Monthly Archives: May 2012

For a long time it has been thought that synesthesia is more common in artistic individuals. Whether this is statistically true or not is unknown because no one has systematically examined a random sample for both traits. There are, of course, notably famous syntesthetes such as Liszt, Hockney and Nabokov. However, here our experience is highly skewed because there are far more famous artists who happen to be synesthetic than there are synesthetes who happen to be famous artists. It is again a matter if sampling bias

Still the data are suggestive. For example. 41% of subscribers to The Synesthesia List( a nonrandom sample) work in artistic professions. Psychologist Carol Crane finds that synesthetes are far more likely than non-synesthetes to have artistic or musical training and know a foreign language. Self-reported nonrandom surveys also come up with a high percentage(23%) or artistically inclined persons among synesthetes (methodological shortcomings in that study, however, may merely indicate that synesthesia is more common among fine art students than the general population.


Figure 8.6

What kind of art do synesthetes create? Usually they take one of several approaches. Some, like Jane Bowerman, who has [sound->color, shape, movement] + [emotion ->color] synesthesia, are self-taught and paint only what they see(see figure 8.6)

Another approach is for synesthetes to attempt an exact portrayal of what they perceive, perhaps even providing a guide. Composer Olivier Messiaen, for one, does this when telling us “certain combinations of tone and certain sonorities are bound to certain color combinations, and I employ them to this end. In describing the colored chords of the “strophes” that comprise Chronochromie( literally,” color of time”), he explains


How can synaesthesia help us better understand the neurological basis of metaphor, what kinds of art does synesthesia inspire, and what might synesthesia tell us about creativity?

As Ramachandran and Hubbard pointed out in 2001, metaphors often take the form of cross-sensory associations such as “loud tie,” “cool jazz”,”sharp cheese”, “sour note”. But why do we have such synesthetic turns of phrase and why is their meaning so readily obvious? For example, when we describe people as “sweet”, we do not literally mean that if we were to lick them like an ice-cream cone they would taste sweet. Rather , we mean they are pleasant and agreeable the way sweets are.

We already indicated that syntesthetes and non synthesthetes both make matches in ways that are similiar. The work of Larry Marks and others unmasks systematic and lawful correspondences among sensory dimensions such as size, pitch, lightness, loudness, visual position and shape. For example louder tones are brighter than soft tones, higher ones are smaller and brighter than low ones, and low tones are both larger and darker than high ones. Even smell maps to bright-dark and high-low dimensions, the relation between color, light-ness, and odor intensity being well known to both psychologists and chefs: For example, people agree that a darkly tinted liquid smells stronger than when it is pale. A darker color also makes them say that the taste is stronger.Dance was another example we gave of cross-sensory mapping in which body rhythms effortlessly correspond to sound rhythms both kinetically and visually.

Consider the following experiment first conducted in 1929 among different cultures. When speakers of various tongues are shown the two shapes one looking like a jagged shard of broken glass, and the other like an amoeba blob, and told that in some alien language one of the shapes is called “bouba” and other “kiki”, 98% pick the spiked shape as “kiki” because its visual jags mimic the “kiki” sound and the sharp tongue inflections against the palate.

This kind of correspondence across culture illustrates the rule that pre existing relationships(analogies) are often co-opted in biology. In this way synesthetic associations our ancestors established long ago grew into the more abstract expressions we know today – and this is why metaphors make sense. Orderly relationships among the sense imply a cognitive continuum in which perceptual similarities give way to synestheic equivalences, which in turn become metaphoric identities, which then merge into abstractions of language.

perception -> synesthesia-> metaphor->language

Metaphor is therefore the reverse of what people usually assume. it depends not on some artful ability for abstract language but on our physical interaction with a concrete, sensuous world, as Berkeley linguist George Lakoff first demonstrated. Closely following his examples, let us see how our many orientational metaphors grow out of the physical experience with up and down polarities

Recently I read a book called “Wednesday is Indigo Blue” , it covers a wide range of enormous variety and creativity of the synesthetic mind. Here’s a section which I found rather interesting.

