscience during that time that has made his work in synesthesia more widely accepted. Thirty years ago, brain theory said that the brain was organized into modules that didn’t work together i.e. visual module, language module, hearing module. This theory made synesthesia impossible, even denied. Now neuroscientists know that the brain is massively cross connected and in a synesthete’s brain, there is an increased activity in the wiring.
Synesthesia is prevelant among creative people. Cytowic discusses notable composers and performers who were synesthetes: Franz Liszt, Rimsky-Korsakov, Eddie Van Halen. Itzhak Perlman, world renowned violinist for example, draws his bow over the G string he sees as forest green, and the A string as red. He has found synesthesia is common in blind people, Stevie Wonder case in point. Olivier Messiaen perceived sight and sound in a bi-directional manner which in his words “allowed music to write itself” like in his work The Orange Red Rocks from Canyon to the Stars. He used clusters of notes he perceived as colors. He saw three colors of chords: simple – red, green, blue; pairs – blue-violet, red-orange; overall color flecked or speckled with opalescent colors in them.
Synesthetes love color, and will describe what they see in exacting, minute detail. The theory is that the V4 area of brain, the color area, is not being stimulated optically but with other senses. That is one explanation as to why their sense of color is so precise and why they often see ugly, odd colors.
Cytowic is convinced that by understanding the perceptual condition of synesthesia, we’ll find the neurological basis for how the brain represents metaphor. He and other researchers are searching for the synesthesia gene, a gene they believe is for metaphor and creativity, a gene that hyperconnects disparate things.
Reflection: For nineteen years, one of my sons has played notes that he sees in color. On road trips he sees highway signs like rainbows. Last year, he felt some relief as he learned in a psychology course more about synesthesia and that he wasn’t weird after all. Other people saw the world this way too. One of the first things he did was to type out the alphabet the way he saw it. This was not without frustration, as synesthetes see precise colors, hues of yellow or orange, and the color palette he used wasn’t absolutely precise. But it was close enough to help me understand what goes on in his brain perceptually with letters and words. What has stood out to me over the years is his consistency in the patterns. He has always seen A as red whether he plays it on his violin, sees it on a road sign or in a book. I’ve never seen JR as weird, only fortunate – to be able to see the world in such a unique way opens him to creative possibilities that will enrich us all.


Sarah N said...

I’ve been curious about synesthesia for a while. What interests me quite a bit is that some evidence seems to suggest that there are commonalities between synesthetes. For example, many synesthetes see the letter A as connected with the colour red. Also, there is evidence that certain common pairings of letters and colours are related to how commonly those letters and colour terms are used in language.

How much of synesthesia is linked to environmental learning? What correlations are there between synesthetes of different languages and cultures worldwide? It would also be interesting to discover if there are commonalities between the way synesthetes perceive sound. This summary notes that Perlman perceives sounds from the A string as red and sounds from the G string as forest green. While I myself do perceive A string sounds as red, I perceive G strings sounds as a deep brown or purple. It seems that unfortunately I don’t have as much in common with the great violin virtuoso as I would like to! (although I thought this was the case even before reading this summary) ;)

Renée Barabash said...

It is true that synesthetes are fortunate to experience the world in a way that seems to unite the senses. I wonder if the perception of synesthetes as "weird" is a product of the distinction of the five senses that is taught from a very early age. Before kindergarten, we learn that we hear with our ears, see with our eyes, etc. I am amazed and slightly jealous that your son can "see" with both his eyes and his ears.

Personally, I would like to experience a day with synesthesia. A friend of mine (another pianist) has synesthesia and makes the most unusual pairings of harmonies and colour. I say unusual only because I simply don't hear this way. However, I always try to ask him to listen to my performances in order to get his unique feedback. I have found it incredibly helpful to learn of this aspect of sound and then to try to consider the synesthetes who may be in my audience. How might I play this passage in a way to change the colour? How might this chord be highlighted, based not only on my analytical understanding of theory and form, but also based on the description from my friend, who sees and hears connections in an immediate way.