Tuesday, May 04, 2010

In which years of neuro nerdery are made worthwhile

So I'm listening to a story on NPR the other day about synesthesia.

Synesthesia is a condition that was originally described sometime in the 1880's, by whom I don't recall, and it's caused by a failure of the cingulate gyrus to de-wire wiring in your brain that's really tight when you're a fetus.

In English, the cingulate gyrus is a part of your brain that runs along the sides of your head, just above your ear. It does all sorts of things, including regulate the perception of various sensory input. In human development, all the different types of sensory input are wired together, but as you mature in utero, that wiring spaces itself out. The result is that you have five senses, and they don't overlap.

Synesthetes experience the world with perceptual overlap, is the best way I can describe it. They taste color, they smell sound, or they see sound, or they attribute personalities to letters and numbers. About one in twenty people is a synesthete according to current reckoning; I suspect the actual proportion of synesthetes is much higher, based partly on what happened the other day.

So I'm listening to NPR. And this woman puts on a techno record, and says, "Now, this is obviously a dark gray background with light gray and white dots." And as I'm chopping poblano peppers, I'm thinking, "Bullshit. This is obviously blue with yellow and silver streaks."

I stopped chopping. I considered what I'd just thought. And I ran to the CD player.

Bach: intricate uncolored geometry. Beethoven: woodgrain in sweeping pastel colors. "Rhapsody in Blue": the clarinet slide is obviously a bright medium-blue, and it tastes like blue besides.

Then I remembered what happened every time Mom played ragtime music as she was cleaning, when I was a kid. All I saw was somewhat chaotic flashes of color, moving with mathematical precision, across my internal film screen. It became so distracting that I began working consciously to ignore it. Later, in college, I would practice piano and build up this gorgeous, fragile matrix of colorless, clear geometric shapes that one mistake would make come crashing down (I hated practicing piano).

I emailed Beloved Sister about this, and her response was, "WOAH. You mean not everybody does this? And there's a name for it?" Turns out she does it too: the number nine tastes like cranberry, while the number seven tastes like tin. Neither she nor I have total saturation (as she puts it); some music evokes no visual response in me at all (thank God; constant visual distraction would drive me bonkers) and some numbers and letters have no taste or smell for her.

Eight, for me, is a fluffy purplish-blue, five is yellow, and seven has the personality of the Tin Man from the Wizard of OZ. The numeral one doesn't get along with anybody. All of which was more interesting still after I talked to Friend Pens the Lotion Slut last night.

She said, "Well, I don't see colors with music, but I do know that certain numbers and letters have personalities." And, "You mean not everybody does this? And there's a name for it?"

Three people with at least partial synesthesia in twenty-four hours. I know the proportion of people who experience the world this way *must* be higher. We just haven't heard about it, since the study of synesthesia fell out of fashion in the 1920's and didn't re-emerge until we got good functional MRI capabilities in the 1990's.

It explains why I love Philip Glass and hate techno and ragtime. It explains why Bach relaxes me and Mahler seems so avant-garde. It also explains why the shouty Katy Perry is a nasty burnt-orange voice, while the dude who sings for The Magnetic Fields is dark charcoal grey with fuzzy edges. It's simply *there*: the film that plays in my head is nothing I can change, and it's the same every time I listen to a particular piece of music. I'm lucky enough not to be one of those people who see the music across their field of vision; I don't have to walk through colored flashes of light when I'm crossing the lobby at work, for instance.

It also explains why so much of my wardrobe is an odd shade of yellow-green: it makes me smell yarrow, one of my favorite Texas-In-Springtime smells, every time I see it.

My sister has the additional gift of being able to switch her visual perception from three dimensions to two at will. It's such a natural part of her being that she can't explain it.

Every day I am amazed at how normal abnormalities are when you really look around. When a friend of mine told me he'd only had synesthesia when he was altered, I was a little shocked. It seems like everybody ought to be able to do this, you know?

And this, friends, is why I love neuro nursing.


Silje said...

I dont, and somehow that makes me sad. I feel left out in a strange way. Music is background noise to me, alto there is music I enjoy mostly I use music to cover for noises.

Numbers are numbers and letters are letters.

Somehow I know this should not make me sad, but it does, what a wonderful world it must be when music has colours and colours have taste etc. The world seems bland now that I know it could be more. Even if more is a abnormality....

Amy said...

There seem to be many people in my writing world who have that, which makes for some interesting reads in class.

Anonymous said...

Bwahahaha, yeah, that's why one is the loneliest number. Sorry.

Haley Dawn said...

I was a music major and I actually had a couple of synesthetes in my class. I also had a music theory teacher who really encouraged us to get in touch w/ our senses and to see if we could "re-learn" synesthesia.

We all have it when we are kids. when a child says "thats sounds like butterflies" that synesthesia. We are just all taught not to think that way. My numbers have colors. 7,8, ans 9 are dark cloudy reds and purples while 1,2,3 are really bright colors.

I wish my senses were more interconnected because I think life would be more interesting! I bet playing music is quite and experience for you.

bobbie said...

WAY cool!!!!!!!!!!!!!! My music can be colors, too ~~~

It's just me :) said...

Wow! That is really interesting! I have heard of that before, but like you, did not realize how common it could be.

Have studies shown if it is a genetic thing? I mean, if you and your sister both have some form of it, there might be a link there. ;)

Molly said...

I used to see names in colors. Not other words, just names. And a particular shade of magenta tasted INSANELY bitter when I was a kid. If I looked at it, I'd instantly get this horrible taste in my mouth. I can conjure it up by remembering, but I can look at it without feeling that any more.

Maybe it's the piles of pyschiatric medication that's turned that switch off in my noodle. But it never occurred to me that it wasn't something that everyone felt until I was an adult.

