Smelling Colors, Hearing numbers
April 15, 2003 9:13 PM   Subscribe

"Modern scientists have known about synesthesia since 1880, when Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, published a paper in Nature on the phenomenon. But most have brushed it aside as fakery, an artifact of drug use (LSD and mescaline can produce similar effects) or a mere curiosity. About four years ago, however, we and others began to uncover brain processes that could account for synesthesia. " This article from Scientific American seems to be turning heads around the Psychology Department at U of M [Michigan]. It's got me going too. I've seen real connections between color and sound before, stone sober. Could there be something to all this?
posted by phylum sinter (23 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
For background, and so as not to repeat ourselves, previous Metafilter thread on synesthesia.
posted by Hildago at 9:19 PM on April 15, 2003

Y'all should check out this book, which is all about synesthesia and memory.
posted by proleptic at 9:20 PM on April 15, 2003

d'oh! Well, I think the post still provides new content, doesn't it? The point was the Sci-Am article.
posted by phylum sinter at 9:27 PM on April 15, 2003

'Martian colors'. That blew me away!
posted by oflinkey at 9:32 PM on April 15, 2003

That article is fantastic, good find! Even without drug use, I've experienced associations between sound and vision. It's not really synesthesia, but it does show the presence of confounding connections between differences senses in the brain.

Here's an example which happens quite frequently for me. I'm lying awake in bed, with my eyes closed, and it's quite silent. A sharp noise occurs - a car door slamming, a possum jumping on the roof, and for a couple of seconds I see a geometric pattern of shapes in front of my eyes. Some times in black and white, some times in red and white, but always in a repeated, geometric / tesselated pattern; chequerboard, stars, zig-zags. It's quite trippy.
posted by Jimbob at 10:39 PM on April 15, 2003

Those are some good links, y2karl. A few of those are of questionable truth though, especially the "Other Famous Synaesthetes" one... This page is also linked from the first Link you posted. I Like this article [33 page pdf] a whole lot as well. I remember seeing an episode of Nova about the work Vilayanur S. Ramachandran had done with phantom limb phenomenon, that was really interesting as well.
posted by phylum sinter at 11:09 PM on April 15, 2003

From Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens: It occurred to me that maybe every person in the world had some little oddity of perception...

Wouldn't surprise me.

Pages of words printed in black sometimes turn brilliant red for me. I think it's a physical phenomenon, because it happens only in bright light, but it's also changed over time. When I was in elementary school, it happened almost daily; now (at age 19) I'm lucky if I see it twice in a year.

I also have very strong associations for words. Not colors or any other physical sense, but...arg...this is difficult to explain. I guess I could describe it as a set of fixed resonances. Words fit on a scale with opposing poles. One pole (located on my left) is warm, dense, slightly squishy--comforting but oppressive. The other (on my right) is cool, empty, and hard--plenty of space, but lonely and shiver-inducing. To complicate things, the word and concept "left" is all the way to the cool side of the scale, while "right" is neutral-leaning-warm. The word and the concept don't always match up, either--the color "yellow" is neutral-leaning-warm, but because of the colors involved the word is neutral-leaning-cool.
posted by hippugeek at 11:31 PM on April 15, 2003

Whoops. That last bit should read, "but because of the letters involved..."
posted by hippugeek at 11:33 PM on April 15, 2003

Well, I don't know if this counts but I always think fenugreek
when I read hippugeek. ;)
posted by y2karl at 11:52 PM on April 15, 2003

There's plenty to synaethesia. It's a fascinating area of research; last summer I worked with Prof. Ramachandran (mentioned earlier) on investigating masking effects interacting with synaesthesia. By coincidence, one of my supervisors at Cambridge was one of the people who first 'legitimised' synaesthesia by constructing a solid diagnostic test (Prof. Baron-Cohen). Self plug: here's an essay I wrote about synaesthesia on Kuro5hin.
posted by adrianhon at 1:54 AM on April 16, 2003

And an interesting and authoritative essay it is, too. Thanks, I learned some things. I was struck by the fact that it was a condition non-synesthetes envied and which synesthetes themselves would not want to lose.

It brings to mind the story of Stephen in Oliver Sachs's The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, who was the medical student that dreamt of being a dog and woke up with a dog's sense of smell--an experience which was totally transforming and which he missed when it passed.
posted by y2karl at 2:39 AM on April 16, 2003

See also the Synaesthesia Research Project at the University of Waterloo, which includes opportunities for participation: a short survey, and a very cool synaesthetic color assessment test.

