The Sea of Similitude

Why synesthetes are so good at metaphor.

Posted Aug 29, 2018

Shubham Chaudhary/Unsplash
Source: Shubham Chaudhary/Unsplash

With his black leather jacket and soulful brown eyes, Dr. Vilanayur S. Ramachandran, the Marco Polo of neuroscience, takes the stage for his TED Talk in Vancouver, British Columbia. “Rama,” as we synesthetes affectionately call one of our greatest champions, is characteristically trilling his “R’s as he begins.

The refined son of an Indian diplomat explains that synesthesia was discovered by Sir Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin, and that its name is derived from the Greek words for joined sensations. Next, he says something that really gets me to thinking – that there is greater cross wiring in the brains of synesthetes. This has enormous implications. “Now, if you assume that this greater cross wiring and concepts are also in different parts of the brain [than just where the synesthesia occurs], then it's going to create a greater propensity towards metaphorical thinking and creativity in people with synesthesia. And, hence, the eight times more common incidence of synesthesia among poets, artists and novelists,” he says.

In 2005, Dr. Ramachandran and his colleagues at the University of California at San Diego identified where metaphors are likely generated in the brain by studying people who could no longer understand metaphor because of brain damage. Proving once again the maxim that nature speaks through exceptions, they tested four patients who had experienced injuries to the left angular gyrus region. In May 2005, Scientific American reported on this and pointed out that although the subjects were bright and good communicators, when the researchers presented them with common proverbs and metaphors such as “the grass is always greener on the other side” and “reaching for the stars,” the subjects interpreted the sayings literally almost all the time. Their metaphor centers – now identified – had been compromised by the damage and the people just didn’t get the symbolism. Interestingly, synesthesia has also been found to occur mostly in the fusiform and angular gyrus – it’s in the same neighborhood.

Rama’s dear friend – the late, legendary Dr. Oliver Sacks, wrote of synesthesia and metaphor in Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain.  “For most of us, the association of color and music is at the level of metaphor. ‘Like’ and ‘as if’ are the hallmarks of such metaphors. But for some people one sensory experience may instantly and automatically provoke another. For a true synesthete, there is no ‘as if’ – simply an instant conjoining of sensations.” (Italics mine).

For the synesthete who is crafting a metaphor and not just having a literal conjoining of senses experience, it is almost as instant. I recall as I rounded a curve during the commemorative Bloody Sunday human rights march in Derry, Northern Ireland in 2000, it came to me. Permit me to set the scene so the metaphor is better understood: I was invited there by a Bloody Sunday witness turned respected Irish human rights figure named Don Mullan to cover the story of how the late New York City police detective Robert Breglio had unraveled a previous white-washing of the case in an official document known as The Widgery Report. In that paper, the British government claimed that fourteen human rights marchers assembled in 1972 to protest internment without trial were shot by British paratroopers from defensive positions at close range due to “hooliganism” and violence on the part of the Irish.

Detective Breglio – who had investigated everything from the Son of Sam murders to the assassination of John Lennon for the NYPD – had a perfect record in the courts as his findings were never overturned. For this reason, he was tapped by the Irish government to go over the evidence – which eyewitnesses all disputed – to reexamine the case. By carefully reviewing the X-rays of the dead and noting the angles of the bullets’ entries into and the degree of impact on their bodies, then walking the entirety of Derry, his expertise in the science of ballistics helped him to triangulate the actual position of the shooters to the city walls and discover that the weapons used were high-powered rifles. The snipers’ nest was hundreds of yards above the innocents assembled; the shooters could not have been on the street. To use a common metaphor, the Irish were murdered “like fish in a barrel.” The case was reopened and years later the British government had to apologize for this horror.

At the anniversary march I joined, the mass of people honoring the victims throbbed, then paused, then lurched in such unity that they appeared to me as one cohesive body part on the entire body human. I later described the throng of mourners in a newspaper report of the event, “like one heaving shoulder as a city cried.”

In retrospect, I could have reached for a more obvious and mundane metaphor for the big crowd, by comparing them to lemmings or even “lambs to the slaughter”. But it never even occurred to me. Perhaps my neurons for “shoulder” and “crowd” triangulate somewhere along their own meandering parade route in my borderless mind. Or perhaps it is a nautical route – the feeling is oceanic and a place where synesthetes cast masterfully about and the metaphor fish are always biting; a sea of similitude.

