On the wall in my studio (which serves me for both music making and writing) I have a huge dry mount poster of The Beatles. This is no surprise for those who know me – but why I love that particular poster might be. The colors (it’s from a fairly early time – perhaps even from the photo shoot that gave us the iconic cover for their masterwork Rubber Soul) are all yellow-to-gold tinted – the blacks of their outfits, the brown-to auburn-of their hair – even their skin is gold-toned.
That picture looks like what The Beatles sound like to me.
See, there’s this thing called synesthesia and apparently I have it.
So this next book from the 2013 reading list, Wednesday is Indigo Blue, intrigued me because it explains the history of synesthesia studies and how new technologies related to neuroscience and genetics are helping scientists both create and prove testable hypotheses about the synesthetic phenomenon and find explanations for why it occurs in (roughly 1 in 23 according to the latest data) people. Authors Richard Cytowic and David Eagleman, distinguished researchers themselves, write for lay readers as much as for colleagues (a refreshing and, sadly, all too uncommon practice among scholars) and the book is quite readable, if a bit challenging, because of both the quality and quantity of the charts, graphs, tables and other explanatory material that enrich the text even as they make it read at times a bit too much like a chapter from your old psychology textbook.
There’s a lot of science in this text, much of which I will gloss over, primarily because I don’t want you to glaze over trying to follow me. So let’s get to the gist: synesthesia is a psychological phenomenon caused by what the authors call “cross talk” between areas of the brain (speech/color identification, letter-word-number symbols/color, musical tones/color are some of the more common forms) that normally act (to the conscious mind) discretely from one another. All of us, it’s possible (actually, probable) are born as synesthetes: the acts of acquiring language, mathematical fluency, and other cognitive skills cause, somehow, our synesthesia to decline as we reach adulthood. We probably still have it, Cytowic and Eagleman speculate; it is simply not easily accessed by our conscious minds.
Well, your conscious minds. Synesthetes, for some reason, retain the ability to “cross talk” among various brain centers. And experience the world rather differently as a result.
What this means is that some people “see,” for example, textual symbols in colors: 7 might be green, C might be orange, etc. This, called grapheme/color synesthesia, is probably the most common sort. As mentioned above, other sorts of synesthetic response are triggered (as in my case) by musical tones (bass is various shades of brown; guitars are golden or silvery variations always mixed with other colors, usually in the red family; drums are steely gray – but can add black or dark blues; voices always start from cream but flow with swirls of color – John is coffee, maybe milk chocolate swirled – Paul is dark raspberry).
In my own band, as recently as last Tuesday night, I said to my co-composer Steve as we worked on a new song, “This needs to sound more autumnal – you know, like early November, more towards brown but still with flecks of orange and yellow and maybe a hint of red if we can figure out how to get that in.”
You may be wondering about this by now, so let me ease your curiosity: yes, a much higher percentage of artists are synesthetic than the general population. This includes not just visual artists but musicians and writers, too. Famous examples? Vladimir Nabokov, Wassily Kandinsky, David Hockney, Franz Liszt, Olivier Messiaen even, possibly (though now somewhat doubtful) Baudelaire and Rimbaud…and many others.
The other thing you may be wondering about is whether synesthesia can be artificially stimulated. Yes, it can – both by the use of drugs (hallucinogenics, primarily) but also by deep meditation such as that practiced by Zen Buddhist monks, Hindu yogis, or Native American shamen. Cytowic and Eagleman are quick to note that they recommend trying the meditation method rather than the pharmacological one to achieve synesthetic experience.
I could not possibly do justice to such a thorough discussion of both the characteristics of the many forms synesthesia takes and its vagaries in manifesting itself in this brief review. If this subject interests you at all, and especially if you think you might be a synesthete, I suggest you find this book and explore it for yourself – you’ll find it enlightening – possibly revelatory.
Also, linked above and here is Eagleman’s web project on synesthesia – where you can register and take the synesthesia tests to see if you possibly experience this phenomenon.
Meanwhile, as I write this, The Rolling Stones are pouring from the speakers in my studio:”Mixed Emotions.” The rusty red-on-gold from Keith’s guitar blends awesomely with the faded magenta-on-gold from Ron’s (Wood may be a synesthete, btw). And no one’s bass is that exact light walnut color of Bill Wyman’s. Mick’s perpetual caramel crooning. And Charlie -steel wheels, indeed.
The colors, man, the colors….
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