It wasn’t so long ago that the very existence of synesthesia was questioned. (You may recall from an earlier post that there are 60+ types of synesthesia, the condition in which stimulation of one sense leads to automatic experience of a second sense.) Many scientists throughout the twentieth century scoffed at the idea of synesthesia – saying that people who claimed to have it just had strong childhood memories linking two senses – for example, colors and numbers.
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But research during the 1980s and 90s definitively proved the existence of synesthesia, and scientists are now looking at its advantages and disadvantages. Does having synesthesia give you cognitive benefits? Does it improve memory? Is it embedded in our genes, or do we learn it through environmental associations from childhood? Can adults be taught synesthesia?
We are in a holiday season during which many of us will eat too much, so I have been quite delighted to discover that for one synesthete, a major sixth tastes like low-fat cream – as opposed to a minor sixth that tastes like regular cream, or a major third that tastes sweet. Don’t you love the idea of a low-fat musical interval!
Tom tells me that my voice is yellow when he speaks to me in person, but is a bright green on the phone. I’m not sure what I think about having a yellow voice, or even a bright green one. While I hear voices as lighter or darker, throaty, wispy, husky, gravelly, etc., and I may think conceptually of a color when I hear a voice, I do not actually see the color. But Tom, a wonderful tenor, good pianist and also former student of mine, has synesthesia, the condition in which a stimulus in one sense triggers a response in another. And he actually sees yellow when he hears my voice. Continue reading
Imagine if you saw a color whenever you looked at someone’s face, and different faces were different colors. Or tasted eggs when you heard the word “fax.” Or saw a mental map placing any number you saw or heard in a certain location in space (as in the image at the left, called a number form). Or had a bitter taste in your mouth when you heard a major second and a salty taste when you heard a minor third. These are all forms of synesthesia, the involuntary physical experience in which a stiumulus to one sense automatically triggers a sensation in a second or even third sense. Continue reading
I have often asked a student “what color does this movement (or excerpt, or chord progression) suggest to you?” Color becomes a metaphor for sound – an additional tool for accessing the emotional content of the work, because most of us (even if unaware of it) associate colors with emotions – lighter colors for happiness, darker colors for sadness. After all, babies, those bundles of happiness, are usually not wrapped in navy or black blankets. Continue reading