Pharyngula

Synesthesia Neuroslam

Synesthesia is going to be the discussion topic for our upcoming neuroslam in two weeks. Synesthesia is the rare ability of a select few individuals to see numbers as colors or as in the article that I’m preparing to discuss (Hubbard 1996), experience varying degrees of light and dark as melodic intervals. The observed pattern is that individuals experience lower pitches or descending melodic intervals in correlation with darker stimuli and higher pitches or ascending melodic intervals in correlation with lighter stimuli. The important detail about synesthesia is that individuals experience it involuntarily whereas most individuals without synesthesia can choose to consider a set of stimuli using a secondary sense that they normally wouldn’t.

One of the experiments discussed in this article was conducted with undergraduate students coaxed into participating with the offer of some credit for an intro to psychology course. The students were placed in front of an Apple RGB color monitor and grey squares of differing light intensities were presented in conjunction with a perfect fifth for four seconds. Eight perfect fifths were used, each beginning on a different tonic and thus each having a unique frequency. The squares were presented on either a white or black background. The students then rated how similar the square and the interval were on a scale with one as the least and nine as the most. One of the questions considered with this experiment is the effect of contrast between the background and the grey squares on perception.

A second experiment was set up similar to the first experiment except that students (who had not participated in the first experiment) were presented with an interval at one of the selected frequencies and asked to choose among several light intensities of grey which correlated best. Correlating one perfect fifth to a light intensity that was presented with multiple light intensity options successfully diminished (no pun intended) the effects of background contrast on perception.

I thought of some questions when I was reading this article and then afterward studying for music theory. Are there individuals who experience synesthesia such that they correlate varying degrees and intensities of lightness with more complex types of music intervals? Do minor or diminished intervals correlate to a different light intensity than major or augmented intervals? What about different intervals of the same quality? Do ascending minor sixths correlate to a different light intensity than ascending minor thirds? If an individual with true synesthesia enters a concert hall do they experience sensory overload? (just kidding) I’m sure one of us neurobio students will post about neuroslam in a couple weeks to fill everyone in on our discussions but until then there is a lot of good reading on the subject.

References:

Timothy L. Hubbard. “Synesthesia-like mappings of lighness, pitch, and melodic interval.” American Journal of Psychology. 1996. v109n2: p219

Comments

  1. #1 Wikinite
    November 9, 2007

    Synesthesia refers to cross-sensory phenomenon in general, not just seeing numbers as colors. I beleive there was a woman who had a form of synesthesia where she tasted words.

  2. #2 wildlifer
    November 9, 2007

    One of PZ’s greatest fans at ARN was a synesthete. I made the mistake once of suggesting it was genetic, rather than a gift from God, and thought she was going to climb through the computer and scratch my eyes out. What a Joy she was.
    She posts over at TelicFarts now.

  3. #3 Bronze Dog
    November 9, 2007

    Trying to remember the show, (Think it was “The Real Rain Man”) which involved a math wiz/synesthesiac (that a word?) who could figure out if a number was prime or not by how itchy it felt or something like that: He described numbers as having different textures according to various properties.

  4. #4 Dustin
    November 9, 2007

    I’ve been known to pick out repdigit numbers based on the way they look.

    In all seriousness, though, number synesthesia is bizarre.

  5. #5 Stevie_C
    November 9, 2007

    They had a series (may have been one show) about a guy who had synethesia but was completely normal otherwise. They said on the program that most people with it aren’t usually.

    He went on a tour of sorts and met with scientists and mathematicians. He, from his head, stated a long prime number to some insane length… I think, that’s what he did.

    He spoke of seeing the numbers as shapes and colors.

  6. #6 Jsn
    November 9, 2007

    Is there a predominance of synesthetes becoming composers or painters? Feynman had synesthesia reportedly as was recognized as a skilled musician.

    Stupid side question for anyone out there. When you close your eyes and use your fingers to exert pressure on the eyes and produce optical distortions (lots of kalaidoscopic black and white checker patterns, nubulae-like spirals and LSD-esque flashes); what is the phenomenon called?

  7. #7 frog
    November 9, 2007

    Could synesthesia simply be a failed inhibition of natural cross-talk? Could it be we are all experiencing synesthesia constantly at a low level, but it doesn’t get reported to the frontal cortex from the parietal lobes, or where ever the cross talk is actually happening? Or that it happens quickly in the frontal lobes and gets immediately inhibited, leading to no memory of the experience? This should be experimentally testable with some clever psychological experiments.

  8. #8 R
    November 9, 2007

    How common is it? I’m a sound-synesthete and see sounds as varying types of moving colored shapes out there somewhere. It all seems natural to me and I was surprised when I realized not everybody sees it that way. But I think number-synesthesia is weird…

  9. #9 Anon
    November 9, 2007

    Retrospectacle blogged on V. I. Ramachandran recently, and included a link to a video wherein he speaks about synesthesia (and phantom limb, and Capgras’ delusion).

    http://scienceblogs.com/retrospectacle/2007/10/interview_with_vilayanur_ramac.php

    It includes his considered opinion as to the mechanism.

  10. #10 Anon
    November 9, 2007

    #6–Phosphenes

  11. #11 Molly, NYC
    November 9, 2007

    I have an extremely dull form of synesthesia: when my eyes hurt (like I poke myself or something), I hear a sound like wind rushing past my head.