Chapter 2: The Kaleidoscope World

The Form Constants

In discussing synaesthesia spatial extension we mentioned from constants in passing. The elementary patterns of spatial configuration were discovered starting int he 1920s by the German psychologist Heinrich Kliver. He induced them with mescaline to better understand the subjective experience of visual hallucination. Once Kluver trained subjects to carefully introspect and hone it down to the sensory essential, however he identified four basic configurations he called tunnels and cones, central radiations, gratings and honeycombs and spirals. These constitute the form constants (figure 2.13 and 2.14). Variations in color, brightness, symmetry, replication, rotation and pulsation provide further gradation of the subjective experience. As the figures show, form constants are often symmetrical. This is why we said that when listening to music, synesthetes do not visualize something like a pastoral meadow with sheep gamoling through it -rather they perceive cross-hatching, zigzags, circular blobs, cobwebs and geometric shapes.

Kluver suggest that a limited number of perceptual framework may be inherent in the fabric of the central nervous system:

The analysis has yielded a number of forms and form elements… No matter how strong the inter and intra-individual differences may be, the records are remarkably uniform as to the appearance of the above described forms and configurations. We may call them form-constants, implying that a certain number of them appear in almost all mescal visions and that many “atypical” visions are upon close examination nothing but variations of these form constants (Quote Kluver)42

Kluver work was replicated and extended by others (43). Unaware of Kluvers work, yet another researcher discovered the repetitive elements of hallucinations and argued similarly that there are “certain constancies” the visual system itself contributes to illusory and hallucinatory phenomena as well as to everyday objective experience. The idea is that some basic anatomical or functional unit in the brain causes it to favor certain fundamental constructions of perception.

Form constants – which are a product of the brain – differ from entropic phenomena meaning “within the eye”. That is, if you are press on or rub your eyeballs the mechanical pressure stimulates the retina, causing you to see flashing lights or streaks, sometimes colored. Some people have an unusual ability to see their own retina blood vessels, which produces a cobweb pattern. Small ghostlike circles and arcs called the muscae volitantes are actual red blood cells coursing through vessels near the retina’s macula.

In the BBC documentary “Orange Sherbet Kisses”, synesthetic artist Carol Steen and synesthetic art critic Bill Zimmer of the new york times are shown viewing Kandinsky paintings. Kandisnky was a synesthetic painter who coupled four senses: Color, hearing, touch and smell. In the film Bill simmer not only points out form -constant shapes in Kandinskt’s canvasses but also one he experience himself in response to sound. Figure 2.15 illustrates the shapes seen in response to environmental sounds – thunder, a bang, a clang and a click.

Why do we enjoy fireworks so much? Millions of pounds of entertaining explosives go up all over the world and millions of people turn out to watch them. What are these colored lights, flashes and bangs? They do not represent real things in nature or remind us of anything on an intellectual level. They are abstract yet provoke a strong emotional reaction inducing millions to watch and walk away satisfied,” That was wonderful!” without being able to say exactly “that” was. No other form of abstract visual expression is as popular.

It may be that the form constants can help explain the satisfying appeal of something as unnatural as fireworks. The connotation of the term “constant” give false impression that what is perceived is invariant and stationary, when in fact the elements making up a configuration are highly unstable. , continually reorganizing themselves in an incessant interplay of concentric rotational pulsating and oscillating movement by which one pattern replaces another.


42 Kluver H 1966. Mescal and Mechanims of Hallucinations, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p.22

43 Siegel RK. 1977. Hallucinations. Scientific American 237(4): 132-14-; Siegel RK, Jarvik ME.1975. Drug-induced hallucinations in animals and man, pp 81-162 in RK Siegel, LJ West (eds) Hallucinations: Behavior, Experience and Theory. New York Wiley.

Synesthesia is sometimes described as “extra” brain-wiring between senses in the brain, for instance hearing a sound may trigger a color, letters or numbers can have colors and words can have taste. It is said that all babies are synesthetes and that they lose their connections with growth, while adult synesthetes are the ones that didn’t. And although it is a genetically inherited trait, synesthesia can also be experienced sometimes though the use psychedelic drugs.

We all have synesthetic experiences on a certain extent in our everyday life when we bridge some experiences between different senses (like the auditory with the visual systems with the Bouba/kiki effect ). As V. Ramashandran states this “Cross modal synesthetic abstractions” are a basic form of abstraction that triggermetaphors. In this perspective the study of the synesthetic phenomenon is interesting because it works in the same way as the regular creative processes of associations based on metaphors. These studies are a possible gateway to understand creative processes that are sometimes described as “divine inspiration” though a scientific method, and therefore develop new methodologies to archive it.

Hekla ∞ For an icelandic Volcano by Claudia Mougin

We got the chance to interview Claudia Mougin, a synesthete graphic designer with both color > sound (chromaphonia) and grapheme > color characteristics, and we present some of the answers below:

 Can you describe us how do you experience synesthesia?

