AOH :: SHAPES.TXT|
Hearing colours, tasting shapes: the mixed-up world of synesthesia
HEARING COLORS, TASTING SHAPES: THE MIXED-UP WORLD OF SYNESTHESIA
Submitted for your consideration:
. When Deni Simon, a Florida college teacher, hears music, she
sees brightly colored lines that movie like oscilloscope
configurations on a "screen" about six inches in front of her
nose. Her favorite music, she explains, "makes the lines travel
. For lighting designer Michael Watson, taste is not merely a
sensation in his mouth, but geometric tactile impressions that
are felt in his hands as well. "With an intense flavor," he
explains, "the feeling sweeps down my arm into my fingers and I
feel texture, weight, and temperature as if I'm actually grasping
. Business owner Rebecca Price confides, "One of the things I
love about my husband is the color of his voice. It's a wonderful
golden brown, with a flavor of crisp, buttery toast."
The above speakers are neither hallucinating nor expressing
poetic imagination, and they definitely are not on drugs. Rather, they
all have synesthesia, a neurological oddity of perception expressed in
only 1 in 25,000 people.
The familiar word *anesthesia* means "no sensation." The same
root appears in *synesthesia*, which means "joined sensation."
Synesthetes might describe the color and shape of someone's voice, or
music whose sound *looks like* "shards of broken glass moving off into
the distance," or, seeing the color red, a synesthete might also
detect the "scent" of red.
As children born to a world where one sensation *involuntary*
conjures up another--sometimes all five clanging together--synesthetes
are surprised to discover that others don't share their fuzzy-edged
view of the world. Speakers frequently apologize, "I know this sounds
crazy, but..." as they try to explain the sound of chocolate, their
green symphonies, salty visions, or other startling combinations that
the rest of us find incomprehensible. Many nights, for example,
Michael Watson has stood, undecided, in front of his refrigerator,
unsure whether he was hungry for a late-night snack of points, curves,
or some other shape and texture.
The histories of synesthetes are strikingly similar, no matter
which of their senses are united. Their senses have always fused as
far back as they can remember, and any mention of the experience at an
early age caused prompt ridicule or disbelief. Despite keeping it
private and hidden, however, synesthesia remained vivid and
irrepressible, and their unique cross-sensory associations never
changed over time.
If the ability to hear colors sounds incredible to modern ears,
it is only because science forgot about synesthesia after 1930.
Previously, it had enjoyed a rich 300-year history in medicine. It
interested other intellectual fields, too: luminaries such as Sir
Isaac Newton and Erasmus Darwin (Charles' grandfather) wrote about it.
While no one doubted synesthesia's reality, neurology was a premature
science and ultimately was unable to offer a complete explanation.
Just as ideas about the brain were becoming recognizably modern,
behaviorism gained a decades-long stronghold on scientific thought.
It's most famous proponent was B. F. Skinner, who claimed that
behavior could be predicted without any knowledge of the nervous
system by applying different inputs and analyzing the outputs
(stimulus-response psychology). Because he believed only in
objectively measurable behavior, Skinner didn't care whether subjects
had a mind, let alone a brain. Likewise, behaviorism held draconian
restrictions against even acknowledging the existence of emotion,
consciousness, or similar "subjective" human states.
In such a climate, scientific interest in an inner experience
like synesthesia was absolutely taboo. Predictably, no more papers
were written and synesthesia was forgotten, relegated to dusty shelves
in library basements. It was only because of my fondness for old
medical books that I even knew the word. None of my colleagues had
ever heard the term.
An accident fifteen years ago triggered my own neurological
research into this long-forgotten oddity. Michael Watson, my new
neighbor in North Carolina, invited me to dinner. He delayed us
sitting down to table with the apology, "There aren't enough points on
the chicken." He had wanted the taste of the chicken to be a prickly
shape, but it had come out disappointingly round instead. The other
guests thought Michael was just being silly, but as he confided more
of his taste-touch perceptions to me, I recognized that he had
"You mean there's a name for this?" he exclaimed on hearing my
diagnosis. Though relieved that someone finally believed him, Michael
had long assumed, as most synesthetes do, that he was the only person
in the world whose senses lacked barriers.
With that roast chicken dinner began an exciting adventure, which
is told in *THE MAN WHO TASTED SHAPES*, now awailable in paperback
from Warner Books.
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