Are We All Synesthetes?

Hear a painting, taste a symphony, and smell a color—is this what we do subconsciously?

By Kathryn Garfield|Friday, December 15, 2006

The artist Wasily Kandinsky imagined he could hear the tone of his paintings as he made them. Less distinguished people experience a similar tangling of the senses, some reporting that they can taste the words they speak or see the colors of certain words or numbers. This confounding of perception—called synesthesia—was thought to affect at most about 4 percent of the population, but University College London psychologist Jamie Ward has uncovered the best evidence yet that we may all have a bit of synesthesia.

Ward asked 200 random visitors at the Science Museum in London to view two musical animations. One was designed by synesthetes to accompany a piece of music; the other was designed by nonsynesthetes. When asked which animation better matched the music, volunteers overwhelmingly chose the synesthete-designed animation, indicating that even though they did not realize it, their brains were closely attuned to the synchronization of different senses.

Neurologist and synesthete researcher Richard Cytowic thinks synesthesia is a window into how ordinary brains work. He has suggested that such sensory crossover occurs normally in the limbic system, the most primitive, subconscious part of the brain, but only synesthetes, due to quirks in blood flow or some other anomaly, are aware of it. Ward agrees. "We all, unconsciously, link together music and vision, but only synesthetes are consciously aware of these links," he says. Speculating further, he says that neuroscience might spark a renaissance in understanding art. "Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder," he argues, but rather an innate, hardwired response that connects the senses to one another.

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