Bill Long 12/07/04
Thirty years ago, scientists would have rolled their eyes at the mere mention of synaesthesia. Synaesthesia, a Greek word meaning combined sensory responses, had been known for hundreds of years but was dismissed early in the 20th century becuase of the inability of scholars to verify or make consistent the explanations of those who said they were synaesthetics. That is, one person who claimed to be synaesthetic might say that musical melodies appeared green to him while another person might say that they were yellow. The "hearing" and "seeing" senses were "joined," but apparently not in a discernible pattern between people. Since science had no "objective" way to verify these impressions, they were relegated to the outer darkness of unsubstantiated human experiences.
Enter Dr. Cytowic
While still in his 20s, Dr. Richard Cytowic was doing his medical residency in neurology in a hospital in North Carolina. He tells the story that one of his neighbors invited him to a dinner party and made roast chicken for the gathering. The host delayed sitting the guests down at the table with the admonition that there weren't enough "points on the chicken." Trying vainly to call back the words that had just escaped from his mouth, the man said, "Oh my god, I shouldn't have said that, but well you're a neurologist, maybe you understand. I taste according to shape and i wanted the taste of this chicken to be a pointed, prickly shape, and it came out all round. I can't possibly serve this, I've got to fix it up." Though everyone else thought he was being silly, Cytowic took it seriously, and the man became the stimulus for Cytowic's 1980 best-seller, The Man Who Tasted Shapes. It is no exaggeration to say that this book launched the modern study of and appreciation for synaesthesia.
Looking more Closely at Synaesthesia
Upon further study, Cytowic discovered that the phenomenon of synaesthesia was fairly common--about 1 in 25,000 people had the "joining" of sensations when perceiving an object. Woman are almost three times as likely as men to be synaesthetic. Many synaesthetics have difficulty with their sense of direction. They get mixed up in cities, especially those in a grid formation (which, to many of us, makes a city "easy" to navigate).
The most common forms of synaesthesia are where numbers or letters carry a certain "color" with them. Sometimes sounds produce color and finally, certain sounds or touches produce not only color but shapes. Cytowic tells the story of Vladimir Nabokov who complained to his mother when he was a toddler that the colors on his wooden alphabet blocks were all wrong, that the wooden blocks had a red 'A,' while to him 'A' was blue. Even as a child Nabokov said to himself, "how could anybody be so stupid to make this kind of mistake?" Great musicians from the 19th century (Lizst and Rachmaninoff, for example) were synaesthetes, while several curent composers and writers have this inclination.
The current approach to synaesthesia is to see it as more of a gift than a strange or "weird" endowment. Some scholars see ithe presence of synaesthesia in our midst as harkening back to an earlier (not necessarily primitive) time in our collective history where the senses were not completely "split" into sight, hearing, sound, taste, and touch. Thus, the synaesthetes might have a more genuine connection to an earlier history of our species than those of us for whom senses are farily rigidly demarcated.
A 1946 article in Philological Quarterly talked about a "Negro tribe that has a separate word for seeing, but employs a common term for hearing, tasting, smelling and touching." This observation (I do not know whether or not it has been confirmed) appealed to a generation of anthropologists who wanted to see "primitive" peoples as retaining some of the features of the earlier history of mankind. And, we might say that our use of "cross sensual" terms, such as a "sharp tone" or "loud colors" might not be reflective of our unconscious longing for a more "unified field theory" of the senses.
Thus, maybe in all our 21st century sophistication we are really "lacking" that "unity of sense" that would actually make our life richer. Just as our intellectual journey is often one of analysis and taking things apart for our first fifty years, with the great synthetic or integrative task being the work of the second half of life, why not aspire for a kind of sensory unity in the second half of life? Even the framing of the issue in this way begs the question of whether synaesthesia is something one can "grow" into as one ages. Can the intellectual desire for integration reflected in our approach to knowledge in the second half of life find its counterpart in synaesthetic experience? The synaesthetics encourages us to think of the holistic nature of perception
This discussion doesn't even scratch the surface of the phenomenon. It doesn't say how the experience of the synaesthete differs from that of the hallucinating drug-taker. We don't really know to what extent the so-called great religious mystics were people of synaesthetic bent. It doesn't give us clarity on how the brain actually functions to produce these joined sensations. We do know, however, that the "action" in the brain for a person with synaesthesia is not on the cortex (the exterior folds) but in the limbic system, buried under the external gray matter.
See what rich worlds a word opens?
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long