    I didn’t think there was anything unusual about it. It certainly feels normal to me (as, so I read, other synesthesias do to their synesthetes). So normal, in fact, that I hadn’t even thought to mention to anyone before a conversation a couple of years ago that basically went:

    ME: “Do you know that noise you hear when your eyes are sore?”

    HIM: “What the hell are you talking about?”

    . . . at which point it occurred to me that maybe there was something odd about it.

    The thing is, I realize that this may be just me, but is it possible that these kinds of sensory idiosyncrasies are more widespread than generally supposed? I didn’t really notice mine; maybe other people have these things and don’t notice them either.

  12. #12 Buffybot
    November 9, 2007

    I’ve got number/letter synaesthesia, and feel smells and colours as having texture. Lots of perfumes are rejected because they’re too gritty. Wouldn’t lose it for anything. The alphabet is a complex series of personalities and relationships between coloured/textured letters. an orange splotch on a background of egg-yolk yellow says ‘five’ just as definitively as the symbol 5 does. It’s like the difference between a live tiger and a pencil drawing tiles.

    Echoing R, I wonder how common it is. A few numbers have been bandied about, but I suspect that it’s relatively common, but little known because it’s not an impairment and is rarely diagnosed. I just assumed I’d been dropped on my head until stumbling on a magazine article in my 20s, and discovering it was something real with a name.

    I’m also interested in the link between synaesthesia and paranormal codswallop. My aunt does the whole seeing auras/manipulating energy crystal healing schtick, and she’s completely sincere that she can physically see and feel these phenomena. I suspect that she has a similar form of synaesthesia to me, but is interpreting the sensations as external and real, rather than coming from inside her brain. How many New Age beliefs are caused and reinforced by synaesthesia? The New Scientist article from 2000-ish said that synaesthetes were more likely to have psychic experiences, but isn’t it more likely that they have sensory experiences that they choose to interpret as psychic?

  13. #13 John Vreeland
    November 9, 2007

    I’ve always assumed it was some sort of neural cross-talk between two areas of the brain which were not supposed to talk. I have a similar problem in which my vomit reflex sometimes sends a strong signal to sneeze instead, which then resolves the original impulse. Fortunately it does not work the other way around. It helped keep my chronic nausea from getting so messy in high seas.

    Then there is the yawning orgasm.

  14. #14 Dustin
    November 9, 2007

    I have an extremely dull form of synesthesia: when my eyes hurt (like I poke myself or something), I hear a sound like wind rushing past my head.

    Have you had that looked at by a doctor? I’m way out of my depth here, but that sounds like something that happened to someone I knew who had some kind of hypertension.

  15. #15 Epikt
    November 9, 2007

    Is there a predominance of synesthetes becoming composers or painters? Feynman had synesthesia reportedly as was recognized as a skilled musician.

    Feynman was a drummer, not a musician.

    (rimshot)

    Seriously, he was once quoted as saying that he preferred percussion instruments because they were more primitive/fundamental/honest (I’m probably misremembering). I’ve always wondered what he meant–was it simply an aesthetic judgement, or did he really perceive something most people don’t? How do synesthetes see unpitched (or not-strongly-pitched sounds) sounds like drums, compared with pitched sounds?

  16. #16 G
    November 9, 2007

    This is totally one of those things I wish I could experience. It would be so interesting to relate to the world in that way.

  17. #17 GallileoWasADenier
    November 9, 2007

    My first thought on reading this was, is this really synesthesia? Rising scales are culturally connected with the idea of an upwards motion, and lighter colours are associated with being “higher”. (Possibly because the light is usually from above in our normal visual environment.) If the effect is simply the triggering of such cultural analogies, then either the experiment is mis-specified by being culturally contaminated, or the cultural analogies are pre-existing evidence of a geometric-up/increasing-frequency/lighter-colours synesthesia that is already well known. Is the up/frequency relationship learned – people think of them as being higher because that’s what people call them – or is this relationship a better candidate for neurological cross-talk? Lots of other non-spatial concepts are analogised in spatial terms – is this the re-use of an inbuilt module for new purposes, or cross-talk between modules for different purposes? Maybe the paper itself gives more detail on the control experiments used to eliminate this possibility, but the abstract doesn’t describe it.

    The background contrast issue is an irrelevant confounder – it is well known that the perception of colour is context-dependent. It’s why we can see the same colours in different lighting.

  18. #18 SEF
    November 9, 2007

    Feynman also self-reported as not being particularly musical about the way he played the drums. He found he was co-opting the counting part of his brain to handle the rhythm at all, leaving him with nothing with which to count the bars! So he relied on the musicians who played with him for his cues on when to switch rhythms and, when forced to produce a track without that help, he resorted to editing it after recording each section.

    So, all in all, he doesn’t appear to be helping Jsn’s hypothesis much! 😀 Although I’m sure there have been some people who did rely on synaesthesia in their artistic works (but I’m not good at names).

  19. #19 Xochipilli
    November 9, 2007

    This is totally one of those things I wish I could experience. It would be so interesting to relate to the world in that way.

    *cough*drugs*cough*Home Depot*cough*

    Disclaimer: The preceding post is a work of satire and/or fiction intended for entertainment purposes only.

  20. #20 other bill
    November 9, 2007

    Synesthesia can also be provoked by LSD and other psychedelics; and, much less pleasantly, through migraines. As the migraine starts ramping up sounds cause color pulses and tactile pain. Likewise bright lights itch, and sunlight can burn.

