Synesthesia and Cognition
We touch with our skin, see with our eyes, hear with our ears, smell with our nose, and taste with our tongue. Things we may take for granted as each sensory is separate at its origin and that we perceive stimuli in them separately within the brain. Not to say this is the case for everyone though as synesthetes find themselves in quit the unusual phenomenon. The word synesthesia comes from Ancient Greek meaning, “Together,” (syn) and “sensation,” (aisthesis).
It is a neurologically-based condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.
Synesthesia affects everyone who has it differently and can either cause a great deal of joy or pain. We will explore the different types of synesthesia and the people who have it, to get a better understanding of what is really going on. First here is the history of synesthesia.
Synesthesia’s history is important if we are to understand its neurological bases. The word itself has been used to describe diverse phenomena during different eras. Going back only two decades ago, synesthesia was considered a sensory perception as distinct from a mental object like ordinary cross-modal associations, metaphoric language, or even artistic aspirations
(Cytowic). By contrast, the perceptual phenomenon is completely unheard-of in literary and linguistic, where the term “synesthesia” is understood to mean rhetorical tropes or sound symbolism (Lynn). This is the situation in Oriental cultures, too, where synesthesia is
understood to be a literary device rather than a physical perception. As there have been many discussions about synesthesia in art, music, literature, linguistics, natural philosophy, and theosophy, it’s not surprising that many books have been written with this in mind. Most emphasize colored hearing, the most common form of synesthesia. People were intrigued with the notion that synesthesia may have a direct link to the unconscious. With time, however, attention turned to so-called objective behavior that could be quantified or measured by machines (Cytowic). Humans thereafter became “subjects,” the individual was abandoned, and the mind temporarily became a black box. Mechanistic explanations have been abundant throughout synesthesia’s history, and the notion of crossed wires turns up often. As early as
1704, Sir Isaac Newton struggled to devise mathematical formulas to equate the vibration of sound waves to corresponding wavelengths of light (Godlee). This mechanistic approach was consistent with the common view of a clockwork universe based on Newton’s uniform laws of motion. Today it is possible to take the details of a given synesthete and find similar examples in the classical literature. In John Harrison’s words, “A neat link between the work of scientists a hundred years ago and contemporary efforts to understand and explain this condition”
(Fitzgibbon). Now that we know some of the history of synesthesia let’s explore some of the people who have it and what it is all about.
The most important aspect of people who have synesthesia is the fact that it is automatic, and completely involuntary. Knowing this, questions quickly arise about where does it happen? When does it happen? Why does it happen? As these are all questions that are debatable, a better understanding of this phenomenon comes from case studies. The most common case study comes from individuals with color synesthesia. One man reports:
“When I listen to music I see colored shapes. If I am tired at the end of the day the shapes seem very near. They are always in color. Shiny white isosceles triangles, like long sharp pieces of broken glass. Blue is a sharper color and has lines and angles, green has curves, soft balls, and discs. It is uncomfortable to sit still. I feel the space above my eyes is a big screen where this scene is playing. The shapes come, they move, they leave. It lasts for a while and the unpleasant shapes last longer than the pleasant shapes” (Cytowic).
A lot can be said from this one case. First knowing that all synesthetes do not enjoy this involuntary phenomenon that takes place is interesting. As this man sees colored shapes and cannot sit still because he is in discomfort, others use it to their advantage a create something from it. Most famously John Mayer comes to mind. He’s form of synesthesia is also by color and sound, but instead through playing music he can manipulate what he is playing to what he sees.
For instance the sound of a major 3 rd , compared to the sound of a tri-tone, will have opposing characteristics. A major 3 rd is a happy sounding chord, so brighter colors will appear. A tri-tone, by itself, has a darker texture and darker colors will react from it. Of course all synesthetes don’t encounter a reaction from just color and sound. Many other experienced it completely different.
One lady reports that when she tastes something with an intense flavor, the feelings sweeps down her arm to her fingertips, and will perceive that object as if she is actually grasping it (Lynn). Creating a connection with taste and touch is a very uncommon form of synesthesia, but a very interesting one at that. Another report comes from a girl combining color and smell. She tells us that while she was preparing to move into the house she grew up
in, her father was on a ladder painting the left side of the wall. As he painted she noticed that the smell was most distinctly blue, and the actual color was white. When she tried to explain this to her father, he thought nothing of it. Maybe that she was just confused and more importantly he didn’t believe her. Which can be understandable when one doesn’t know about synesthesia, but nevertheless it was true and later on, he apologized.
Finally even others experience it so often that it becomes second nature to them, and they don’t even realize that it is happening anymore. As one man reports that when he sees certain colors, he associates them with numbers. As this has happened to him throughout his life, he now says that it doesn’t affect him whatsoever (Cytowic).
So through looking at just a few case studies of people who encounter this phenomenon, one may ask, what is synesthesia good for? Well as Cytowic puts it. “Synesthesia is a rich way of feeling, highly enjoyable for those who possess it. To lose it would be a catastrophe, and odious state akin to going blind or not being alive at all. Synesthetes have a well-developed innate memory that is amplified by use of the parallel sense as a mnemonic device.” Interesting put since through my research I found that many people who have it would love it to go away. It gives some discomfort and stress and is something that they cannot control. What it is good for, is people who use it to work with them. Like musicians and artists alike. I do agree that it is an amazing gift, and anyone who has it should do whatever it takes to benefit their life. Unfortunately not everyone is able to do this and through time they will either ignore what is going on, or always have a discomfort when encountering this phenomenon that is taking place.
Work Citied page
Cytowic, Richard. Synesthesia, A Union of the Senses. Massachusetts Institute of
Technology. 2002 Print
Lynn, Robertson. Synesthesia, Perspectives from cognitive neuroscience. Oxford university press. 2005 Print
Fitzgibbon, Bernadette M., et al. "Shared pain: From empathy to synaesthesia."
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