Music and the Brain Podcast. Title: Wednesday is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia. Speaker: Richard E. Cytowic, MD. October 30, 2009
The podcast entitled “Wednesday is Indigo Blue:Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia” featured neurologist at the George Washington Medical Centre named Richard E. Cytowic. The term synesthesia can be understood when comparing it against the word “anesthesia” which means no sensation. Therefore, synesthesia implies that there is an increase in sensation, more specifically that certain sensations/ senses are joined. For example when someone speaks, a person with synesthesia will hear and may also feel or taste simultaneously. The title of the podcast describes one of the most common tendencies of synesthetic people, to match days of the week or months with specific colors. Cytowic explained that the field was in “oblivion” in the 90’s when “behaviorism stated that all subjective experience is taboo.” The stats for the prevalence of this condition is that 1 in 23 people have synesthesia, and many are not aware of it until they say something which is quite unusual to other people. Composers to name a few that have been documented with synesthesia are: Franz Liszt, Amy Beach, Rimsky-Korsakov, Stevie Wonder and Olivier Messaien. Cytowic stated briefly that synesthesia is common in people who are blind, but he did not expand upon this. Synesthesia is often found in creative individuals such as musicians or artists. Olivier Messaien had a type of synesthesia that is bidirectional, meaning his senses of sight and sound could go both ways. He could see color and hear a sound and he could hear a sound and hear color. He explained after writing his piece for the Bryce Canyon, “From the Canyon to the stars” that the music “wrote itself” as his eyes surveyed the landscape. His invention of “modes of limited transposition” enabled him to compose specifically to convey colors of sounds. These modes are not chords or harmonies, but rather clusters of notes and for him, clusters of colors. Cytowic says that many orthodox thinkers did not accept the possibility of a condition such as this because they saw the brain as having modules specific to language, vision etc. The nature of synesthesia is that areas of the brain interact and are cross connected, thus the nature of the brain has been redefined. Cytowic continues, explaining that even when a person with synesthesia is asked to pick the color they are seeing from the 16 million shades on the computer, they are unable to find an “exact match.” This is due to the V4 area of the brain that perceives color, yet in people with this condition, it is being stimulated not only optically but by other sense as well. The question was posed “why are 1 in 23 people walking around with a mutation for a trait that is pretty yet useless?” Cytowic states that this must be a gene for metaphor and creativity as it hyper-connects different areas of the brain, and areas that are seemingly unrelated. The definition of a metaphor itself is seeing similar attributes in dissimilar things.
I chose this podcast for the reason that this topic interests me as I currently have a piano student with this condition. Previously, I had thought this condition was very rare and was surprised to hear that 1 in 23 people have synesthesia. When speaking of particular days of the week being “colored” I found myself remembering certain
associations I make unconsciously with particular days to colors. Perhaps there are varying degrees of synesthesia in everyone? When listening to Olivier Messaien’s works, one should be conscious of the fact that he had synesthesia and to analyze his music in terms of the colors and sounds he used to understand his language more fully. It would have been interesting to find out more why some people with this condition see a particular color with a note, yet another person with synesthesia sees a different color in relation to that note and to explore this realm of subjectivity further.