Tuesday, 10 July 2012

This song smells blue

            If someone said to you, "Here, have a brain disorder!" you'd probably say, "No thanks," and run in the opposite direction. Not me. I'd say, "Sure! Give me synesthesia!" (say: sin-uhs-thee-zhuh). Synesthesia sounds fantastic. Of all the weird mix-ups and mess-ups that can happen with the brain, this is by far the coolest, and the only one I can think of that is actually desirable.
            Synesthesia means "sensing together". Imagine if every time you heard a certain musical tone, you saw blue.
Or if every time you saw red, you smelled strawberries. Or if every time you heard certain words, you tasted chocolate. Synesthesia is awesome. People with synesthesia experience the world at a level of vividness and beauty that I can't even imagine. (Disclaimer: it isn't always awesome. There's one poor woman who smells rotting flesh when she hears music. I don't want that synesthesia.)
A synesthete might see letters and numbers like this. (from Wikipedia)
            Somewhere between one in 20 and one in 200 people has synesthesia, so chances are, you've met a synesthete (that's what they're called). But the synesthete might not know they’re a synesthete. People can make it to their teenage years and beyond without realizing that not everyone thinks the number nine is green. You can tell the real synesthetes from the fakers because real synesthetes are consistent. If an A-minor chord looks purple one year, it'll still look purple two years later (97% of the time). It also tends to run in families.
            What causes it? No one really knows. The best guess right now is a mix-up in the thalamus. The thalamus is the great relay station of your brain. All information from your body must pass through the thalamus before reaching the rest of the brain. The thalamus filters out unimportant information, and sends important information to the correct processing centers. It ensures that sight information goes to the occipital lobe, and that sound information goes to the temporal lobe. (If these terms are unfamiliar to you, see the post on the parts of the brain.) In synesthetes however, the thalamus appears to be over-wired, so that information from, for example, the eyes, ends up in both the occipital lobes and the temporal lobes. In this example, visual information is going both to the brain area which processes vision (like it's supposed to), and to the brain area which processes sound. The person would hear sounds when seeing things, so trees might sound like bells. Keep in mind that this is all happening at the level of the brain. People who see blue when they hear a musical note aren't actually seeing blue with their eyes. They're seeing blue with their brain, and since the brain controls perception, they interpret it as "that sound looks blue."
            I wonder if anyone reading this blog is a synesthete. If so, please share it with us! What's your synesthesia?
            I’ll close with a couple quotes from Carol Steen, who is an artist and a synesthete:

            “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." There was a pause, and my father said, "No, it's yellow-ochre." And my mother and my brother looked at us like, 'this is a new game, would you share the rules with us?'
            “And I was dumbfounded. So I thought, "Well." At that time in my life I was having trouble deciding whether the number two was green and the number six blue, or just the other way around. And I said to my father, "Is the number two green?" and he said, "Yes, definitely. It's green." And then he took a long look at my mother and my brother and became very quiet.
            “Thirty years after that, he came to my loft in Manhattan and he said, "you know, the number four *is* red, and the number zero is white. And," he said, "the number nine is green." I said, "Well, I agree with you about the four and the zero, but nine is definitely not green!"

Here’s another one:

            “One example of synesthesia being distinctly unpleasant: I was at the dentist, and he was drilling. And I don't like the sound of the drill -- but the color orange that completely flooded my vision, I couldn't shut my eyes, because they were already shut! [laughs]
            "Except that I'm able to use it diagnostically. I had to have a root canal done once (not my favorite game) but you know, sometimes when you have a tooth pain you're not quite sure which tooth it is? He said, "I can't really say that you need a root canal in this tooth." I said, "This tooth is orange; please do it." And he hesitated. I said, "Look. If I'm wrong, this tooth will *never* need a root canal." So he went ahead and he did it.”

(quotes are from http://web.mit.edu/synesthesia/www/carol.html)

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