    I’ve read all sorts of BS about this from people who haven’t experienced it. If you wish to learn about it secondhand, find someone who suffers from migraines. If they see auras when the headaches start, there is a reasonable chance for the rest of it, too.

  21. #21 David
    November 9, 2007

    My mother, my brother, and my wife are all synesthesiac (synesthetics? synesthetes?) who have colors associated with letters and digits. I like to get them arguing about what color ‘k’ is. They all claim it’s obvious, but then arrive at different colors. Good fun. I’m guessing my kids will turn out that way, too, if they ever learn the alphabet (ah, the trials of preschool).

    My family provide a nice argument against intuitionistic arguments for a priori knowledge (like G. E. Moore’s concept of ‘good’ being a non-natural property only accessible through intuition). I think a lot of what people thought of as a priori knowledge is from similarly neurological artifacts: aesthetic norms (particularly of human beauty), much moral reasoning (particularly Leon Kass and his famous squeamishness about stem cells), etc.

    BuffyBot’s (#12 above) speculation that synesthesia accounts for some people’s belief in the paranormal seems reasonable. And, better, yet, empirically testable!

  22. #22 Interrobang
    November 9, 2007

    I’m a tone-colour-shape synaesthete. I see various pitches as different colours, pretty much always the same colours for the same pitches. It also seems to be correlated with key somehow, in that songs in certain keys seem to use the same “palettes.”

    The shapes of the sounds depend on things like attack and harmonics, stuff like that. One song in particular I’m quite partial to (Infected Mushroom’s remix of Berry Sacharof’s “Yomuledet,” if anyone’s curious) looks like a leaping kaleidoscope of wavy lines and splashes in bright turquoises, electric blues, greens, and pinks, punctuated with a yellowish-white drumline. Occasionally the sensation will be so strong, I’ll feel the shapes/textures of the music in my mouth.

    It isn’t quite as simple as “brighter colour” = “higher note” for me at least. (Heavy metal bass guitar tends to be a bright red for me.)

    One of the best parts about my kind of synaesthesia is mocking people who like to talk about their oscilloscopes. (I have some extremely nerdy friends.) “Oh, yeah, those things you use if you need artificial help to see sounds…” Heheh…

    The worst-coloured sound in the world is the high-pitched hum (almost dog-whistle frequency) that comes out of monitors and televisions. It’s a sort of translucent yellow-grey colour and has an extremely unpleasant texture. (A dog whistle, by contrast, is just sort of translucent white. If my vision were like my hearing, I’d be able to see IR.)

  23. #23 Murray Bowles
    November 9, 2007

    Has anyone investigated just how closely LSD-induced synesthesia resembles “real” synesthesia?

  24. #24 Buffybot
    November 9, 2007

    There must be lots of people running around with various forms of synaesthesia who just don’t talk about it because they think it’s weird. When I was tiny and just learning to count I’d imagine the house filling up with lots of white 1s, blue 2s, yellow 3s and pink 6’s. It was completely natural, and not something picked up from TV. Actually, Sesame St was annoying, because everything was always the wrong colour. A couple of years later I asked one of the other 6-year-olds what colour their numbers were, and they didn’t understand what I meant. Being different is risky for a kid, so I never mentioned it again.

    Interrobang – you feel about that high-pitched sound exactly the way I feel about the letter K. Gives me the shivers.

  25. #25 J. Edgar Hoover
    November 9, 2007

    I once smoked some potent weed and saw rainbows of sound as a result, so there may well be a “crosstalk” of sorts underlying synesthesia.

  26. #26 Ted D
    November 9, 2007

    On an episode of the most excellent BBC quiz show QI they discussed synesthesia, and mentioned someone (I forget his name unfortunately) who saw music as colour. When he was a child his parents took him to concerts, and he assumed that they dimmed the lights as they began playing so that everyone could see the colours better.

  27. #27 Dave Munger
    November 9, 2007

    We’ve posted quite a bit on synesthesia over on Cognitive Daily.

  28. #28 Will
    November 9, 2007

    Alexander Scriabin is probably the most famous composer with this condition. He perceived sounds as color, similar I guess to what Interrobang posts above. I’ve always taken it as a piece in a certain key has a preponderance of a particular color. There does seem to be a similar set of color to pitch cross-relations between people who perceive pitch as color. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scriabin for a picture of the colors of pitches as Scriabin described them.

  29. #29 Bronze Dog
    November 9, 2007

    I have an extremely dull form of synesthesia: when my eyes hurt (like I poke myself or something), I hear a sound like wind rushing past my head.

    I’ve always had something akin to that, myself: Whenever I’d get some really nasty pain (especially involving the eyes, like getting a nice dose of shampoo in them), I’d hear a low tone in my ears, kind of like the sound of driving over asphalt, only an octave or two lower.

    I don’t think hypertension or anything like that’s involved, since I got it back when I had below normal blood pressure.

  30. #30 R
    November 9, 2007

    How do synesthetes see unpitched (or not-strongly-pitched sounds) sounds like drums, compared with pitched sounds?

    I don’t know about others, but drums, scratches, humming, etc, have less color than tonal sounds. On the other hand, sounds like the tv sound mentioned above, are kind of white to me and very narrow. Same with high-pitched violin notes: they’re white-yellow, while low notes and cello notes are more brownish and wider. Long sounds are long streches and drums etc are short. (I realize I was about to say that they look like white noise but I guess that wouldn’t make sense.) Sine waves are nicely rounded and white or grey. Saw waves are grainy and brown or yellow depending on the pitch. Square waves look square but somewhat rounded and have the same color scheme as sine waves. I think it’s partly learned though: sounds from metal look metallic and water looks watery etc.

