Crossed-wires world: Synaesthesia

12/05/2013 at 00:30 (Personal, Reviews, Synaesthesia, Writing) (, , , , , , , , )

The peculiarity of a sense-liaison between sound and colour – present for as long as I can remember – only became apparent when, as a child, I tried illustrating to a classmate how her laughter appeared in my head as Red. Red as a fire engine, though not as boxy; more a flare, like spilled paint.

The look she and others in our P.E group directed at me was of narrow-eyed confusion. They stared around at each other, and I could almost hear the sarcasm dripping from the Wow mouthed between them. Already sensitive to the social mores of school, I retreated quickly. They were careful not to call out when around me, after that tentative experiment. Perhaps they were afraid I was hoarding their essence like some freaky audio-tape.

They wouldn’t have been far wrong, actually.

It’s not easy, trying to explain to others what can’t be projected, seen by all. I speak from the experience of a persistent mental illness, unrelated to Synaesthesia, which is the term I eventually found when researching this crossover of senses. Before the casual revelation to my peers, I’d automatically assumed that they, along with all the human race, experienced the same things I did. We had all been taught that the sky is blue, that grass is green, etc. We all agreed on those universal factors. Surely then, this couldn’t be much different?

I have vivid memories of sitting on my parents’ laps as a nipper, being read to and seeing not only their voices (consistent to this day) but the shapes that certain words would make. Studying A Level English Language – primarily phonetics, and the many origin-tributaries running to our language river – provided further stimuli. I became accustomed to the pleasantly fragile, lightly-hued words derived from ancient French, which stood in direct contrast to the sharp-angles of Latin, the ruggedly dark stumps of Germanic. I memorized phonetics in relation to how they appeared in my head, shapes and colours; these could then be applied to essays and exams. Believe what you will, but it’s to this little extra that I ascribe passing through A Levels with flying colours. No pun intended.

Though musical instruments may shift in tone or volume, they generally remain consistent across repeated listens, with colours typically appearing as clouds, undulating ribbons and/or flares. Vocals – spoken or sung – create something akin to stencils on wallpaper, heard over backing music. This also relates to the layering of instruments, with an orchestra often overwhelming my head in brass “rings”, string “wires” and woodwind “ribbons.”

A perfect example of this sound-colour layering, can be found in The Velvet Underground and Nico’s “Venus in Furs.” On a seabed of turquoise, the ostrich guitar rings out an overlay of brass flares:

The voice of the late Nick Drake ripples oboe-green across the bark brown of his guitar finger-picking:

Very rarely, a singer’s voice will alter, and then it is usually across time. At the beginning of his career in the 60’s, Leonard Cohen’s vocals were honey brown, fluidly loose:

Cured with age, alcohol and living, his vocals have aged beyond former reediness to now appear as lowland jagged teeth, darkest brown rock.

Of course, I don’t actually *see* these rocks in any clear detail. Nothing comes close to real definition; only vague shapes and colours, yet still able to evoke the memories of things read, semantics studied, images seen on TV. It has certainly made my life as a reader and writer more pleasurable, with my greatest weakness found in metaphor and simile. Synaesthetic language is charming for me in any text, and I will repeat certain phrases to myself, to find their colours fully. Alice Hoffman, Jeffrey Eugenides and Truman Capote are all masters of this art, and most influential to my style.

Neurologist Richard E Cytowic defines Synaesthesia as “a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.” Certainly, this would explain the unplanned nature of the sound-colours I have experienced. The metaphors employed in writing are only a later-shaped event. Cytowic goes further in prescribing a diagnostic criteria:

* Synesthesia is involuntary and automatic.
* Synesthetic perceptions are spatially extended, meaning they often have a sense of “location.” For example, synesthetes speak of “looking at” or “going to” a particular place to attend to the experience.
* Synesthetic percepts are consistent and generic (i.e., simple rather than pictorial).
* Synesthesia is highly memorable.
* Synesthesia is laden with affect.

This rules out the idea that synaesthetes experience any kind of perceived effort. The sensory mingling is instantaneous. The clearest method of visual explanation might be found in Disney’s Fantasia, specifically the Soundtrack intermission:

Universally accepted soft shapes for soft sounds; sharp striations for the harder instruments. Easily understood by syn / non-synaesthetes alike, but as Cytowic defines, “Synaesthetes nevertheless choose more precise colours than non-synesthetes and are more consistent in their choice of colours given a set of sounds of varying pitch, timbre and composition.”

Defined as a neurological condition, Synaesthesia is certainly one of the less intrusive to normal life – though some synaesthetes have described experiencing sensory overload (“Cytowic has famously described a man who tasted shapes; someone tasted tunes; another was referred for counseling when she told the assistant principal of her school – ill-advisedly — that when she kissed her boyfriend she “saw orange sherbet foam”. One was so surrounded by spatial imagery, excited by everything from the alphabet to shoe sizes, that she explained “My entire life, everything, has a place that goes all round my body.”)