CM – I don’t related synesthesia as an experience. It would be like saying that breathing is an experience: that’s something quite obvious. I just know that synesthesia help me to build logical systems in my head to remember things and create associations between them. These systems are in connection with the color characteristics and I think it explains my passion to editorial design which has letters, words, numbers and lecture matters.

 How often synesthetic experiences are triggered in your creative process?

CM – There are no buttons to trigger synesthesia. I think it takes part every time i have to create something although I’m not aware of this. I know i need something specific in front of my computer when I’m trying to find visuals: i will appoint this specific thing “pssit pssit” .

Pssit pssit reminds me a soft but complex noise. It translates little organised things which have tension between them. Pssit pssit is really important in my creative process. I will never be satisfied of my work if i don’t feel the pssit pssit matter when I’m looking at it.

Pssit pssit has to be translated with the grid organization, lines and size of the text. But pssit pssit also takes an important part on the titles: as they are the most important thing we see on a page, these words have to be in a complete formal harmony together. As I have  grapheme synesthesia, I’m really sensitive to letters and words. Each letter inspires me a color and as you know, there are good and bad visual contrasts.

– Do you provoke it on purpose while creating?

CM – No i don’t. I think i could but only for a specific and personal work. As i said before, synesthesia is more like a feeling than a real process of creation. I think i use it like an aesthetic matter. Visuals have to communicate a synesthesic intuition about forms in the space, a translation about a logical order and a matter of complementary associations.

– Can you give us a few examples of what makes it happen?

CM – Music is the best way for me to understand synesthesia. If i think in words and letters to see colors, it really depends on myself and my interpretation. Music is a workpiece created by someone else. It finally allows me to see something which is living out of my control. It inspires me a lot because it’s something which is moving. I experience music like an abstract animation of forms and colors.

Animal Collective is a band that is working on a lot of different states of sound. They say that their ambition is to fill the space with sounds. I really like this idea, especially because i feel it when I’m listening to their music.

I think they have reached a kind of (synesthesic) perfection and they are my reference to try to reach too, something perfect (always in a synesthesic way).

When i’m working, i’m often listening to this song and try to translate this perfect organisation on my graphic work.

– Although synesthesia is more frequent amongst creative fields,the majority of the work on the streets is done by the common non synesthete
designer. How do you think your work is different from other designers that don’t experience that?

CM – I think there is no concrete differences to other designers, or maybe there is only in the work process and approach.

There is maybe a thing that make us different: i will maybe have the eternal frustration to not be able to translate the perfection i see in my head and live with this no satisfaction.

I was brainstorming about how can I conceptualize my project so that it makes close sense to the idea of synaesthesia and the word “brain” strikes me. I was thinking of mapping out the different conditions of synaesthesia into parts of the brain where synaesthesia occurs.

Neurophilosopher has a great article on a brain scanning study showing that people with synaesthesiahave different patterns of brain connections compared to non-synaesthetes.

One of them holds that synaesthetes have unusual connections between different sensory regions of the cerebral cortex.Scans have shown that different areas of the brain are active for synaesthetes experiencing a cross-modal association than for non-synesthetes engaged in the same task

What are the causes of Synaesthesia?

In the 19th century scientists thought that Synesthesia was caused by a defect or immature nervous system and the circuitry of the brain didn’t function properly. Such kinds of theories were formularized from Bleuler & Lehmann (“Degeneracy Theory”, 1881) and Downey (“Compensation Theory”, 1912). The activity of the brain was suppressed with relative activation of the emotions and that could be a

11“linkage” to the synesthetical perception. These theories also suggested that synesthesia occurred in the central nervous system (CNS).

Before we start to explain what might be the causes of synesthesia, we will make a reference to how human brain works and which parts are responsible for specific processes and functions.

The brain is organized in three sections:

1. the cerebral cortex

2. the central core

3. the limbic system

The cerebral cortex directs the brain’s higher cognitive and emotional functions. It is divided in two halves, the cerebral hemispheres. Every hemisphere has four subsections, the lobe sections and these are:

1.frontal lobe

2.occipital lobe

3.parietal lobe

4.temporal lobe

The frontal lobe is positioned, as the name suggests, in the front part of the hemisphere. It assists the cognitive activities (decision making) and relates present to the future through decisive behavior (setting goals, planning).

The occipital lobe(in the back part of the brain) processes the visual information and passes the processed information to the parietal and temporal lobe.