    Probably one of the reasons I like electronic music is that the sounds don’t look like anything in the real world. Psytrance such as Infected Mushroom or Astral projection does look interesting but I prefer more monochromatic stuff like Plastikman or Autechre.

  31. #31 Bronze Dog
    November 9, 2007

    Oh, and small bit I just remembered: There’s a few repeated notes in the music just before Rez’s first level boss that give me the sensation of swallowing a piece of snow cone, minus the cold temperature.

    Gentlemen, open your senses. Go to synesthesia.

  32. #32 usagi
    November 9, 2007

    It’s not just music. Nabokov had synethesia for letters. I saw a book recently that tried to represent what he described seeing typographically.
    Ah, Vladimir Nabokov, Alphabet in Color by Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov (Author), Brian Boyd (Foreword), Jean Holabird (Illustrator). Rather spiffy, but I didn’t pick it up.

  33. #33 Tom
    November 9, 2007

    Will at #28 above is right about Scriabin. The more recent French composer Olivier Messiaen was also powerfully synesthetic. I believe at some point Messiaen acted as a research subject for studies of synesthesia.

  34. #34 Carolyn
    November 9, 2007

    Synesthesia can also be provoked by LSD and other psychedelics; and, much less pleasantly, through migraines. As the migraine starts ramping up sounds cause color pulses and tactile pain. Likewise bright lights itch, and sunlight can burn.

    I’m sticking my head up from lurking to second other bill in #20. I haven’t a hint of synesthesia except during migraine episodes, at which point I perceive sound as light (and pain.) Loudness determines brightness, and the character of the sound determines the shape. During one particularly bad headache in middle school, I complained until my mother changed the bedsheets, since the texture felt “too bright.”

    I find the idea of synesthesia fascinating in theory, but I would gladly trade the experience for not having migraines. :\

  35. #35 Buffybot
    November 9, 2007

    One thing I’ve wondered about letter synaesthesia is ‘why are the sensory hook-ups with the written letter rather than the sound?’ This seems odd to me, because synaesthesia would appear to be something that’s deeply rooted in how the brain works, so why are the associations with a recent cultural invention (writing) rather than with speech, which is hardwired into our brains? To me at least C, K, and S are completely different in colour, character and associations, even though C overlaps in sound with the two others. The dual nature of C doesn’t register in my synaesthesia at all, and that strikes me as very strange. How is it deep-rooted involuntary neurological process is linked with something that has only been invented in the past few thousand years?

  36. #36 GallileoWasADenier
    November 9, 2007

    Buffybot, it’s odder than that, because letters are learned during childhood. Can you tell random squiggles from letters in foreign alphabets by their colouration?

    But all it really takes is a genetic predisposition for activity in neighbouring bits of the brain to leak across and be able to activate one another – the bit that ultimately learns to recognise letters being sat next to the colour-recognising bit. It says something about brain structure that the letter-colour relationship is so common, but that this bit now recognises letters rather than lion footprints or poisonous berries or whatever it might be is an arbitrary accident of culture.

  37. #37 ShockedISaid
    November 9, 2007

    I am a music/smell synesthete. I have mentioned it rarely to people and, when I have, they mostly thought I was nuts. Out of curiosity once, I talked to one doctor about it. He didn’t know what I was talking about. Sigh.

    I do not see colors for all pitches, but for a fair number. The colors are always the same for the same pitch. For me, it works as a type of perfect pitch. I experience smells with pitches, also, but these are not nearly as clearly defined as the colors.

    Many moons ago, I used to be a professional trumpet player. I experienced synesthesia only when listening and never when playing.

    For those of you who don’t have non-pain related synesthesia, you’re missing out. It’s really quite a lot of fun. For me, the colors and smells are always pleasant. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I like music so much.

  38. #38 frog
    November 9, 2007

    For letter-synesthiasists out there: Is the link between letters and colors for example, just a visual link, or is it also evoked phonetically? Does the sound of the letter link to the color of the letter as well, or is the phonetic effects completely disjoint from the literary effects?

    The answer would be interesting in terms of the wiring topology of these systems.

  39. #39 Christopher Taylor
    November 9, 2007

    A question I’ve wondered about for a while for the letter-colour synaesthetes out there – how do you perceive things when the letter is written in colour already? I know one person’s already complained that Sesame Street had the letters the ‘wrong’ colour. Do you perceive the letter as both colours simultaneously, or does one perception outweigh the other? Does the conflict jar for all of you, or are the two perceptions sometimes able to co-exist without difficulty? I’ve noticed myself in totally unrelated matters that we humans sometimes have a strange ability to hold two completely conflicting pieces of information in our heads without noticing the conflict (such as when you book a single timeslot for two completely different activities, are perfectly aware of when you’re supposed to be doing both things, and don’t realise until the last moment that it’s the same timeslot).

  40. #40 JohnnieCanuck, FCD
    November 9, 2007

    Fascinating. It does sound like it could be fun. I get scintillating auras and mild headaches with only some sensitivity to light and sound. No synesthesia noted so far. I’ll have to be on the lookout. Don’t know if I will be experimenting with loud noises, though.