MM9U said...

Grammar has feelings. My students work causes both myself and the grammar pain.

Anonymous said...

"nasty burnt-orange"

I beg your pardon?? I respect that this is the output of a mis-wired place in your brain, but please tell your cingulate gyrus that burnt-orange does not come in "nasty".


Albinoblackbear said...

1)Philip Glass' "Glassworks" almost brings me to tears.

2)Amazing post and realization!

3)If you haven't read "Born on a Blue Day" you might want to.

messymimi said...

I am jealous, and have been for years on this topic.

It seems like everyone should have this beautiful ability, but some of us don't.

And yes, it makes me sad that I am missing out on it, with the one exception of occasionally being able to smell purple (about 3 times in my 47 years).

Anonymous said...

Is it possible that a lot of what you just listed is just associations? Like a certain emotion (a positive one, for example), would be associated with a positive color?

I don't know.

I smell experiences. Like to me, there's a certain smell to walking through spider webs; everyone thinks I'm crazy when I tell them that.

Alpine, R.N. said...

My brother and i both FEEL music, as well as seeing it in colors. Spiky, soft, itchy, you name it. Dad thinks we're both nuts.

Loki said...



Loki said...


What color is Lonely Island?

I'm only jealous because I had the most beautiful experience in Oregon tripping on acid one bright drizzly afternoon. I wish I could mix senses like that every day.

wendryn said...

My husband sees numbers as having specific colors. I don't have any synesthesia, but it has fascinated me for years. It seems like the world would have more...depth? I don't know. I've always wondered how many people have it and how it affects them.

Jo said...

Anon, re: associations: I don't know. I'm not sure if associations can be turned off when you want to, but whatever this is, it can't be. I can shove it to the background, but it's still there, and it's not voluntary.

At the end of the day, it doesn't matter. "Water Music" is still white and grey and five is still yellow.

Penny Mitchell said...

I don't see colors associated with letters or numbers, but always, for my entire life, letters and numbers have had very specific gender and personality traits and age. 1 is a benign, somewhat cheerful, quiet man in his 70's. He never married or had children, but he loves kids. 2 is a middle-aged, fat, dumpy, polyester-clad woman with bad hair and broken dreams. She still manages to be somewhat cheerful. 3 is an innocent, 12 year old girl. An immature 12, but not horribly so. Sweet. Too trusting.

I could go on. It's the coolest thing ever, and I'm jealous as HELL that I don't see colors associated with music!!!!

Jeremy said...

Heathen. Five is clearly magenta.

sp0okY said...

Very interesting. My daughter just told me her friend doesn't see numbers, she sees colors when numbers come to mind. I told my daughter i'd never heard of such a thing. Didn't figure it was a real thing!

Jo said...

There's a brilliant short story by a writer called Jeffrey Ford called "The Empire of IceCream" (in a book collection of the same name) in which the narrator has synaesthesia.

I am incredibly jealous of synaesthetics - the closest that I get to it is that sudden loud noises evoke a bright white light, but I think that is more the "jump" reaction.

snarkygurl said...

Really? Five is a dull red and connected to the number 7 and the letter R. All my numbers and letters are connected to each other and have colors. I used to be able to smell them - but that went away a long time ago. However, I still taste some music, which explains why I have a specific playlist set aside for baking and another one for cooking. One example is Alison Krauss's song "Let Me Touch You for Awhile" - it's honey, melted butter, and a half shot of brandy.

I've even designed cakes based on songs.

Cartoon Characters said...

Interesting. I have always pictured movies in my head when I read. Whatever I read.....I can see exactly what everyone looks like, right down to what they are wearing and what they do - every detail including color and smells. It always distracting and annoying when the illustrations didn't match what I was in my head - to the point I would stop reading that particular book . I used to think everyone saw the same thing. I only found out years later, they don't.

yrsis said...

I polled my class of engineers yesterday about whether they do this.

The silence in the classroom looked like dryer fluff with ball-bearings at the bottom.

Unknown said...

Nice post! Check out David Eagleman- he is a big expert on this stuff.


and his book-

Wednesday is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia. Richard E. Cytowic and David M. Eagleman. MIT Press.

I heard about him when he gave a neuro lecture- pretty smart guy!

Jackie said...

I first read about synaesthesia about 10 years ago. No one in my family has it, nor do I know anyone who has it (of the people I asked). I am envious, one more sense, and I am missing out on it.

Dick Lame said...

Wow. How absolutely frickin' fascinating, this! Like others here, I feel left out! I'd never heard of this before. You're funny AND informative! (AND you play piano too!?!? Let's jam! But I have to warn you, everything I play is brown and makes people gnash their teeth!)

Penny Mitchell said...

A NURSE, regarding your mental movies when you read: the first time I saw Peter Horton on the show "Thirty Something" my first thought was "IT'S LARRY UNDERWOOD!" Down to a freaking T. Kind of weird.

Geosomin said...

I'm jealous...is that wierd? Ever since I read about it a few years ago I found synesthesia to be something fascinating. Something I wish I had...a whole extra dimension to life.

Philip Glass...evil...Techo...good!

Anonymous said...

This is genuinely cool. I'm so glad to know I'm not a freak! I associate tastes with colors - like mustard yellow is a really bitter, foul taste, a combination of chewed up tylenol and a piece of grass I ate one day when I was six. Strange, because I like mustard; I just really dislike the color. Something similar happens when it comes to certain music or musicians that I really like: that music is colored for me. For instance, the first Brahms piano concerto is deep, dark blue, darker than cobalt, but not navy-dark, with ribbons of silver twisting through it.

I can't wait until my son is old enough to really understand and answer me when I ask him about this of thing!