Parietal lobe is responsible for the sensory processes, the attention, as well as the language comprehension. The auditory perception, language comprehension and visual recognition are located in the temporal lobe.

Limbic System

The limbic system is concerned with emotional experience and forming memories. Here, conscious experiences are associated with emotions. The limbic system has three regions:

• The hippocampus controls emotions, the process of learning and memory. It influences other cortical regions of the brain.

• The amygdala controls aggression, eating, drinking and sexual behavior. • The hypothalamus is connected to the autonomous nervous and endocrine systems. It observes and controls the glucose and salt levels in the blood, the pressure and, of course, the hormones. Limbic stimulations are here integrated.

There are many theories supporting that the limbic system and its regions, especially hippocampus, have significant influence on synesthetic processes.

In his book “Union of the Senses”, Cytowic states that there are two reasons why hippocampus is the most likely part of the brain involved in the production of synesthesia:

1. there are persons who have synesthetic experiences during epileptic seizures, without being synesthetes and

2. hypothalamus is able to receive signals from different areas of the brain. During sensory neural processing it is possible that information from different stimuli (color, shape, texture) might be recombined in limbic area. In Cytowic’s researches show that conscious perception of synesthesia causes fluctuations of blood flow in the hippocampus.

But what really happens in the brain during synesthesia? Let’s say that we have the form of colored letters or numbers. How we percept an image? The lens of our eye focuses an image on the retina, a membrane in the back of the eye. The retina transforms the light into neuronal signals which are transmitted through the optic nerve to our brain in different areas. The information about color are transmitted to an areal and from there to other color processing areas like TPO (temporo – parieto – occipital) or posterior cerebral area, another name for the occipital lobe. It is known that the signal processing for letters and numbers are located in the areal V4. Intersection, cross activity or feedback between these sections could generate this type of synesthesia (colored letters/numbers). This process could explain also the color – hearing synesthesia, since the center of hearing is located near the TPO region.

There is also the possibility that neural cortex briefly stops functioning and in the same time fusion of senses are permitted, but somehow this process never arises consciousness. The forms that the synesthetes describe are very similar to those of middle sleep state before or after sleep (Eichmeier / Höfer, 1974).

Another theory states that synesthesia might happen, when some areas of the brain stop develop properly since infanthood. The fact that most synesthetes have more than one type of synesthesia and that there are different combinations of senses involved, support this theory.

In 1988 Charles and Daphne Maurer proposed that every newborn is synesthetic. In later publications Daphne Maurer and Catherine J. Mondloch (Maurer, 1993; Maurer & Mondloch, 1996) suggested the neonatal synesthesia hypothesis. It is stated that all babies up to 4 months of age are synesthetic because of immature cortex. Most of their cortical modules do not function sufficiently and the baby can not differentiate stimuli from modalities. The baby recognizes patterns but it is unaware which modality produced the pattern. Sensory input, such as sound, triggers both auditory and visual experience. Why synesthesia disappears in most of the newborns after the period of approximately 4 months it is not clear. A

15possible explanation is that the cortex starts developing properly and the baby can differentiate stimuli. Most recent theories come to the conclusion that synesthesia occurs in the left hemisphere, it is not cortical and involves temporal lobe and limbic structures.

*Synesthesia (also spelled synæsthesia or synaesthesia, plural synesthesiae or synaesthesiae) —from the Ancient Greek σύν (syn), meaning “with” and αἴσθησις (aisthēsis), meaning “sensation” —is a neurological condition in which otherwise normal people experience the blending of two or more senses. In one common form of synesthesia, known as grapheme → color synesthesia, letters or numbers are perceived as inherently colored, while in ordinal linguistic personification, numbers, days of the week and months of the year evoke personalities. In spatial-sequence, or number form synesthesia, numbers, months of the year, and/or days of the week elicit precise locations in space (for example, 1980 may be “farther away” than 1990), or may have a three-dimensional view of a year as a map (clockwise or counterclockwise). Definition from Wikipededia.

“If you ask synesthetes if they wish to be rid of it, they almost always say no. For them, it feels like that’s what normal experience is like. To have that taken away would make them feel like they were being deprived of one sense.”
Simon Baron-Cohen, synesthesia researcher at the University of Cambridge.

* “Synesthesia has implications for every major aspect of cognition: perception, attention, language, memory, emotion, and consciousness. In turn, in order to understand synaesthesia, one has to consider these aspects as well as their development and neural basis.” 
Noam Sagiv

* “Synesthesia is a love story between the senses” Dr. Hugo Heyrman