    So how do we determine the frequency of synesthesia being self-reported here? There certainly seem to be a good number. Could be something a student of neurobiology would want to pursue…

  41. #41 ennui
    November 9, 2007

    http://www.journals.royalsoc.ac.uk/content/5mf8ydm183nv7fcn/fulltext.pdf

    http://www.ted.com/index.php/speakers/view/id/164

    The above links relate to V.S. Ramachandran’s work on the subject. I would also recommend ‘The Man Who Tasted Shapes’ by Richard Cytowic as a primer.

    I personally know 2 people with the tone/color variety. Fascinating stuff…

  42. #42 Owlmirror
    November 9, 2007

    Sort-of responding to Buffybot’s wondering about why letters, given their evolutionary recentness.

    Are there no other shapes besides letters that have synaesthetic affects?

    Faces? Geometric shapes? Are familiar or unfamiliar buildings perceived differently?

    If a synaesthete learns a different written language, do the letters have the same appearance as for the original language? Do letters with diareses look the same as their unornamented (or differently ornamented) versions?

    Do synaesthetes who know sign language see particular gestures as having additional affects?

    Just wondering out loud, here…

  43. #43 reverted
    November 9, 2007

    There’s a great TED presentation by Vilayanur Ramachandran in which he speaks about our minds. The whole lecture is fascinating; he talks about:
    * How we study the brain
    * Capgras syndrome
    * Phantom limbs
    * Synesthesia (starting at 17:53)
    Give it a view. It’s quite excellent (as are nearly all the TED talks, for that matter).

  44. #44 ennui
    November 9, 2007

    There is a very good summary of the neural basis of the phenomenon at Wiki:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neural_basis_of_synesthesia

  45. #45 reverted
    November 9, 2007

    Oops. I didn’t read through all the comments before posting mine. I see someone already linked to Vilayanur’s presentation. (Doh!)

    Regardless, though… it really is excellent and worth a view; and, so are almost all other TED talks.

  46. #46 Jsn
    November 9, 2007

    / How do synesthetes see unpitched (or not-strongly-pitched sounds) sounds like drums, compared with pitched sounds? /

    Feynman may havebeen just a drummer (and a lousy one at that) as opposed to a percussionist. Many percussion instruments are pitched; tympani, roto-toms, the pvc pipe drums that Blue Man Group created, as well as marimbas, xylophones, vibraphones, chimes, glockenspiel and the piano, which is actually a percussion/string hybrid. Check out Brian Slawson for how musical a percussionist can be.

  47. #47 Buffybot
    November 9, 2007

    Sorta-kinda responding to Owlmirror – I’d ask some of the same questions. One of the things with synaesthesia is that it’s completely individual and subjective. It’s like the idea that we can never know if the colour we perceive as ‘red’ is exactly the same for both of us. So, I can only speak from my own experience, because I’ve no idea what weirdness is going on in other people’s brains. As for different alphabets, I now really, really want to know how this works for people with pictogram (if that’s the word) alphabets, like Chinese.

    As for letters being different depending on the typeface or whatever; I see the letter on paper as it’s printed or written. But if I’m picturing a letter or word in my mind, it has it’s associations. The number five can be printed in any style and colour, and that’s what I’ll see, but if I’m remembering a phone number or something, then it’s bright orange on a background of bright yellow. I see the symbol 5 like that in my mind, but a random splotch of a certain shade of orange on the yellow background also means ‘five’. An artist friend once sat me down with pastels to draw all the numbers. She noticed, but I didn’t, that I’d drawn half the symbols backwards, because in my mind the colours are more strongly associated than the symbol.

    Geometric shapes – sort of. They’re vaguely emotionally different in a way I can’t quite pin down, but it sort of hinges on how many sides they have and whether they’re made up of straight lines.

    Days of the week – have their own colours and personalities. Do other synaesthetes divide things into odd/even and positive/negative that don’t really have those divisions? To me, letters of the alphabet are divided into odd/even like numbers, but they don’t necessarily alternate.

  48. #48 Becca
    November 9, 2007

    “The above links relate to V.S. Ramachandran’s work on the subject. I would also recommend ‘The Man Who Tasted Shapes’ by Richard Cytowic as a primer.”

    I’m sight/sound synaesthetic (and, in fact, am briefly mentioned in the Cytowic book). What is amusing is that the birth-mother of my children is color/touch synaesthetic, something neither of us knew about the other when she made the decision to let me adopt her children. Alas, neither of the children seem to have inherited it in any form.

    I was 18 before I knew there was a word for it, and found it very validating (“see, Mom, I’m not just making it up! There’s a word for it, so it must be real!”). I still mostly don’t mention it to anyone.

  49. #49 Becca
    November 9, 2007

    “The above links relate to V.S. Ramachandran’s work on the subject. I would also recommend ‘The Man Who Tasted Shapes’ by Richard Cytowic as a primer.”

    I’m sight/sound synaesthetic (and, in fact, am briefly mentioned in the Cytowic book). What is amusing is that the birth-mother of my children is color/touch synaesthetic, something neither of us knew about the other when she made the decision to let me adopt her children. Alas, neither of the children seem to have inherited it in any form.

    I was 18 before I knew there was a word for it, and found it very validating (“see, Mom, I’m not just making it up! There’s a word for it, so it must be real!”). I still mostly don’t mention it to anyone.

  50. #50 Rjaye
    November 9, 2007

    I didn’t know that synesthesia was rare until I saw a special on PBS about it, and was flabbergasted. I thought everyone had it! It never occurred to me it was unusual.

