“You know, it’s sad,” my father wistfully remarked to me one day, “Before MTV, you had to come up with your own pictures in your head when you listened to music.” He said it with the same resignation that some apply to the popularity social media—and the loss of skills like writing as a result. I didn’t think there was anything unusual in his comment. After all, everyone saw pictures when they listened to music. Didn’t they?
I didn’t begin to suspect differently, until I started reading the work of other autistic people, such as Daniel Tammet’sBorn on a Blue Day. In them, I read that many people on the autism spectrum also have a condition call synesthesia, in which the senses cross over into one another. Hmm…
So, one day, I turned to my neurotypical husband and asked, “Do you see pictures in your head when you listen to music?” The answer was unequivocal, “Ummm, NO…” Wow. Talk about turning my perception of life on its head.
But it explained so much.
I remember, for example, the first time heard the song, Higher, by Creed. Fascinated, I found myself cranking up the radio. There was something about this song, something that I experienced listened to it, that I struggled to articulate.
Finally, I tried talking to my husband about it. Sheepishly, I attempted to put into words the experience that I was so struggling with, saying: “I hear a cross.” Just saying it, I felt silly. Even I was skeptical. How can you hear a cross? But, it was the best way I could put it.
Each time I heard it, I turned it up, trying to understand what was going on. Each time, there it was. Right at the hook, I’d see it. Two crossing streaks of color, a stylized cross similar to that we see in many church logos. What was that about?
I knew next to nothing about the band, until I chanced upon an episode of VH1’s Behind the Music, which revolved strongly around frontman Scott Stapp’s religious past. Coming from deeply pious Christian family, it seemed that the band had been born out of his spiritual struggles. Now this just seemed strange to me. Why would spontaneously see a shape that was so reminiscent of the religion of the musician?
Then, it got odder. I looked up the lyrics, and was struck by the chorus. The imagery of this section of the song was striking.
Can you take me Higher? To a place where blind men see Can you take me Higher? To a place with golden streets
Once again, considering the songwriter’s background, this certainly seemed a strong coincidence. Listening to it, I was brought back to my own childhood memories of a similar environment. Particularly pertinent was a project given to me in Sunday School. We were asked to build a model of Heaven—based on a description provided in Revelation 21. It seemed a strange project to me, as I generally considered Heaven to be a more spiritual place than a physical one—but it did appeal to my artistic side.
What I most specifically remember about the experience, however, was my acute frustration when things didn’t turn out as I had planned. The reason? A shortage of golden foil—which left my streets half unpaved, like a heavenly public works project that somehow got itself stalled.
So, again, I found myself wondering—why would I see something so in sync with the subject matter of the song? It seemed strange.
While it may have been tempting to put a mystical twist to this, I was hesitant to do so. It seemed too simple, so I continued to question. Discovering synesthesia brought a whole new angle to this mystery, one that perhaps made it make sense.
In an interview for his 2008 book, Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks stated that “no two synesthetes will ever agree” in the ways that their synesthesia manifests with music. But I can’t help but wonder if that’s accurate. What if some synesthetes DO agree? What would that look like?
The Bouba/Kiki effect, as demonstrated most recently by V.S. Ramanchandran and Edward Hubbard, seems to suggest that there are, in fact, some sound/shape associations that appear to be shared among synesthetes and non-synesthetes alike. And, as Ramachandran noted in his 2007 TED Talk, “Synesthesia is 8 times more common among artists, poets, novelists and other creative people than in the general population.”
If this is the case, is it possible that the sonic signatures that caused me to “hear a cross” provoked a similar reaction in the musicians? Could this be the reason this particular piece of music was paired with these lyrics, like some kind of auditory watermark? If not a direct connection, is it possible that there is something subtler at work—something that made this music seem more “right” for these lyrics?
It’s an interesting question, and it provokes another synesthesia memory. One day, while sitting in the car with my father, Blinded By The Light by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band came on the radio. Pointing to the radio, I remember saying, “This reminds me of dark.” My father said nothing, and didn’t seem to think it was at all puzzling, perhaps for the same reason I thought little of his MTV remark.
