Synaesthesia – When the senses merge

Synaesthesia – When the senses merge

It is not just the eyes that influence our view of the world. The processing of visual information in the brain also plays an important role. Science has been aware of synaesthesia – literally „the union of the senses“ – for more than 300 years, but for a long time little research on the topic has been done. Synaesthetists perceive particular aspects of the world differently from other people. For instance, some see colours when they hear words. For them the word „jealousy“ may for instance be green, „Monday“ can be blue, and when they hear someone sneeze, they might see turquoise. More unusually, people see things when they touch or taste something and in one case, there is a description of someone always having a strong visual impression of blue when eating particular foods.

In principle any linking of two senses is conceivable, however, there are combinations which crop up much more frequently than others. The associations happen in childhood and remain for a lifetime. Hence, if someone associates Monday with blue he will do this for his entire life. There seems to be a link between the sound of the word – particularly that of the first letter – and the colour. These associations of an acoustic impression with a colour are apparently very individual, because very rarely do two synaesthetists report identical combinations.

For example, Richard Feynmann, Nobel Prize winner for Physics perceived letters in equations and formulae in bright colours. Likewise the Russian author Vladimir Nabokov linked strong colour sensitivities with individual letters. The interesting thing is that his mother before him was also a synaesthetist. This points to an important feature of synaesthesia: it clusters in particular families, which suggests that synaesthetic perception contains a strong genetic component. It is currently assumed that one person in five hundred to one thousand is a synaesthetist, of whom 70 to 90 percent are female. The woman who Nabokov married also perceived letters as coloured, and true to expectations their son Dmitri also had the gift of „coloured hearing“. Nabokov even believed that he had observed that the colours that his son associated with letters were sometimes a mixture of his parents‘ colours. For example, Nabokov linked the letter M with the colour pink , but for his wife it was blue. Dmitri perceived the M as purple – as if his genes had mixed the colours as you do when you paint. It is however highly unlikely that the heritability of synaesthetic perception really conforms to such simple rules.

The Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866 to 1944) was also a synaesthetist. He created large, coloured, abstract pictures that are often seen as being synaesthetic. They invite the observer to find analogies in things that can be heard. For this reason Kandinsky chose titles such as „Lyrical“ (1911), „Concert“ (1911), and „Fugue“ (1914) or named his series „Composition and Improvisation“ (1911 to 1913). It is assumed that many of these pictures reflect Kandisky’s colour perceptions when listening to pieces of music.

The painting Impression III (Concert) by Wassily Kandinsky is seen as one of the most impressive examples of his synaesthetic perception. The artist painted it in January 1911, immediately following the performance of Arnold Schönberg’s first concert in Munich. Many of the coloured areas reflect Kandinsky’s colour perceptions during the concert.