    I have mixed synesthesia of various forms. Sounds have different tastes, different textures, different colors. It’s just how I sense the world.

    And given how many synesthetists are reporting here, one could do a study.

  51. #51 Epikt
    November 9, 2007

    Feynman may havebeen just a drummer (and a lousy one at that) as opposed to a percussionist.

    Er–I was joking. Hence the rimshot.

    Many percussion instruments are pitched; tympani, roto-toms, the pvc pipe drums that Blue Man Group created, as well as marimbas, xylophones, vibraphones, chimes, glockenspiel and the piano

    …as is the siren I once played during a performance of Varese’s “Ionisation.” I understand pitched percussion. My question was about unpitched, or semi-pitched percussion. Perhaps I didn’t make that clear enough.

  52. #52 Qalmlea
    November 10, 2007

    @#38

    For letter-synesthiasists out there: Is the link between letters and colors for example, just a visual link, or is it also evoked phonetically? Does the sound of the letter link to the color of the letter as well, or is the phonetic effects completely disjoint from the literary effects?

    For me, just about everything has a color. Letters, shapes, sounds, tastes, music especially. And I realized only recently that there are some oddities. The symbol ‘8’ is a deep blue, with a hint of purple. The word ‘eight’ is kinda yellowish brown, and the word ‘ate’ is mostly red. I couldn’t tell you why, except that ‘e’s tend to make words yellower and ‘a’s tend to make them redder.

    Like many others, I had no clue that there was anything odd about my color perceptions, except that people would give me odd looks when I described Celtic music as “green and gold” or hard rock as “red and black.” Country tends to have lots of yellows and browns. Also, the colors were sharper for music in a minor key than in a major key, so I always preferred minor.

  53. #53 Eric Paulsen
    November 10, 2007

    When I was maybe 10 or 11 I had a singular incidence of synesthesia while my babysitter was reading me a story in an effort to get me to go to sleep. I have never forgotten it because I was mesmerized for the few seconds it was occurring, it was like seeing true magic if only for an instant! I saw glowing neon shapes and colors popping like sparks around her mouth while her voice receded into the distance like a radio being tuned to static, it was both frightening and beautiful.

    My guess is that I suffered from transient TLE for period of some years while I was growing up because there was more than just that episode of synesthesia, like a few choice visual and auditory hallucinations. There was even an instance where a plate flew out of the kitchen cupboard over my shoulder to break on the floor behind me, if I hadn’t been reaching for it when it happened and therefore looking right at it I wouldn’t have believed it.

    That said I do not believe in boogens or ESP, magic or religion. I firmly believe that everything I experienced was due to 5 pounds of misfiring meat in my braincase.

    That doesn’t make the experiences any less awe inspiring though.

  54. #54 J Myers
    November 10, 2007

    I associate colors to letters and numerals, but I would guess this is some lingering effect of Sesame Street and the colored magnet letters that I stuck to the refrigerator as a child; I do not see these colors as though they were appearing in the real world (“k” is grey for me–David, is that correct?). Some associations are stronger than others; from an example above, for me: a=dark yellow, t=brown, e=dark blue, though the word “ate” itself does not evoke any colors (nor does any other word).

    Interrobang, do you have absolute pitch? Can you actually hear the sound of a dog whistle, or do you only perceive the color? Wouldn’t the appropriate visual analog be UV, not IR, or is that contrary to your perceived color/pitch association?

    Does anyone perceive colors as sounds? (e.g., green might cause you to hear an F# or something).

  55. #55 RamblinDude
    November 10, 2007

    I also remember that show about the guy with the phenomenal mathematical ability in #5. He was an interesting study because he wasn’t, as was usually the case, mentally handicapped. He said that the number nine was a very “tall” feeling. When he went to New York he was surrounded by number nines.

    A Japanese friend told me one time that Orientals hear things is a different way than occidentals do, and that that was one of the reasons the Chinese language was very dependent on pitch. He said that high tones, like that produced with wind chimes, gave a “cooling” effect in a way that we just didn’t get. He joked and said that in the orient they some times referred to wind chimes as ‘air conditioners’. That would certainly save on electricity. : )

    I don’t have synesthesia, at least not more than the average person, I think, but the days of the week always reminded me of colors. Wednesday is a light straw brown, Friday is a darker brown, Sunday is whitish and Saturday is blackish. Tuesday and Thursday are dark colors but I can’t really describe them.

    I always wondered what early memories cued this relationship,

  56. #56 RamblinDude
    November 10, 2007

    Oh, Monday is a pinkish red. : – D

  57. #57 Leigh
    November 10, 2007

    I’ve never thought of myself as a synesthetic, but for me smells have both color and shape. I don’t actually see these when I smell something, but when I describe it, I get a visual of the shape and color and that’s how I describe the smell. The perfume I wear, for example, has crisp edges and is a golden bronze-green. I think I started this when I began having migraines, though I hadn’t really connected the two. I did go to one concert with the start of a migraine (I was feeling the unease of onset, but hoped it would hold off); surely, I thought, some gentle classical music would soothe me. But the concert featured a lot of trumpet flourishes that just overwhelmed me with pain; it was just like being assaulted, and I became a little panicky and fled the room. Those trumpets were edged weapons, folks! I’ve heard that the latest info on migraines likens them to a spreading electrical storm in the brain; I suppose that might explain how areas of sensory interpretation might get cross-connected. I’m following that research with some interest.

