Saturday, June 17, 2006

Synaesthesia

Synaesthesia, says the U.K.'s Daily Telegraph, is "The involuntary ability to hear colour, see music or even taste words results from an accidental cross-wiring in the brain that is found in one in 2,000 people, and in many more women than men."

I believe that everyone has this to some degree. Last weekend while at a wine bar in Soho I made napkin sketches of the tastes of a couple of wines. As I tasted the wines, I could see the shape of them very vividly in my head. One pinot was very clearly hook-shaped in its flavor. Another curled under and ended round instead of barbed. Curiously, my sketches depicted the changing flavor over time from right to left. Maybe more curious, my companions understood what I meant when they tasted the two pinots.

The Russian abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky was a well-known synaesthete. The Tate Modern's new exhibit "Kandinsky: Path to Abstraction" follows the artist's shift from representative painting to what he said was painted music.

When I hear music, colors are secondary to shapes. I see very clear three dimensional forms when I hear certain sounds. Another synaesthete, writer Vladimir Nabokov wrote: "The confessions of a synaesthete must sound tedious and pretentious to those who are protected from such leakings." That gives me pause. Am I really "seeing" tastes and sounds as shapes?

According to the Telegraph, scientists say it's possible: "A series of brain scans showed that, despite being blindfolded, synaesthetes showed 'visual activity' in the brain when listening to sounds. Now all that is left is to find the gene that may be responsible." But how often is it real? "Sceptics have dismissed synaesthesia as nothing more than subjective invention, like a bad case of metaphor affliction - after all, anyone can feel blue, see red, eat a sharp cheese or wear a loud tie."

And if we really can "see" sounds, couldn't it just be an active, free-associating imagination? What makes it special? Is it really a genetic gift, or is it well-developed visualization and sensual awareness?

An MIT website is clear: synesthesia (note the American spelling) is involuntary and perceived as real, and not in the "mind's eye." That means I probably don't have anything more than a good imagination.

Although the Telegraph says that most synaesthetes are women, all of the examples given are of men: the poet Baudelaire, painters Hockney, Marinetti, and Kandinsky, the writer Nabokov, and the composer Olivier Messiaen. The MIT site however, has an interesting section in which two women, an artist and a linguist, talk about their synesthesia.

A webpage by University of Toronto engineering professor Steve Mann talks about "synethetic synesthesia," created by a wearable radar:
"Imagine if we had extrasensory perception. Let me invent a 6th or 7th sense, say, radar. We cannot perceive radar directly, but we can wear an instrument that does, and we can map the output of this instrument to another sense. I found that Doppler auralization allowed me to walk down a corridor, or the like, in total darkness, so it appears that radar can provide sufficient information to give us some simple navigational ability. However, in presenting my findings to the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, it became apparent that blind people rely heavily on the sense of hearing, and that any device that uses headphones or even produces sound is unacceptable. Thus the next phase of the project was to develop vibrotactile radar systems, so that I could feel objects at a distance, pressing against my body. As the objects get closer they press "harder", resulting in a Reality Metaphor User Interface (RMUI)."

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