Variations of Synaesthesia have made a fascinating kaleidoscope for me to twist. From believing all humans experience sound-colour coalition, to wondering if maybe another CAT scan was in order, I’ve now discovered that any of the five senses may intermingle. James Wannerton, president of the UK Synaesthesia Association, “chose his companions not based on their personality or looks, but because of how their names tickled his taste buds.” This “relatively rare form is known as word-taste or lexical gustatory synaesthesia.”

Imagine standing before a choir, tasting it as you would a pizza – the thick crustiness of bass, mellow cheese of alto, sharp tomato sauce of baritone, delicate spice of soprano. Of course, the caveat being that when Wannerton experiences a sensory mouthful unpalatable or ultimately overwhelming, he must deviate to avoid distraction (or spitting) – “these days if he has to work with someone with an overpowering first name, he chooses to refer to them by their middle names, or just re-christens them with an new one. And talking to people in a crowded room can taste a bit like putting lots of strange things into a food processor at once.”

Daniel Tammet, FRSA, autistic savant and writer, was tested and found to have Synaesthesia relative to his savant-memory abilities, and the Aspergers’ Syndrome diagnosed in 2005. He argues that “savant abilities are not ‘supernatural’ but are ‘an outgrowth’ of ‘natural, instinctive ways of thinking about numbers and words’, and that “the brains of savants can, to some extent, be retrained, and that normal brains could be taught to develop some savant abilities.”

Tammet describes “his visual image of 289 as particularly ugly, 333 as particularly attractive, and pi as beautiful.” Indeed, Tammet “holds the European record for reciting pi from memory to 22,514 digits in five hours and nine minutes on 14 March 2004.” No small feat, and certainly a boon in any educational field wishing to tap alternative methods of education, as researchers at the Universities of Sussex and Edinburgh hope in their studies of savants and Synaesthesia.

In Wannerton’s case, as a boy in school, “every time he heard a sound as a young boy, he had an immediate and involuntary taste on his tongue. Hearing the name Anne Boleyn, gave him a strong taste of pear drops, making some history lessons a treat. In fact most monarchs in British history came with a specific taste, which meant he could reel them off with ease.” I know I could put this particular variation to good use. Having suffered poor Math ratings since I began school – with numbers often jumbling up as a useless medley – I would gladly accept a memorable mind-menu in order to recall all of my timetables; to be capable of flipping them about as sums in my head, or in Tammet’s case, to perceive them with spatial awareness / emotional attributes (“the number 6 apparently has no distinct image, yet what he describes as an almost small nothingness, opposite to the number 9 which he calls large and towering.”)

In conjunction with Cytowic’s definitions – particularly, “laden with affect” – Dr Simner of Edinburgh university points out that the
“brains of synaesthetes have extra clusters of connectivity, and there are differences in the grey matter of the brain – an extra thickness is seen in certain areas.” These areas correlate with a study performed on Tammet in 2008, which “concluded that his abilities might be explained by hyperactivity in one brain region (the left prefrontal cortex)” – the area of the brain “implicated in planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior.”

When Prof Jamie Ward performed studied on Wannerton’s brain, he was “asked to think about words which have good and less palatable tastes to him” – defining his senses with emotional resonance in relation to how he perceives them, as with Tammet and numbers. “We see many parts of the brain lighting up, including areas associated with taste, emotional processing and mental imagery.” I have often wondered if perhaps the only reason I can form colours / shapes in relation to sounds heard, is because of the latter’s appeal (or lack of.)
Then again, this was present before I had conscious decisions and preferences. I still don’t like the colour mustard-yellow, yet this is how the voice of one of my relations has always appeared to me. Not only that, but in accordance with their rather staccato speech patterns, it always resembles a mental lightning flash. I have no real dislike of my older sister – though we fought a fair bit as kids – this is simply how I register her voice in my mind, like a personalized ringtone; and it works on the same level for many others in my life, though not all. Some appear as blank spaces, for whatever reason, though their emotional connection to me may be great. Perhaps it’s simply an emotional-colour whiteout, due to high intensity of feeling.

Renewed studies into the syndrome, after it fell into limbo – “the 1980s cognitive revolution began to make inquiry into internal subjective states respectable again, scientists once again looked to synesthesia” – and the rise of the internet, have allowed synaesthetes, and those intrigued by its potential to work together in uncovering the truth. Certainly, more artists than ever lend their abilities to sensory-mingling (Syd Barrett being an oft-quoted favourite.)

Author Pat Duffy experienced something close to my own self-revelation as a child: “I realized that to make an R all I had to do was first write a P and draw a line down from its loop. And I was so surprised that I could turn a yellow letter into an orange letter just by adding a line.” Fascinating, I think, that she naturally progressed from a primary to a secondary colour, with the simple shift of one letter to another, an extension of shape.

For Duffy, the truth “was a moment when that most basic of questions that binds human beings socially, ‘do you see what I see?’ seemed to hang in a vacuum, independent of any shared context.”

If, through my writing, I manage to create an extension of the sound-colour phenomenon experienced every day, I’ll have found my own personal truth.

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