It was 39 years ago this month -- June, 1975 -- the dawn of the modern era of interest in synesthesia. The headline read, "Synesthesia: The Lucky People With Mixed-Up Senses." The article was by one of the fathers of modern synesthesia research, Dr. Lawrence E. Marks of Yale. And the publication was Psychology Today.
Dr. Marks spoke very positively of the trait in the piece, undoubtedly establishing the beginnings of the largely good feeling people the world over associate with this curious topic today.
Synesthesia in 2014 has by now been described as awe-inspiring, tied to creativity, even sexy. A regular survey of the topic on Twitter, time and again yields posts, usually by young people, saying they wish they were synesthetes. I'd like to take the position that this all started with the tone of Dr. Marks' piece.
"Synesthesia is a fantastic, and fascinating experience that has attracted the attention of poets and writers, as well as scientists," he wrote early in the piece. "The French writer Theophile Gautier reported: 'My hearing was fantastically developed. I heard the clamor of colors. Green, red, blue, yellow sounds all came to me on perfectly distinct waves.' To the 19th-century poet Arthur Rimbaud, the vowel sounds were endowed with colors. In 'Sonnet of Vowels,' he describes A as being black, E as white, I as red, O as blue and U as green."
Though he admitted the trait was still then considered an oddity, "It's an Alice-in-Wonderland world, where information from one sensory department crosses to another, without apparent rhyme or reason," he went on to validate the experience as consistent in each individual, and able to be proven.
Further, he ushered in the importance of "neurodiversity" or the value of neurological differences in a population, noting how each person is very much unique. "Synesthesia is," he said, "as Galton said in 1883, a phenomenon so intricate and varied that it forces us to recognize the uniqueness of each individual, and 'how impossible it is for one man to lay his mind strictly alongside that of another.' "
I checked in with Dr. Marks on the anniversary of this historic article. He said:
"To give an example as to how far we’ve come since then. I gave an informal talk at Yale about synesthesia, around the time of the PT article, to a group of faculty and students at Yale, and one of the rather eminent members of the senior faculty offered his view on the topic: that reports of synesthesia represented ‘overactive imaginations.’ Within the scientific community, the very possibility of synesthesia was viewed by many as dubious, as it simply did not fit the tenets of what Kuhn called ‘normal science.’ Research on sensory and perceptual processes continued to focus on individual modalities: The expression ‘multisensory processing’ lay in the future. The old Psychological Index, which provided a (pre-computerized) means for researchers to find published articles on most topics in psychology, actually dropped ‘synesthesia’ from its key terms because so little work on synesthesia was being done, so few articles published in the scholarly literature. The fascination with synesthesia that grew over the last decades of the nineteenth century and early decades of the twentieth waned as many psychologists, especially experimentalists in America, increasingly eschewed discourse about mental life. Even the start of the so-called ‘cognitive revolution’ in the 1950s/1960s failed to extend its influence to synesthesia. The resurgence of interest in synesthesia was spurring greatly, in my view, by the evidence from neuroscience, especially neuroimaging, which situated synesthesia in the brain. Some researchers now even define synesthesia as a “neurological condition.” Well, this is after all the era of brain science, and we certainly are beginning to understand at least some of the neural networks that underpin synesthetic experiences.
"At the same time, there has been a growing recognition of the great diversity of synesthesia, the variety of its forms, with – in my view – intriguing new questions about as to what exactly constitutes synesthesia, and whether – again in my view – a reductive definition in terms of neural mechanisms is anywhere near at hand, if even the right way to think about synesthesia. Indeed, I find it difficult these days to keep up with the literature on synesthesia, so much work is being done. (Someone recently convinced me to put my profile and publications on Google Scholar, and I made the interesting observation that my early writings that dealt with synesthesia – my 1975 article, On Colored-Hearing Synesthesia, and my 1978 book, The Unity of the Senses, have curious (but not surprising) histories of citations. Both works were regularly cited soon after publication, after which citations declined in frequency, only to pick up again over the last decade or two, concomitant with the growth of interest in synesthesia."
I learned of the article from Patricia Lynne Duffy, author and synesthesia thought leader and co-founder of the American Synesthesia Association (ASA). Dr. Marks is a board member for the ASA. Ms. Duffy said, "What strikes me is how positive its presentation of synesthesia is for an article published so early in the renewed research. Thank goodness for the pioneering spirit!"
In "normalizing" synesthesia as part of the vast diversity of the human brain, and in putting his reputation behind it, Dr. Marks must be credited with the much-improved environment in popular media and even burgeoning research, we synesthetes enjoy today.
A director emeritus and fellow at the John B. Pierce Laboratory at Yale University, Dr. Marks went to New Haven after a post-doctoral year at Harvard in 1966. The laboratory website says he was promoted to fellow in 1984 and became the director in 1999. "Originally trained as a cognitive psychologist specializing in language, Marks has devoted most of his scientific career to elucidating human sensory and perceptual processes. Among his awards and honors are election as Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Psychological Association, and the American Psychological Society, a Jacob Javits/Claude Pepper Award from the National Institutes of Health, and an honorary doctorate from Stockholm University."