My comment was my own awkward way of attempting to acknowledge what I now know to be a synesthetic experience of the song—it was a visual and tactile experience, which started with the feeling of being surrounded by dark—the mottled navy of a forest at night. Shining through this background, twinkling balls of white light. Mists of yellow, and white—dancing balls of red, erupting columns of yellow. It was an experience I enjoyed, but never really explored until a few years ago, when I happened to rent the DVD of Running With Scissors.
This movie, as regular Psychology Today readers may know, is an adaptation of the memoir of fellow PT Blogger John Elder Robison’s brother, Augusten Burroughs. In the movie, there is a scene where Annette Bening who plays John and Augusten’s mentally ill mother, barricades herself in a bedroom and begins to hallucinate.
Dressed in a caftan in red and yellow, she spins in the mottled dark, as glowing white snowflakes twinkle in the foreground. The deeper we are drawn into her hallucination, the more familiar the scene seems to look. The soundrack of this scene? Blinded by the light.
While not identical in appearance, the similarities are enough to be striking…I found myself replaying the scene over and over, attempting to understand how that could be. It left me yet again wondering—how much are synesthetic experiences shared? And, to what extent do those who score such movie scenes need to be able to tap into those shared experiences? (For the curious, a very bad version of this scene can be found on YouTube.)
At the end of it all I find there are many facets of the synesthetic experience that are still unknown – and it’s hard to know what they mean, but time and again I discover it affects me in ways I hadn’t thought to consider. For example, for years my taste in music has been a source of struggle between me and my husband, who is, among other things, a musician.
For me, my affection for music was highly dependent on the degree in which it stimulated my synesthesia. For him, the measure of good music is the technical competency of the musician. Sometimes this proved problematic—yet, if you look at the artists he’s discovered over the years we’ve been together, whose expertise he admires more than any, you’ll find that nearly all of them were introduced to him by me.
Somehow, my synesthesia seemed to see the strength of their skills. However this works, it leaves me with one conclusion. Daniel Tammet, in his 2011 Ted Talk, referred to synesthesia as a “different way of knowing.” Given my experiences with music, I think he may be right.
I believe that our personal perceptions, you see, are at the heart of how we acquire knowledge. Aesthetic judgements rather than abstract reasoning, guide and shape the process by which we all come to know what we know. I am an extreme example of this. My worlds of words and numbers belayer with color, emotion and personality. As Juan said it’s a conditional called synesthesia, and unusual crosstalk between the senses.
Guitar music doesn't just tickle Carol Crane's fancy—it also brushes softly against her ankles. When she hears violins, she also feels them on her face. Trumpets make themselves known on the back of her neck.
Synesthesia, in the words of Dr. Oliver Sacks, "is an immediate, physiological coupling of two sorts of sensation." This could be any two sorts of sensation, even smelling mown grass when hearing a certain sound. The most common form of synesthesia is associating specific colors with particular letters and numerals. H is purple! 6 is green!
The question of whether the synesthesia gene(s) may have a “hidden agenda” like the sickle cell anemia gene has with malaria resistance, and whether that agenda may be “creativity and metaphor”, was first raised by Ramachandran and Hubbard . Subjectively, synesthetes report these experiences are largely positive and engender facilitative benefits for creative aspects of their lives. Studies have indeed confirmed the increased incidence of synesthesia among artists  and, relative to controls, synesthetes report spending more time engaged in creative activities .
Humans have a built-in bias to associate certain sounds with particular visual shapes,
which could well have been important in getting hominids started on a shared vocabulary. In addition, specific brain areas that process visual shapes of objects, letters and numbers, and word sounds can activate each other even in nonsynesthetes, causing people to expect, say, jagged shapes to have harsh-sounding names.
This is a list of notable people who have, or had, the neurological condition synesthesia. Following that, there is a list of people who are often wrongly believed to have had synesthesia because they used it as a device in their art, poetry or music (referred to as pseudo-synesthetes). Finally, there is a short list of people who have received a speculative, posthumous diagnosis of synesthesia, or who are thought to possibly be synesthetes based on second or third hand sources. These are listed as "still under review" in the expectation that additional data will help to clarify their status.
Lynne Soraya is the nom de plume for a writer with Asperger's Syndrome.