  58. #58 Owlmirror
    November 10, 2007

    Hm.

    I assume it’s different for every synaesthete, depending, but: Does each letter of a word have a different colour, or does each word have its own color? Does upper case differ from lower case if the shape of the letter is different? Does “color” have a different colour than “colour”?

    What colour is the word (or letters of the word) “Pharyngula”?

  59. #59 uncle frogy
    November 10, 2007

    I have not thought of this in a long time. In my younger days back in 1960’s I tried LSD a few times. My own impression of the experience was that the thresh holds of the the senses and brain were reduced making it very hard to keep things straight as to what I was seeing, hearing, smelling or feeling. Thinking became seeing became hearing became seeing became smelling. As if I was suddenly reduced to an infant and just started to use my body and was rather overwhelmed by it but was at the same time my real age . It was very difficult to do anything like drive some where. I am glad that at the time I had nothing I needed to do.

    If that is anything like Synesthesia it could be very problematic I will stick to having a “normal sensory” experience thank you. though it does suggest the possibility of new art forms. I do not see any useful survival benefits in it but not sure if there are any negative aspects though being overwhelmed by your senses could get you killed pretty fast.

  60. #60 uncle frogy
    November 10, 2007

    I have not thought of this in a long time. In my younger days back in 1960’s I tried LSD a few times. My own impression of the experience was that the thresh holds of the the senses and brain were reduced making it very hard to keep things straight as to what I was seeing, hearing, smelling or feeling. Thinking became seeing became hearing became seeing became smelling. As if I was suddenly reduced to an infant and just started to use my body and was rather overwhelmed by it but was at the same time my real age . It was very difficult to do anything like drive some where. I am glad that at the time I had nothing I needed to do.

    If that is anything like Synesthesia it could be very problematic I will stick to having a “normal sensory” experience thank you. though it does suggest the possibility of new art forms. I do not see any useful survival benefits in it but not sure if there are any negative aspects though being overwhelmed by your senses could get you killed pretty fast.

  61. #61 Buffybot
    November 10, 2007

    Leigh – sometime in the past 10 years New Scientist did an article on synaesthesia called “The Sweet Smell of Purple”.

    Answering Owlmirror’s question – words have their own vibe which is a combination of the letters, but all swirled together and with some predominating. Pharyngula is a really pleasant word for me – all curly, soft and smooth. Imagine a rococo whipped cream sculpture in shades of lilac, sage, pink and white. P, G, and R are stong-coloured assertive-type letters, but the y and the ula have a kind of diluting effect and make it all pastelly. Putting the letter L in a word is like pouring milk into soup.

  62. #62 SEF
    November 10, 2007

    If R is strong/assertive but L is milky, do you roll your Rs? Or is it really all about the shape – in which case R should be different from r.

  63. #63 Qalmlea
    November 10, 2007

    #58

    I assume it’s different for every synaesthete, depending, but: Does each letter of a word have a different colour, or does each word have its own color? Does upper case differ from lower case if the shape of the letter is different? Does “color” have a different colour than “colour”?

    I can’t say if it’s the same for all synesthetes, but for me each individual letter has a color, and they all interweave to form the color of a word. Some letters lave a stronger effect than others. Vowels generally have the largest effect. So ‘color’ is nearly colorless for me, but ‘colour’ has a tinge of green.

    As for pharyngula… In my head, it’s kind of a swirl of greens and blues. If I look at individual pieces of the word, I get different colors, though. ‘ph’ is blue; ‘a’ is red; ‘ryng’ is somewhat yellowish, and ‘ula’ is strongly green, despite the ‘a’ trying to turn things red. And I do get a different color-vibe depending on whether I consider the word as a whole or look at its components.

  64. #64 Glenna
    November 10, 2007

    I don’t think this is synesthesia, but numbers have gender for me (along a scale). There seems to be a difference between this type of association and true synesthesia…what is it?

  65. #65 Joolya
    November 10, 2007

    For me, the word “Pharyngula” is reddish-pink (because /p/ and /a/ and /r/ are pink and red) with brown (/g/) and purple (/u) undertones, and reminiscent of a plum (yellow inside for /y/ and /l/). It’s also a feminine word because the majority of its letters are female (p, h, a, r, y, and u).
    But “PZ” is pepto-bismol pink and licorice black.
    Maybe I am different from more “strong” synesthetes, though, because I don’t “see” the colors … I would descibe it as “tasting” the colors on the back of my palate, but that doesn’t really make it more clear! I can also dial it up or down, depending on how I feel and if I am paying attention to it or to, e.g., the actual words I am reading, like in a book or on a blog.
    When I was a kid I would take a long time over my math homework, because I was too busy making up stories about the numbers in the problems to actually solve them. All the numbers had colors, gender, and personalities. For example, the number 36 is a married couple that are fighting (the more outspoken bright green female 3 and the stolid brown mister 6 have their backs to each other); 42 are gossiping girls (dark blue 4 is older, wiser, than little pink 2); 97 (he likes her but she thinks he’s arrogant).
    I always thought my associating capacity was just a bit more active than the average, so the extra-connectedness of neurons seems to make sense to me. It’s very interesting to compare notes with others here!

  66. #66 Owlmirror
    November 10, 2007

    I don’t think this is synesthesia, but numbers have gender for me (along a scale). There seems to be a difference between this type of association and true synesthesia…what is it?

    The term “synaesthesia” is sufficiently broad that I think it would cover that sort of association as well.

