The Fallible Mind

Emotion, perception, and other tricks of the brain

A TED-Ed Lesson on Synesthesia

An animated lesson from TED talks about grapheme synesthesia in stop motion.

Recently I gave a TED talk on synesthesia, which you can see here on YouTube or at the TED–Ed web site. Mostly, given time constraints, it focused on grapheme synesthesia, one of the most common forms in which otherwise normal individuals see letters and numerals as colored even though they are printed in black ink.

Three decades ago when I first started studying such individuals—whom I called synesthetes—my neurology colleagues warned me that they were crazy, making it up, and that studying such obviously “New Age” bullshit would ruin my career.

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Well, I’m still here. I don’t know about them. There are now researchers in three dozen countries trying to figure out the phenomenon. Many books and papers have been written about synesthesia, many conferences held, and many PhD’s granted on the topic. It’s safe to say that the phenomenon has been a paradigm changer. Not long ago it was received wisdom that the five senses traveled along separate channels. The reigning paradigm called modularity decreed that by definition different modules—such as language, touch, or color perception—did not and could not interact.

All that is history thanks to this strange and fascinating condition.  It is enormously thrilling to be part of a paradigm change. Today we know that 1 on 23 persons carry the synesthesia gene. Why is such a pretty but apparently useless trait maintained so vigorously in the population? One answer may have to do with synesthesia’s role in creativity and metaphor. You can see my talk about this at the Library of Congress here.

Synesthesia has caused a paradigm shift in two senses: In scientific terms it shows that the senses are far more interrelated and connected than orthodoxy allows; in subjective terms it shows that everyone is a statistic of one when it comes to  individual perception.

Richard E. Cytowic, M.D., is a neurologist best known for bringing synesthesia back to mainstream science. His latest book is Wednesday Is Indigo Blue.


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