What is synaesthesia? Why is it important?

Crikey – the online Random House dictionary says synaesthesia (synesthesia in more search-friendly US English) ‘is a sensation produced in one modality when a stimulus is applied to another modality, as when the hearing of a certain sound induces the visualization of a certain color’.

There’s a problem here: the scientific language misses the meaning of something at root simple and strong. So, going back to first principles, here’s an example of synaesthesia in a very good contemporary poem called ‘Writing’:

She could see the paper waiting to be written on
She could hear the pens banging on the cupboard door
Desperate to be used
She could feel the lines on the paper wobbling
As if about to cry
She could smell the colours screaming and shouting
Wanting to be noticed
She could not stand it any longer
She sat down and wrote

I presume the writer couldn’t tell us – for reasons I’ll give you in the next paragraph – what synaesthesia is, but in ‘She could smell the colours screaming’ she intuitively smashes together three senses (smell, sight and hearing) in a climax of emotional intensity before finishing with the fierce and generative paradox of her writing making a new silence and white space.

This poem happens to be written by an 8-year-old. I saw it a school anthology. My point? This artless (in a good way) simplicity intuitively channels the complexities of energy, life and truth. These are the characteristics, I often try to say in this blog, of communication. If we can develop a rich and complex enough model of intuitive communication to explain synaesthesia we can use it to help make our work – in publishing, design, advertising, writing, marketing, teaching, communication – richer, more memorable, more effective.

Synaesthetes perceive one sense in terms of another, i.e. they can hear sounds as tastes, or see letters as colours. An early study (1893) records that some see numbers in space, or personify letters or numbers: ‘T’s are generally crabbed, ungenerous creatures. U is a soulless sort of thing. 4 is honest, but … 3 I cannot trust … 9 is dark, a gentleman, tall and graceful, but politic under his suavity.’ One contemporary synaesthetic savant, Daniel Tammet, sees David Letterman (Numberman?) as number 117, ‘tall, lanky – a little bit wobbly’; he thinks of numbers and letters as emotions, colours, sculptures and landscapes en route to remembering pi to 22,514 places or learning Icelandic in a week.

In practice, though, all permutations of crossovers between senses have been recorded, including people who verifiably claim they can smell with their toes.

Synaesthetes usually think what they perceive is normal and unremarkable for the same reason none of us can know what green means to someone else. On being asked about it, they usually think of it as something pleasurable or helpful. People who think of numbers as colours may be abnormally good at maths; those who remember ideas as objects connected together in space may have particularly good memories.

I am by coincidence reading a book by Dominic O’Brien called You Can Have an Amazing Memory (London: Watkins Publishing, 2011). The author, the publisher’s blurb gushes, ‘is legendary for winning the World Memory Championship eight times and for outwitting the casinos of Las Vegas to win a fortune at blackjack.’ Reading it wasn’t my idea (it was a book group choice), but (a) it is fascinating and (b) it works, even for me. Here is one of his synaesthetic warm-up exercises for preparing to improve your memory:

Imagine you’re holding a football in your hands. Imagine that it smells like freshly squeezed oranges. Take a few moments to bring those two thoughts to life in your mind. Now imagine the football has the texture of jelly. It’s ticking like a clock and tastes of chocolate …

I’ll probably say some more about this in another post, but the key to the author’s method is to convert abstract information (e.g. the order of packs of cards, lists of random words, binary code or numbers) into personally significant, sensorily rich/diverse and emotionally varied ‘journeys’ round familiar places, turning the data into ‘stories’ by deliberately working with the grain of his instinctive, irrational and spontaneous associations. Notice there is an implicit, practical and successful model here of how our minds and memories work, based on what I propose is the same inherently transmodal and substitutional pathways characteristic of synaesthesia.

