The rare and misunderstood neurological condition of synesthesia inspires both artists and scientists.
Seeing music. Hearing color. Tasting words. It may sound impossible, but for a subset of the population, it is actually possible for them to do these things. It’s called synesthesia, a rare neurological condition where the stimulation of one sense produces an experience in one or several other unstimulated senses, even emotion. Kanye West claims to be synesthetic and the artist Melissa McCracken, based out of Kansas City, Missouri, has gained attention with her paintings inspired by the colors she sees when she listens to music. And it turns out, artists are key to helping neuroscientists understand the condition.
The term synesthesia loosely means “senses coming together” from the Greek syn, meaning “together,” and aesthesis, meaning “sensation.” Developmental synesthesia is thought to be the most frequent form of synesthesia, found in about 4% of the population. However, it is hard to study and pinpoint as people with synesthesia can often end up wrongfully labeled as drug users or as having schizophrenia, so they typically hide their condition. The painter Carol Steen provided the most informative descriptions of perceptions commonly observed by synesthetic painters as well as the compulsive manner in which they experience their visions. She also cofounded the American Synesthesia Association, a nonprofit organization created to provide information to synesthetes and to further research into the area of synesthesia.
“Painters commonly demonstrate unique skills in the observation of visual phenomena, in which depiction offers an invaluable source of information for neuroscientists investigating visual function in health and disease,” say the authors of an article published in the Current Opinion in Neurology. “Regarding our understanding of synesthesia, painters’ contribution is particularly precious.”
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was an increase in studies of synesthesia, but they were mostly descriptive until it resurfaced in the ’70s as a subject of psychological inquiries. Yale University psychologist Larry Marks, PhD, authored the first major psychological review of the early history of synesthesia research in 1975 in the journal Psychological Bulletin. A team led by Simon Baron-Cohen, PhD, in 1987 found the first hard evidence that synesthetes’ experiences remain consistent over time and established in later research that it is also concretely measurable in the brain. Using positron-emission tomography (PET scan) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers found that for synesthetes who report “colored hearing,” visual areas of the brain showed increased activation in response to sound, which isn’t the case for those without synesthesia. Despite the growing body of research, neuroscientists and cognitive scientists are still struggling to understand synesthesia and the implications it presents for how our brains construct our reality.
“Synesthesia taps into a lot of other domains that are more familiar to many psychologists,” says Marks in an American Psychological Association article on synesthesia. “It tells us something about the nature of perception and what makes things perceptually similar to one another. Synesthesia may help us to understand how the concept of similarity is embedded within the nervous system.”
What researchers have learned so far is that developmental synesthesia can run in families, but different forms can be found in the same person or within the same family. So far, more than 60 types of synesthesia have been described, but the most common form found in about 64% of those with synesthesia is grapheme-color synesthesia, where a letter causes someone to see a particular color; for example, the letter L causes someone to see yellow. The second most common is time-color synesthesia (where Monday or January cause someone to see a color) and the third most common is musical sound-color synesthesia — this is the form Kanye West described to Ellen DeGeneres and what Melissa McCracken experiences.
McCracken says she didn’t realize until she was 15 years old and asked her brother which color the letter C was that not everyone saw colors in books, math formulas or at concerts.
“Each letter and number is colored and the days of the year circle around my body as if they had a set point in space,” she says on her website. “But the most wonderful ‘brain malfunction’ of all is seeing the music I hear. It flows in a mixture of hues, textures, and movements, shifting as if it were a vital and intentional element of each song.”
David Bowie – Life On Mars? by Melissa McCracken
The synesthesia isn’t distracting, she says, but adds a unique vibrance to her world. She’s turned that vibrance into a career as an artist, creating abstract paintings paired with the music she listened to that inspired the work.
It is common for synesthetic painters to speedily apply unmixed oil paint or watercolor straight from the tube, according to the article in Current Opinion in Neurology, to depict the brightness of colors perceived. Steen says for those with synesthesia, the internal world differs greatly from what is commonly perceived by others and that faithfully representing their perceptions may require breaking some longstanding rules, a hallmark of modern art. The art will often look abstract, even though it is a “realistic” depiction of what the artist sees.
Famous synesthetic painters include Wassily Kandinsky, who gave up his law career to study painting after having an unusually visual response to a performance of Wagner’s composition “Lohengrin” at the Bolshoi Theatre. Other artists include David Hockney and possibly van Gogh and Gauguin. But other disciplines boast synesthetes as well, such as musician Duke Ellington, physicist Richard Feynman and inventor Nikola Tesla.
More current research suggests we may all be born synesthetic, as babies have less division between the senses. As we mature, the senses divide in a process called pruning, where our brains specialize areas for certain tasks and processes. These artists, in whom research is still teasing out the chicken-and-egg relationship between synesthesia and art, could be among the population in which, as they developed, the divisions between the senses were not formed as clearly. As the research continues, it’s clear that synesthesia is inspiring both artists and scientists.