Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Thoughts on Synesthesia

The other night, my 3-year-old crawled into bed with me after a fit of tears. Looking at the interesting reflection of the lamp on the ceiling, he said, "Look at the shape my crying made." His comment made me think of a fascinating book that I read once called The Man Who Tasted Shapes by Richard E. Cytowic.

This book describes synesthesia, a condition in which certain sensory perceptions are combined. People who are affected with this involuntary condition perceive sensory input a little differently than most. You might see jagged red lines when you hear a siren. You might taste shapes in certain foods. Or maybe colors have a smell. Any combination of senses is possible, but the most common variant is to perceive letters, words, or numbers as having color. These associations are consistent for the individual -- if the word shoes is associated with the color green, it always appears green.

In his book, Cytowic describes attending a dinner party where the host complained that he had ruined the chicken -- it wasn't pointy enough. Cytowic thought it interesting that this man's house lacked walls; the rooms were open and flowed into each other. He pointed out that you can think of synesthesia in the same way. The usual walls between sensory input -- sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch -- are blurred or absent.

I think synesthesia is a fascinating condition. After I read the book, I kept wondering if I had ever experienced it. The closest I've come is when I'm almost asleep. Sometimes I see jagged black lines when I hear a sudden loud noise. But that's it. How about you?

CNN's Ann Kellan writes that if you are curious about this condition, synesthetes suggest that you rent "Walt Disney's 'Fantasia', an animated film that attempts to visualize music."


CricketB said...

I find this condition fascinating, too. First heard about it in a science fiction book years ago. (Husband and I learned about saccades that way too. Useful knowledge, since last night he shifted to progressive lenses, and has to get used to saccading differently.)

I sometimes associate one sense with another, but not to the extent of synesthesia. It strikes me most when I'm trying hard to describe something that's otherwise hard to describe. In my case, it's likely learned associations rather than strange rewiring.

Captain Mom said...

I have read about this before too and found it interesting. When I was a child I remember associating sensations and feelings with specific shapes. A headache was a green equilateral triangle and fear was a purple circle, for instance. I would "see" these shapes in my mind when I felt the associated sensations. It was an automatic thing and just happened rather than being a trick that I developed. The mental references to these shapes have faded with time and I no longer rely on them to sort out sensations so I don't think it would count as synesthesia. However, I suppose it was helpful for developing emotional awareness.

jublke said...

Hi Captain Mom & CricketB -- Thanks for your comments. :) You know, Captain Mom, if I'm remembering correctly, the man in the story who tasted shapes had less awareness of his synesthesia when he cut back on drinking. So, I think that experiencing synesthesia might be a bit more fluid than we might expect, with sensory experiences blurring more at certain times or when we are in certain frames of mind. The brain is a fascinating place!