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Colours of the Mind

Colours of the Mind

ach of us views the world differently, but there are some who experience it in a completely unique way. Their mingling of the senses means some see numbers as colours, or know shapes by taste. Rayna Khaitan explores synesthesia.

If I had some paints handy, I would mix burnt sienna and sepia for you as to match the colour of a ‘ch’ sound…and you would appreciate my radiant ‘s’ if I could pour into your cupped hands some of those luminous sapphires that I touched as a child.
Vladimir Nabokov (The Gift)

A Poetry of Perception

Conveying a kaleidoscopic commingling of perception, the vivid prose of Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov cannot simply be dismissed as sheer literary talent or the rendering of an overactive imagination. Instead, it is a puzzling window into the mind of a synesthete, an individual who experiences an uncontrollable marriage of the senses in a unique way that neuroscience has yet to explain.

Synesthesia manifests itself in many forms, and is not a universal experience, even for those who have the same type of synesthetic condition. For example, some synesthetes see bursts of colour whenever they hear sound (chromesthesia), but while synesthete A sees crimson with a certain guitar chord, synesthete B might see white.

Other synesthetes live in a world in which every number or letter of the alphabet bears a unique colour, but again, where synesthete A sees the letter “D” as a soothing green, synesthete B may perceive the same letter as a peeving pink.

Interestingly, though the colors and associated emotions couldn’t be more different, both synesthete A and B share an unequivocal sense of self-righteousness—and are, moreover, baffled that the hued-letter principle itself deviates from the human norm.

Other studies of synesthesia reveal fascinating individuals who hear fabrics and woods, taste circles and squares, and smell pain in a palette of colour.

How does it feel to over-feel?
So what is it like to live in a seemingly psychedelic state? Do synesthetes perpetually teeter at the edge of insanity?

The consensus sides on the contrary. Experts believe that as many as 1 in 200 people have this cross-modal phenomenon, and the majority of them revel in their extraordinary view of the world, deriving a sense of spiritual harmony. However, in extreme cases, synesthesia does, unsurprisingly, invoke a kind of cognitive nightmare, making everyday matters like small talk, cinema going, and grocery shopping a distraction-heavy challenge.

Typically though, synesthetes function quite well in society, often offering up their gift through music, words, and art.

Click on the thumbnail to discover some famous synesthetes.

Metaphors in the Mind

Since the 1880s, scientists have forged theories surrounding synesthesia, but current experiments have provoked more questions than answers.

One hypothesis states that this convergence of information in the brain is a learned association from early developmental years. Take, for example, the vibrantly coloured magnets, blocks, and stencils that many children are given when learning their ABCs. There is strong evidence that colour acts as a powerful memory cue, but this singular explanation does not sufficiently address many forms of synesthesia. This reasoning is even further diminished when taking into account the fact that synesthesia is common in families, particularly left-handed female members, suggesting it is at least partly genetic.

The more popular theory is that the human brain is already prewired for synesthetic metaphors (e.g., “sharp cheddar,” “loud colour,” etc.), and that synesthetes experience a certain type of hyperconnectivity between adjacent cerebral areas.

Through positron-emission tomography (PET) scans, researchers have determined that the fusiform gyrus, in the temporal lobe of the brain, houses independent areas responsible for processing colours, numbers and letters, and words. In fact, the colour-recognition area is right next to the numbers- and letters-processing section. Reasonably, a defective gene or chemical imbalance could cause increased cross-wiring between the areas, resulting in a mind that translates as reddish-brown and as incandescent blue.

While the scientific debate continues, one thing is clear: determining the cause of anomalous conditions like synesthesia will help us understand one of the greatest mysteries of all - the human brain.

See how Daniel Tammet's incredible brain experiences numbers.

If you like Rayna's style, why not try her travel guide to Saturn?

Or how about some more intriguing science:
- Interesting - Why we yawn
- Gory - Blood sucking critters

And join our Facebook group dammit - we're on a crusade to outdo other well known science sites...

Image: Max Brown

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15 Oct 2009
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