Frankly, I get very tired of people assuming that my letter/digit color sense is fakery or self-delusion. Even the papers which state, "Hey! They're not making it up--we have verified it scientifically" seem condescending. This isn't that rare a condition, folks.
posted by SealWyf at 6:31 AM on April 16, 2003

Question for any synesthetes (knowing that the answer may vary):
What happens when a letter/digit/word is printed in color? On the logo for SealWyf's link, for example, I see a red "a," a blue "b," and a lime-green "c." Do these letters retain their usual colors to the exclusion of the printed colors, or is it possible to see both at once?
posted by hippugeek at 6:48 AM on April 16, 2003

Don't know if this counts, but I often catch myself trying to "smell" things with the palms of my hands. Sometimes I even believe it worked and forget to actually smell it. Examples include: At buffets, when deciding whether to do laundry, even after noticing an unusual plant.
posted by son_of_minya at 6:51 AM on April 16, 2003

They're both there, hippugeek. If the printed color and the synaesthetic color conflict, there's a definite sense of "flutter" even though it's obvious which is the inner and which the outer (real-world) color.

Something I have found fascinating is the way that symbols from new writing systems acquire color as they become familiar enough to read intuitively. I've seen this twice myself. Some years ago I was studied Russian, and the unfamiliar letters of the Cyrillic alphabet slowly acquired colors. (The "P" symbol, which is the Russian "R", can be "P-colored" or "R-colored" depending on the language context.)

I am currently studying Japanese. As one might expect, the two syllaberies (hiragana and katakana) acquired colors first. Now even the kanji (the whole-word characters) are starting to colorize around the edges. Certain radicals definitely have colors.

I do wish that people would study this kind of thing (how colors form links to symbols) rather than trying to prove over and over that the phenomenon exists in the first place.
posted by SealWyf at 7:11 AM on April 16, 2003

This isn't that rare a condition, folks.

I'd say it's something we all have to a larger degree as children - before we learn to sort external stimulus into five (and only five, mister!) categories - then for most of us drops off as our perceptions come under the power of our enculturation. I remember stuff like this happening when I was small, especially with music, but lately, no. Some people seem to be wired in such a way that growing up doesn't wipe it out.

But the larger point is that like so many other things about which we think "some people are like this, and others aren't," it's probably more a matter of having a different mix of the same stuff, which is then emphasized or de-emphasized according to the positive or negative external circumstances the growing psyche undergoes.
posted by soyjoy at 7:17 AM on April 16, 2003

jimbob: "A sharp noise occurs ... I see a geometric pattern..."

Hey, me, too. I've always assumed everyone does.

Syntheasia and Salvia/DMT/etc -- probably all aspects of our infant-brain: I believe babies experience the world in these ways, as their brains try to categorize and make sense of sensory input.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:44 AM on April 16, 2003

I see a red "a," a blue "b," and a lime-green "c."

The first two are okay, but everyone knows that C is yellow.

Synasthesia is real, I have it, my son has it, at least one friend of mine has it; it's numbers and letters for me (and the numbers so powerfully that it interfered with learning my times tables: red times green cannot equal light blue). When I'm sleep deprived I get the sound/pattern thing too. It's just another one of those cool brain quirks that I think everyone has, and takes for granted, and assumes that everyone else experiences the way they do.
posted by jokeefe at 11:01 AM on April 16, 2003

I used to have this, up until about the age of six or so. Then it gradually faded away. From what little reading I've done, it seems to be neurological, and many people who experience it in childhood gradually lose it as they grow older and are conditioned to experience the world in a more 'conventional' way (what soyjoy said) .... some people are fortunate enough never to lose it. JOKeefe, you and your son are lucky.
posted by plep at 12:39 PM on April 16, 2003

JOKeefe, you and your son are lucky.

You should hear the arguments, though -- '"J" is pink!' 'No! "J" is blue!' His dad cracks up, especially when he asks me about phone numbers and I tell him that it's one of the blue yellow yellows, for example.

We participated in the University of Waterloo study linked earlier; they were investigating whether there is a genetic component to synasthesia, which it appears that there might be. On the other hand, in my family only myself and Liam have it. (And yes, I consider myself lucky. It's cool.)
posted by jokeefe at 2:29 PM on April 16, 2003

I see colour associated with sound. Listening to music is a really interesting experience for me.

I didn't even realise it was a unique experience until two years ago when I mentioned something about it to my husband.

I think it's interesting but not unusual, takes all kinds to make the world go around *S*

By the way Jokeefe, C is orange....definitely bright spanking orange!!!!
posted by Civa at 6:28 AM on April 20, 2003


Do you synasthesists see MeFi in myriad colours? And do you see the white-foreground letters in the same colours as you do normal black-foreground letters? What happens with letters that you normally see as blue -- the blue MeFi background must be a pain!
posted by five fresh fish at 10:14 AM on April 20, 2003

« Older The DMCA chokehold tightens   |   The Strange Sage Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments