Sensorium

A Quest to Understand Extraordinary Experiences of Sense

Synesthesia: Say What?

Major media still lost when presented with synesthete subjects

Regular readers of this blog will wonder who doesn’t have synesthesia by now—so many interesting artists and thinkers have been outed. And synesthesia seems to be on the tip of everyone’s tongues—perhaps there’s been no period of greater awareness in history.

Alanis Morissette
Alanis Morissette has colored chords.
Courtesy 42 West publicity
But I’m here to tell you there’s a long way to go and I’ll cite four major examples of top media who still missed chances to break neuroscience news by talking right over their interview subjects’ seeming admissions of colored music and other forms of the trait recently. They neither acknowledged the pronouncement nor properly followed up with more questions. It’s as if people say the latest song they wrote is chartreuse or that they calculate math using colored bits of paper every day. Some really esteemed journalists just don’t seem to know what to do with it and tend to continue right past it. In doing so, they have missed uncovering potential synesthetes including Bono of U2, Sir Paul McCartney, the savant Jacob Barnett, and Alanis Morissette.

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I know not all of my colleagues in the Fourth Estate are going to care to the degree I do that these people are identified that way—but at the very least when people say something provocative and apart from the norm why would you leave it in your report if you didn’t understand it nor follow up on it?

The first outlet I’d like to point out is one of the finest—none other than 60 Minutes, which has done so much to uncover truth Sunday nights on CBS for decades.

However, put a little synesthesia in the mix and they’re frankly not sure what to do with it.

The first example is Lesley Stahl interviewing Bono and The Edge of U2 about their Spiderman production on Broadway. Sitting alongside the band members, she watches them rehearse their cast.  After one singing performance by the Spiderwoman villain in the play, Bono critiques it and says, “It needs to be another color.” The camera cuts to Ms. Stahl. She says nothing. Now I know Bono is a very creative man and might have been being poetic, but shouldn’t the next question be, “What do you mean by that? “ not to mention, “Are you a synesthete?”

Here is the clip. Go to 4:40:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1fLZ-P0ZOo

Morley Safer got it wrong not long after that. Interviewing the young savant Jake Barnett in Indiana, the veteran newsman stood by and watched in silence as Jake put a bunch of colored shapes on a light box to calculate a number. Because children do that every day, yes? I’ve confirmed with one of Jake’s doctors that he is not only a savant but a synesthete. Mr. Safer might have wondered the same and followed up. He missed half the story. And if you’re going to do brain science features, that’s unacceptable.

Go to 2:55 here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OR36jrx_L44

The next media outlet I’m calling out for dropping the synesthesia ball is the esteemed New York Times. I have worked for their Metro section and they’re the best there is.Last year they interviewed Sir Paul McCartney about his new ballet composition. Sir Paul said that he liked working with orchestras because, "it's a great palette." That is also a very beautiful poetic statement, potentially. But it’s beyond the norm enough that the follow-up should have been done.

Here's that interview: http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/02/23/paul-mccartney-collaborates-with-city-ballet/

And then just a couple of weeks ago the Times did an excellent Times Talk live streaming video interview with Alanis Morissette in which she talked about her new song “Guardian” being chartreuse and other colored chords she experiences. She stated that very emphatically and it just hung in the air like a rainbow and was ignored.  See 18:54 here: https://new.livestream.com/nytimes/AlanisMorissette

We synesthetes would love to claim all of these genius creatives but just can’t until more direct inquiry is done.

So, dear journalism colleagues, I ask that you catch up on synesthesia research and not leave the synesthesia and neuroscience community, for which these admissions mean a great deal historically, hanging wondering. I’ll be following  up with all the aforementioned likely synesthetes in time to come, batting clean-up for the Rainbow Tribe. Better representing neural diversity is the next frontier of responsible journalism.

Maureen Seaberg is an author and synesthete dedicated to advancing understanding of synesthesia.

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