Sensorium

A Quest to Understand Extraordinary Experiences of Sense

Synesthesia: The Handbook

The Oxford Handbook of Synesthesia arrives in midst of synesthesia's renaissance

As editors Julia Simner and Edward M. Hubbard write in the introduction to the recently published Oxford Handbook of Synesthesia, there has probably never been a better time to write such a volume. 

Oxford Handbook of Synesthesia
The Oxford Handbook of Synesthesia
Courtesy Oxford
"The modest aims of this book were to try to capture a snap-shot of our collective knowledge on synaesthesia (UK spelling) as it stands exactly two hundred years after the very first scientific study, by Georg Tobias Ludwig Sachs in 1812," the longtime synesthesia researchers explain in the opening.

"In this first work, Sachs described in his doctoral thesis the colours he saw in his mind’s eye each time he thought of letters of the alphabet, of numbers, or of days of the week, or when he heard the notes of the musical scale," they say. "It is not known how these descriptions were received by his examiners—they would almost certainly have sounded rather alien. But Sachs’ words represented the first written scholastic description of synaesthesia at a time when the name ‘synaesthesia’ did not even exist, and this took place exactly two centuries ago. But this seemingly long time-line is something of a red herring: the last two hundred years have been typified by a distinct lack of research into synaesthesia. This much is true except for two particularly fervent periods of study—the first surge took place in the final decades of the 19th century, and the second, a bigger, stronger, more powerful tsunami of a surge, has taken place since the last two decades of the 20th century, and continues to grow stronger and more focussed to the current day. Never before in its history has synaesthesia been the focus of so many investigations—by psychologists, neuroscientists, philosophers, historians, artists, literary scholars, musicians, designers and many more."

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Dr. Hubbard, director of the eponymous Ed Neuro Lab, https://website.education.wisc.edu/edneurolab/, now based at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, told me that he and Dr. Simner, head of the Synaesthesia and Sensory Integration Lab at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, http://www.ppls.ed.ac.uk/people/julia-simner, first started working on this enormous project together in April of 2010. "But Jools (as Dr. Simner is known in the synesthesia community) had been working on it for a bit before she contacted me. So, at least three years from start to finish, probably more like four."

Dr. Edward M. Hubbard
Co-Editor Dr. Edward M. Hubbard
Courtesy Dr. Hubbard
The 1,077-page tome is chock-full of synesthesia history, first person experiences, and the latest research in all the sub-specialties developing around the some 60 forms of synesthesias. This author and blogger is honored to be cited six times throughout.

"In all, we've been very pleased with the contributions and we're excited to have had such wonderful contributions from so many of the leaders in the synesthesia community," Dr. Hubbard told me recently. "We're very proud of the final version of the book, and we hope that it will stand as a touchstone for the field for many years to come."

Interestingly there are beautiful little bookends associated with the project. Dr. Simner had a baby girl halfway through the project and Dr. Hubbard welcomed his own little daughter just as the book was finished.

Dr. Julia Simner
Co-Editor Dr. Julia Simner
Courtesy Dr. Simner
"Funnily enough, Ed received the book in US in December, exactly in time for his own new arrival! So it was a book involving a lot of hard work, 50 chapters, 75 authors…and two lovely baby girls," says Dr. Simner.

 

From the introduction:

"The final reason to write a handbook of synaesthesia is because it is quite simply a fascinating subject—an astonishing phenomenon. It’s difficult to imagine any other condition drawing so much interest from those who do not experience it. This fascination comes partly from a challenge: there is something uniquely challenging about the possibility that other people might not experience the world in qualitatively the same way. Most people have an intrinsic feeling that “reality” is fixed, that it is exactly as we see it, that it could not be different in somebody else’s shoes. And this is because our sensations feel unambiguous: sound is noisy (not colourful!) taste is flavoursome (not pointed!). But neuropsychologists have long since known that reality is a construct we create by filtering stimuli through the individuality of our brain. This means that subtle differences in brain structure or function can allow some people to experience the world in different ways. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the case of synaesthesia. So our aim with this handbook is to show these differences, to illustrate how they are brought about, and to demonstrate their consequences for cognition, social interaction, artistic expression and so on. Most importantly, we hope to demystify what is, for the average non-synaesthete, something rather mysterious."

The handbook, a must for synesthetes and non-synesthetes alike, is available here: http://www.amazon.com/Oxford-Handbook-Synesthesia-Julia-Simner/dp/0199603324.

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

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