- NEW YORK - The letter
"A" is a pale shade of yellow. Listening to a French horn smells
like cinnamon. And eating a hamburger feels like somebody's jabbing you
in the big toe.
- People with a somewhat magical condition known as synesthesia
do not experience reality in the same way as most of us; the rigid wall
between the five senses is lowered, or demolished completely. By virtue
of a uniquely wired brain, they are able to feel smells, hear tastes and
see music, among other combinations.
- Many synesthetes, as people with the condition are called,
fail to realize that everyone does not experience the world as they do.
- "I came back from college on a semester break, and
was sitting with my family around the dinner table, and -- I don't know
why I said it -- but I said, 'The number five is yellow,'" wrote Janet,
a New York City artist, on a <http://web.mit.edu/synesthesia/www/synesthesia.htmlWebsite
devoted to the phenomenon.
- Synesthesia comes in several distinct flavors, so to
- "One type is when the perception of a stimulus,
like a sound, results in people experiencing another sense, like color,"
said Dr. Peter Grossenbacher, a leading synesthesia research at the National
Institute of Mental Health, part of the National Institutes of Health.
- But equally common is when a mere thought " like
imagining a certain letter " serves as the trigger for sensations.
- "One of the most common forms of synesthesia includes
the letters of the alphabet having colors," Grossenbacher said. "Also,
for numbers to have color and location in space " they can't help
but think of each number in its own specific location: 'The 3 is slightly
to the left of me, about a foot in front of my face.'"
- Synesthesia is almost always a one-way street: If sound
is perceived as color, color rarely evokes sound. And the phenomena vary
widely among different people, so that they may associate different letters
with different colors, for example, although there a few trends. Among
people who sense color along with letters, about three-quarters associated
the letter "O" with the color white.
- Only an estimated one of every 25,000 people has synesthesia,
and it's remarkably difficult for a non-synesthete to imagine the experience.
But for people who always see a specific color when the rest of the world
only sees a generic object, letter or number, it's somewhere between seeing
something in your mind's eye, and actually seeing the color in front of
- Artistic Leanings
- It is not uncommon to find synesthetes, perhaps because
of their unique sensory abilities, working as artists " the Russian
author Vladimir Nabokov, who wrote Lolita, was a celebrated example. "The
matter came up, one day in my seventh year, as I was using a heap of old
alphabet blocks to build a tower," he wrote in his autobiography.
"I casually remarked to [my mother] that their colors were all wrong."
He and his mother, who was also a synesthete, "discovered then that
some of her letters had the same tint as mine."
- Artists have long used synesthesia as a metaphor, as
when the French poet Rimbaud assigned a color to every vowel sound. And
Walt Disney brought the phenomenon to the big screen in Fantasia, when
he illustrated a piece of classical music with swirls of colors and abstract
shapes. But the closest many people have gotten to the authentic experience
is probably through the use of hallucinogenic (and illegal) drugs like
LSD and mescaline, with many users report "seeing" music and
even certain emotions.
- The fact that hallucinogenic drug users experience synesthesia
may fit in with a leading theory of why it exists.
- The brain has pathways that carry neurological impulses
from the eyes, ears, mouth, nose and other nerves, Grossenbacher explained,
and the pathways for the various senses converge at various points. He
suspects that where different pathways meet in the brains of synesthetes,
there is some backwash between pathways, resulting in the bi-sensory experience.
A similar effect may take place when people use hallucinogens.
- "How the heck can the sound of a musical instrument
lead to color?" Grossenbacher asked rhetorically. "I think the
signals go forward in the auditory pathway, reaching one of those convergence
areas. Activation in this pathway sends impulses back down toward the eye."
- "Synesthetes show neural activity in visual areas
of the brain when there are sounds, even when they are blindfolded,"
said Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen of the University of Cambridge, who has performed
pioneering brain scans of synesthetes.
- But in a field that is only beginning to unravel the
mysteries of synesthesia, there are other possible explanations "
the most startling of which is that we are all synesthetes at birth.
- "It's possible that as infants, we are undifferentiated
in our senses, so that information comes in and is jumbled in a big ball,"
said Dr. James Scirillo, a professor at Wake Forest University who has
studied synesthesia. "The psychologist William James called infants
'a blooming, buzzing confusion.'" As we mature, the theory goes, our
overlapping senses are closed off, one by one, into the traditional five
- Dr. Grossenbacher <email@example.com is
seeking synesthetes for his research program.