Sean Day vividly remembers a shot of Talisker scotch whiskey he downed in September 2008 during a trip to Edinburgh, Scotland. It was delicious, but it was the colors that sprang forth that ignites excitement in his voice.
“It was probably some of the most fantastic colors I’ve ever seen in my life,” he reminisced. “The main background was a dark black, but there were little streaks of purple, red, orange, pink, and blue. The purple and orange colors were glowing like neon.”
No one spiked his drink. He wasn’t tripping on psychedelics either. But he wasn’t speaking metaphorically, or watching the fantasia-like scene swirl in his mind’s eye. He saw the colors at arm’s length in front of him.
Day, a 55-year-old linguistics professor from Charleston, South Carolina, has a condition called synesthesia. Just as anesthesia means no senses, synesthesia means a mixing of the senses. There are over 80 types of the condition, and for people with it, called synesthetes, one sense ignites another sense. In the most common form of the condition, letters and numbers have particular colors. Synesthetes can lose themselves in the blaring trumpets of a Salvador Dalí painting, or listen to a Mozart symphony and feel engulfed in the smell of a lavender meadow.
Approximately 4 percent of the population has a form of it, and that might be an undercounting as many people are reluctant to come forward, fearful of being labeled crazy. It’s involuntary, and it’s not in the mind’s eye. When Day tasted the scotch, for example, he saw the colors right in front of him, and they lingered as long as the taste did.
Although the condition was long dismissed, researchers over the last few decades have found a neurological and genetic basis for it. Knowledge of the condition dates back at least 200 years. The first documented case is from 1812. But researchers suspect the condition is as old as humanity itself. It’s especially common among artists (Kanye says he has it, so does Pharrell Williams).
The great Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky was allegedly a synesthete and often spoke about it. He authored a philosophical treatise, “Point and Line to Plane,” in which he compared colors to musical cords, and wrote that combining colors produces vibrational frequencies.
“Almost everyone agrees at this point that Kandinsky had it,” Greta Berman, an art historian at The Juilliard School in New York who studies synesthesia among artists, said.
She pointed to Vincent Van Gogh as almost certainly being a synesthete, as well. Berman has spent years analyzing Van Gogh’s artwork and letters and is preparing a paper for publication about his synesthesia. She said that, apart from contributing to his art, his synesthesia might have been problematic for him.
“People didn’t see the way that he saw so they thought he must be crazy,” Berman said.
Synesthetes make up a disproportionate amount of artists. In one study of 358 fine-arts students, 23 percent of participants reported having synesthesia. Synesthetes also scaled high in creativity. But while the condition might draw people to the arts, it doesn’t necessarily make a synesthete a better artist than someone who doesn’t have the condition.
There was a flurry of psychological research into synesthesia at the turn of the 20th Century. But in the 1930s, Behaviorism, which regards firsthand experiences as unscientific and consequently unreliable, gained traction and reigned supreme. Anything that focused on first-person experience was cast aside.
It didn’t gain currency again until Robert Cytowic, a neurology professor at George Washington University, took it up in the late 1970s. He first came across the term in a book by Russian psychologist A.R. Luria, who described a subject with incredible memory. The subject, called S, used his senses to recall people, events, and time.
Cytowic was intrigued. His advisors warned him off the subject, nevertheless he plowed forward. He wrote the first English-language book about synesthesia, published in 1989, “Synesthesia, A Union of the Senses.”
But other researchers remained unconvinced.
“I would get these withering looks from people who said there’s no synesthetes,” Cytowic recalled.
Naysayers, Cytowic said, had a variety of responses. Some would allege that the synesthetes were crazy, making things up, or were attention hungry. Others would contend that the synesthetes were just misguided people remembering childhood coloring books or long-forgotten refrigerator magnets. Some speculated that it was a side-effect of long-term drug use.
But then brain imaging technology came along in the 1990s.
“They wanted pictures of the brain, the doubters,” Cytowic said. “So when they finally got them, that shut them up.”
MRIs showed that synesthetes were for real. In fact, the study of synesthetes kicked off a paradigm shift in how scientists viewed the senses. Researchers had surmised that our five senses travel along different pathways in the brain and that they stay separated. But none of that was true. All brains have neural crosstalk. Synesthetes just have more of it.
“All of our senses participate in every event, even if it’s just a little bit,” Cytowic said.
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Sight and sound, for example, are very tightly bound. A mediocre ventriloquist can make us believe that a puppet is uttering profanities. In a movie theatre, the dialogue seems to come straight from the lips of the actors on screen, rather than the stereo-speakers surrounding us.
In that sense, all of us are synesthetes—even if it’s just a little. Experts have come to believe that there’s a synesthetic spectrum. When someone describes a taste as sharp, or an outfit as loud, they’re engaging with their synesthesia.
Just as important, the research into synesthesia has underscored how subjective our view of the world is. “It tells us that [human perception] is far more complicated and far more subjective than we’ve considered in the past,” Cytowic said.
No two synesthetes see the world quite the same way, either. The same plucked guitar string might be magenta for one synesthete, and orange for another.
The condition also often runs in families, and research has shown a strong genetic component. According to Cytowic, one in 23 people have the gene for it, but it’s not expressed 100 percent of the time. Some researchers believe that the condition may serve an evolutionary function: it could be essential to human creativity. It could be the neurological basis for metaphor and creativity. Enough people have it that it makes us more creative as a species, which could explain why it’s overrepresented in the arts.
Both Cytowic and Day have received many letters and emails over the years from synesthetes expressing relief that there are others like them out there, or for making them realize that there’s nothing wrong with them. Some have even said: you saved my life.
There’s nothing abnormal about having synesthesia. Synesthetes don’t feel overwhelmed. They don’t suffer from the condition any more than someone suffers from having brown hair. Neither is it a constant, magical, “oh wow,” experience. It’s just a quotidian thing for them as they’re going about their lives.
Like all of us, they just see the world a little differently.
Artwork by CHRIS MARTZ