Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Music and the Brain: Wednesday is Indigo Blue: How Synesthesia Speaks to Creativity


Music and Synesthesia

Source: Cytowic, Richard, Music and the Brain: Wednesday is Indigo Blue: How Synesthesia Speaks to 
            Creativity, Oct. 2009, Web. 21 Oct 2013, Library Congress, 
            Washington, D.C.,                            

Richard Cytowic discusses some of the science behind synesthesia (the automatic combination of two or more bodily senses). He mentions that most people have some sort of synesthesia (i.e. grapheme-colour, phoneme-colour, etc.). For example, most people go to the movies for the visual-and-audio combination effect, and many people find it troubling when the visual and audio cues are not aligned with one another. Synesthesia tends to run in families, and it “may be the first cognitive trait which science can map out its gene.” The phenomenon is also more common in people who are artistic (such as musicians like Messaien and Scriabin) and in blind people.

Interestingly, synesthesia itself cannot be located in the brain; the reaction can only be seen when parts of the brain are activated.  Cytowic explains that synesthesia is caused by a gene mutation which results in decrease in inhibition (known as stroop interference) of one bodily sense and, consequently, hyperactivity or excitation in the brain when bodily senses are blended. Specifically, certain areas of the brain, which are loosely connected in non-synesthetes, are interconnected in synesthetes. This is known as the breakdown of modularity. Synesthetes seem to have increased excitation when they hear a sound, see an object, etc. For example, grapheme-colour synesthetes often experience seeing words in colour through an activation of the V4 color area in the fusiform gyrus (which is a part of the temporal and occipital lobes) and the angular gyrus (which is a part of the parietal lobe). The fusiform gyrus is responsible for face, body, colour-and-word- recognition while the angular gyrus is responsible for language processing and lexical semantics. This activation of the fusiform gyrus and angular gyrus can be seen on a positron emission tomography (PET) scan. The connection between words and colour are not as strong in non-synesthetes due to the increased inhibition of the angular gyrus.

This excitation-inhibition link is crucial in facilitating creativity. For instance, melodic improvisation involves listening to a previous tune, and then using your judgement on developing the melodic line and "making it your own." If you think too much about having the melodic line sound "right," that thought will impede your ability to improvise. Having synesthesia would be an advantage, in that you would be more likely to improvise music more confidently without the breaking of modularity standing in the way. Similarly, composing and performing your own music involves using elements of music (i.e. melody, harmony, timbre, form, etc.) for the purpose of displaying how you see the world. Musicians such as Messiaen and Scriabin were known for experimenting with keys and modes as colours, contributing to their creativity. In short, synesthesia is a stepping stone into the further understanding into creativity by scientists.

The information in this video clip was insightful, especially regarding the excitation- inhibition link and the differences between synesthetes and non-synesthetes. In particular, I was interested in the scans in the colour-hearing synesthetes, and I have always wondered if someone with synesthesia could teach perfect pitch to themselves. I have relatives who have perfect pitch, but I am not sure whether they have synesthesia as well.

Almost 30 years ago, my parents gave me an alphabet stand with colour-coded letters and slots in the stand. I kept putting the letters in the slots, simultaneously being astonished by the letters’ bright colours. Three years later, I was experimenting and playing with the piano keys for a year prior to formal musical training. My inspiration and interest in “memorizing the keys by ear” came about by listening and watching Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles perform their works on the radio and on TV respectively. In my younger mind, I had wondered how blind musicians were able to play their instruments with such accuracy and passion, and I had decided that I would close my eyes whenever I sat at the piano. I decided that my personal musical success would be marked by playing songs with my eyes closed, and it was only then that I would be able to call myself a musician. 

As I was playing the piano, I noticed that I was memorizing the keys - by colours. I was connecting the notes to the colour-coded alphabet stand letters. There were no note names from me to draw from, for I was not taking music lessons at this time. Later in my life (after taking private piano lessons), I was connecting major and minor chords with different types of weather. This phenomenon felt weird to me, in the sense that I had an instinct that everyone was not experiencing music in the same way (hearing music in colour). Improvising on the piano was as almost as easy to me as walking, and writing music before finishing my elementary school years felt like jogging; it felt natural to me. Classmates would ask questions on how I was able to play along to songs that I had never heard before so easily, and I would respond by saying, “I don’t know!”

I am not sure whether or not I “taught myself perfect pitch” with the help of my colour-hearing synesthesia. What I know is that my synesthesia has helped me to be musically creative. “Seeing sounds” and “hearing colours” in music have facilitated my musical arrangements for choirs and orchestras, and it has helped me in providing different approaches to students on reading and memorizing songs. Today, I am able to sight-read music at a fairly fast pace, and I can play simple songs with my eyes closed. I do not feel that I have a barrier when it comes to playing unknown pieces. I feel that I have reached my own definition of a musician.

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