    Of course, it has been suggested that all humans are, very mildly, synaesthetic.

    There’s a famous experiment which involves showing two abstract shapes to people. One is a rounded sort of blob, the other is sharply angular.

    People are then told that one shape is a “kiki”, and the other is a “bouba”. (Googling on those two terms should bring up descriptions of the experiment, and the images themselves.)

    And 98% of people asked agree on which term goes with which shape. Since there’s no objective reason to assert that one random shape should have a particular name, the implication is that people are forming a synaesthetic association between the sounds and what those sounds “ought to” look like as physical shapes.

    Fascinating responses on what “Pharyngula” looks like. Thanks!

  67. #67 Bee
    November 10, 2007

    Disclaimer: not a scientist of any stripe.

    I’ve read a fair amount of material about synesthesia, and looking through the comments here, I have to ask, how much of what people are describing as synesthesia is just learned association?

    When I was three to six, my mother played guitar and sang us to sleep almost every night. I perceived the guitar chord sounds as little floating round-cornered fat equilateral triangles with a round dent in the middle. They were multi-coloured, individually, in softly shaded dark purples, blues, reds, greens, etc.

    When I was older, that perception disappeared, although I can always call it up if I feel like it. So was it synesthesia which subsequently disappered, or just a child’s imaginative perception? And how many people who claim synesthesia are just describing similar associative imaginings?

  68. #68 Owlmirror
    November 10, 2007

    So was it synesthesia which subsequently disappered, or just a child’s imaginative perception?

    Neurologists and psychologists go to a great deal of effort to make sure that the perception is real rather than imagined. For example, for letter-colour synaesthesia, this includes tests with numbers that look similar (2 & 5 using equal length lines and right angles), but which are perceived differently by synaesthetes.

    I think if the perception is consistent over time, synaesthesia is the best diagnosis. Given the fallibility of memory, if, in tests separated by a year or two, someone will give the exact same colour descriptions to all of the letters of the alphabet and the numbers, the most likely explanation is that it is a matter of perception rather than imagination.

    When you listen to songs, do/did you perceive the exact same sequence of coloured triangles for the same song heard some time later?

  69. #69 Bee
    November 10, 2007

    Owlmirror #67

    Thanks for the explanation.

    To your last question, I have to answer that I don’t know, because I’ve never considered that aspect of it. However, I’ve taught myself to play guitar over the past year and a half and perhaps I should try to notice whether there’s any consistency to the imagery, now that I’m producing the sounds myself.

  70. #70 usagi
    November 10, 2007

    One more link on the topic for you:
    http://cosmicvariance.com/2007/11/05/martian-colors/
    Synchronicity’s a funny thing, isn’t it?

  71. #71 Buffybot
    November 11, 2007

    Somewhere-or-other I’ve heard/read/seen in a TV documentary that all babies have synaesthesia, but that most people outgrow it in early childhood, which may explain Bee’s experience.

    I love Joolya’s numbers soap-opera. I’m like that with the alphabet. Letters are divided into odd and even, like numbers, but in addition they have colours, moods and personalities. Within the alphabet there are lots of cliques, animosities and partnerships. O is lonely without its soulmate U. R is two-faced and untrustworthy (what else would you expect from a green letter?), but W is kind, jovial and tastes of pencils.

  72. #72 Kaleberg
    November 11, 2007

    A few years back Science had an article which pointed out that coolness and mint stimulate certain common neural elements. There is a straightforward reason that we think of mint flavors as cool. I’d bet that there is a shared channel for heat and hot peppers. There are synesthetic effects like this all over the place in our lower levels of sensory processing, and they probably involved shared channels and mechanisms.

    The examples given of sounds, shapes and colors all involve things that we learn at a young age to reduce to symbols. The critical learning of phonemes happens before one can talk. Parents often marvel at the moment when a child distinguishes red as a color, an abstraction, from red as a description of a particular object. My guess is that there is a common mechanism for associating statistical clusters in sensory space with symbols which can be used for logic, learning and planning.

    I’m curious though. Are there foods that taste blue or sounds that smell like lilac? Are there letters that evoke the sensation of turning or muscle actions that suggest a color? Do synesthetes who use sign language associate signed letters with colors, or only printed ones? The things that do and don’t get crossed over present an important clue.

    It is amusing to consider how we can exploit synesthesia. For example, reading is based on our ability to associate visual symbols with sounds and words.

    —-

    P.S. Tonal languages are not all Sino-Tibetan. Aramaic is Nilo-Semetic and tonal.

  73. #73 Owlmirror
    November 19, 2007

    Aramaic is Nilo-Semetic and tonal.

    That’s just silly. Aramaic is not a tonal language. Or if it is, then so is English.

  74. #74 Victoria Jurkowski
    February 8, 2008

    “I have an extremely dull form of synesthesia: when my eyes hurt (like I poke myself or something), I hear a sound like wind rushing past my head.”

    i get that too, but for me it;s a reaction to abnormal ody temperature. like when its cold out it sounds like really fast wind, when i have a fever it’s really slow but it whistles. i also have colored words synesthesia and i have smell -> feel synesthesia, where smells feel like textures or shapes, sometimes wrapped around me but normally impressed on my tongue. like the smell of a cherry lollipop feels like a triangle on my tongue, and the smell after a thunderstorm feels like silk ribbons gently wrapped around my body.

New comments have been temporarily disabled. Please check back soon.