“Synesthesia [also synaesthesia]  is an involuntary joining in which the real information of one sense is accompanied by a perception in another sense. In addition to being involuntary, this additional perception is regarded by the synesthete as real, often outside the body, instead of imagined in the mind’s eye. It also has some other interesting features that clearly separate it from artistic fancy or purple prose. Its reality and vividness are what make synesthesia so interesting in its violation of conventional perception. Synesthesia is also fascinating because logically it should not be a product of the human brain, where the evolutionary trend has been for increasing separation of function anatomically.” (R. Cytowic, “Synesthesia: A Union of the Senses”  quoted at  http://web.mit.edu/synesthesia/www/  ... Dr.Richard Cytowic http://wearcam.org/synesthesia/cytowic.html also wrote:


“Some people say they “see red” when angry, or they talk about “sharp” cheese, “cool” jazz, or “loud” ties. But do you see pink triangles on hearing music, or feel yourself on a prickly bed of nails when eating cherry pie? Do ordinary words, names, and voices have specific colors, peculiar shapes–even distinctive flavors?

If this sounds perfectly normal, then you may be one of a handful of individuals with synesthesia, the cross-wiring of the senses that is experienced in the first-person not as imagination, but as an external and involuntary sensation.

Neurologically, synesthesia involves only the left hemisphere, and relies on limbic structures for its expression. While we usually regard the cortex as the home of sensory perception, there is, during the multisensory synesthetic experience, a counter-intuitive collapse of cortical metabolism, without effecting subjects’ higher intelligence or normal behavior.

The implications of synesthesia lead to a multiplex model of brain organization that rejects the hierarchical supremacy of neocortex and the usual emphasis on objectivity. This multiplex model stresses limbic regulation, subjective experience, and non-verbal knowledge.”


OVERVIEW of SYNESTHESIA by Ramachandran & Brang


Artists (including cinema and stage production designers and directors) try to enlarge the observer’s experience by using multiple modalities (consider the gesamtkunstwerk.). Efforts at synthesizing synesthesia were part of the “decadent” 1884 novel À rebours  by https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1884_in_literaturehttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Novel the French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans (is this the yellow book that Lord Henry gave Dorian Gray?)


Great energy is expended  to visualize sounds or smells or tastes or sounds: see (for example) “Born of Sound” (sponsored content in WIRED magazine) (link needs repair)

We may all be more-or-less synesthetic, and whatever pleasure we get from the stimulation of a specific senses and its meaning is often enhanced by convergence with another specific sense, usually harmonized or internally resonant in unique ways.    The aesthetic ideal of gesamtkunstwerk sought is in this sense–made famous by Richard Wagner and pursued in his operas, but inspirational as well for visual and conceptual artists and architects.  There is an implicit suggestion in this that not only do different senses complement each other, but that they corroborate and validate each other and echo the organization of the brain. 



DIARY NOTE–REMINISCENCE my first clear sense of synesthesia was in the 1960’s, visiting the installation of a LUMIA in the old Museum of Modern Art … the artist, Thomas Wilfred devised the “clavilux” that transformed strokes on a keyboard into projections of light. Watch Metropolitan Museum curator, Lauren Rosati’s presentation on Thomas Wilfred’s Lumia and Painting with Light   (from notes for the convergence of LIGHT, COLOR, and SOUND)


More at the A&O notes on LIGHT as a medium of art, particularly when part of an experience including music and color



  • VISUAL MUSIC  by Maura McDonnell (“site was compiled in 2002 by Maura McDonnell in order to gather together some resources and links on the history of colour and sound and visual music.”)…
    • resources on music, light, & color: Color and Sound (2002)  
    • https://visualmusic.blogspot.com/
    • The Dream of Color Music and Machines that made it Possible  (“Ancient Greek philosophers, like Aristotle and Pythagoras, speculated that there must be a correlation between the musical scale and the rainbow spectrum of hues. That idea fascinated several Renaissance artists including Leonardo da Vinci (who produced elaborate spectacles for court festivals), Athanasius Kircher (the popularizer of the “Laterna Magica” projection apparatus) and Archimboldo who (in addition to his eerie optical-illusion portraits composed of hundreds of small symbolic objects) produced entertainments for the Holy Roman Emperors in Prague.  //  The dream of creating a visual music comparable to auditory music found its fulfillment in animated abstract films by artists such as Oskar Fischinger, Len Lye and Norman McLaren; but long before them, many people built instruments, usually called “color organs,” that would display modulated colored light in some kind of fluid fashion comparable to music.”) 
  • How does Huysmans’ novel,  À rebours, speak to synesthesia




    “… a minor second is sour. A major second is bitter. A perfect fourth is mown grass. A minor sixth is cream. An octave has no taste at all….”

     (RC Cowen discusses a music-taster)





[i] Catherine Taylor is a former deputy director of English PEN. She writes regularly for The Guardian, the Financial TimesNew Statesman, the Times Literary SupplementThe Economist and The Irish Times, and is editor of The Book of Sheffield: A City in Short Fiction (2019). The Stirrings, a cultural memoir of Sheffield in the 1970s and ’80s, is forthcoming.

Edited by Marina Benjamin