A cross-correlation for this comes from a very different kind of world: Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (1900, Book VI) has a particularly elegant schema for understanding our sleep-time acts of self-communication. For Freud, dreams allow us a glimpse of the most foundational workings of our mind without (at least to start with) the distortions of consciousness. He uses a taxonomy of metaphor, metonym, condensation and displacement to help our dream-interpretations distinguish between manifest and latent content. Note the transformations (respectively) of translation, association, reduction and substitution are functionally the same kind of slippages we can observe from the diversity of synaesthetic responses.

An intimidating and vulnerable Sigmund Freud, surrounded by his collection of classical and early Egyptian figurines. I have no details of date or photographer, but I think this is a late photograph taken in London, c. 1938. His cancer of the jaw is clearly visible. Image from http://www.freud-sigmund.com/dream-top-theories

The persons who wrote the Wikipedia definition say it is a ‘neurological condition’ affecting ‘between 1 in 20 and 1 in 20,000’ of the population. (Note again the clinical scientific language.) The wide difference between these numbers makes them sound like wild guesses. Even 1 in 20 seems low to me, partly for the completely unscientific reason that sometimes I happen to experience correspondences between some music and tastes. I have no idea whether this is ‘true’ or just intellectualized synaesthesia, but a few bars of harpsichord music might remind me of crunchy hazelnuts, or fluty/‘chiffy’ organ stops make me think of oaked Chardonnay. If I was going to describe the taste of an arrabbiata sauce on pasta, for example, I might talk about trebly/oboe-y sounds over a double-bass.

I hope this doesn’t sound weird. I don’t usually talk about it much. I remember one person – wrinkling her nose in scepticism – said ‘But everybody thinks like that!’ It’s very difficult to know what other people experience – please leave a comment or send an e-mail and let me know whether this makes sense to you or not.

My other (a lot more objective!) reason to doubt the accuracy of the Wikipedia numbers is the following experiment, originally by Wolfgang Köhler. Here are two shapes; in an imaginary language, one is called bouba, and the other kiki. Which is which? (The answer is at the end of this post.)

From an experiment first conducted by Wolfgang Köhler. Image from Wikipedia.

High-profile neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran and colleague E. Hubbard say that 95 per cent of those in their 2003 repetition of the experiment give the same answer, although only 56 per cent of people diagnosed as being autistic agree. Responses are very similar for English and Tamil speakers, so the very high figures are probably not specifically related to the language spoken. Other research suggests that two-and-a-half-year-olds, not old enough to read, respond similarly, so it can’t be anything to do with the shape of the letters.

Why should a shape, something we see, correspond so closely with a sound, something we hear? Can it be that our responses are not as chopped up into discrete sense categories as we usually believe? Don’t we already know that our minds and bodies are more active and more fully alive when we communicate across a whole range of senses? More philosophically – and here is the punchline to my previous digs at reductively scientific language –  isn’t reality more interconnected and richer than we usually have the tools, systems and language to understand? Isn’t synaesthesia a kind of apperceptive prism for a more interesting and beautiful world?

In one of the next posts I will be looking at examples of synaesthesia in the magnificent genre of 12-inch record sleeves.

The spiky shape is kiki, the blobby one bouba.

About Propagandum

I’ve been working in book publishing for over 30 years – an industry now in rapid transition. So I’m interested in foundational principles for media, writing and language – what lessons can we learn for how we can and should communicate? How can we make sense of media/technology? Can we transfer some skills from the old to the new? I hope to share (every week-ish) some things I think are wonderful, rich and important. I write longish posts because our complex and fascinating world cannot be reduced to soundbites. Please let me know what you think – contact me at david@propagandum.com
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3 Responses to What is synaesthesia? Why is it important?

  1. Zack Hunter says:

    This is awesome! I recently wrote a novel mainly from the perspective of a synesthetic observer, as I myself have synesthesia that cross-links my hearing and seeing at all times. Looking forward to reading more from you!

  2. Though I don’t often experience synaesthesia, I often find myself responding to the ‘texture’ of written texts.

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