Facility with metaphor is a “thing” in synesthesia. Not only do Rama’s brain studies prove it, but I’ve noticed synesthetes seldom choose the expected, clichéd options when forming the figures of speech that describe a thing in a way that is symbolic to explain an idea or make comparisons. It would be more enviable were it not completely involuntary and automatic. In our brains without borders, it just works that way. Our neuronal nets are more interwoven and draw from every corner in what early neuroscientist Charles S. Sherrington called, in a beautiful metaphor for the brain: “the enchanted loom.”  His full quote is, “Swiftly the brain becomes an enchanted loom, where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern-always a meaningful pattern-though never an abiding one.”

In Speak, Memory, Vladimir Nabokov described his colorful letters. “The long a of the English alphabet (and it is this alphabet I have in mind farther on unless otherwise stated) has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French a evokes polished ebony. This black group also includes hard g (vulcanized rubber) and r (a sooty rag bag being ripped)…” Even things as ordinary as letters take on poetic and metaphoric symbolism in synesthetes.

I’d noticed my ease with the trope, but could I spot it in other people and suss their synesthesia, I wondered? Could I be a detective like the investigator I admire so much, Detective Breglio, and walk the territory of the borderless minds for evidence?

Then one day it happened. I had been thinking in general about this ability around the time I finally came upon Orhan Pamuk’s gorgeous debut, My Name is Red, which by then had come out in paperback. As I reported at the time:

I was browsing in a book store when I was drawn to the book by its title alone. I hadn’t had a visceral reaction to a book this way since Dr. Richard Cytowic’s groundbreaking synesthesia volume, The Man Who Tasted Shapes, caught my eye in 1993, with its multicolored title letters signaling the contents and giving me a name for my curious inner world for the first time. It was the moment I realized I am a synesthete.

My Name is Red could be literal to me – someone’s name could be red. If your name is Eric or Erin or almost any beginning with an “E,” it appears in my mind’s eye and sometimes above typeface as illuminated scarlet to me, me with my bonus associations. It could also be auditory, when I hear the names spoken. The first letter's color imbues the whole word with color for most synesthetes. If I scan over the other letters slowly, I see those colors as well, but not as strongly as the lead letter.

I reach for Red. The author is a Turk from Istanbul named Orhan Pamuk. I already suspect he’s a synesthete before the book about a murder in the Sultan’s court of miniaturist painters rolls out like the finest of their canvases in my hands, because he’s named a character for a color, after all. He’s never said so in an interview – I checked. But soon, on vacation by a seaside in his homeland, I read his rich metaphors and am certain of it.

Bodrum, the St. Tropez of modern Turkey, has an ordinance requiring all homeowners to keep their adobe beach houses painted regularly in the starkest of whites. This sensible regulation results not in making things bland, but rather in providing a clean canvas upon which the residents of Ankara and Istanbul who flock here in the summer months weave their vines of bougainvillea and jasmine and climbing roses, the blossoms popping against walls. The result is a beautiful compliment to the turquoise Aegean waters, which gave the French the word for just that shade of aqua: Turquoise = Turkish. The resulting rows of homes, differentiated by their landscape designs instead of their shingles or bricks or aluminum siding, stretch for many kilometers in cliff-side developments sprawling out from the city center where the Crusaders once built a castle and Herodotus, the father of history, once dwelled.

Tucked in an upstairs bedroom of one of these homes, I first open the book I selected by its title alone. I prop the window open and catch a whiff of melissa blossoms wafting from the garden below and begin to be carried off by Mr. Pamuk’s historical fiction. Soon I’m transported by various narrators – including a corpse and a dog – into the secret world inside Topkapi Palace, the grand multi-gated complex larger than Monaco which still stands on a promontory on the Asian side of the Bosporus in Istanbul.

It’s not long before I’m convinced more than ever Mr. Pamuk shares my trait. His metaphors fill the stark white landscape and pop for me like the flowers. His second chapter is titled “I Am Called Black,” for starters. In that chapter he speaks of the “heartache of dusk,” such a beautiful metaphor, I feel the clench in my chest it describes.

In the next chapter, “I Will Be Called a Murderer,” he has the character, a murderer, tease, “Try to discover who I am from my choice of words and colors the way attentive people like yourselves might examine footprints to catch a thief.” It is not just the identification of someone through their color choices that moves me there, but I feel as though Mr. Pamuk may be speaking of himself and issuing a subconscious challenge, for it is he, in the end, who has killed off the character. is it not?

That chapter continues and Pamuk describes what it might feel like to discover a murderer in one’s bedroom. He imagines that one would wake frightened and with a heightened perception, noticing, “every detail, the finely wrought wall, window and frame ornamentation, the curves and circular designs in the red rug, the color of the silent scream emanating from your clamped throat…” Can a scream have a color? If you are a synesthete like painter Edvard Munch, perhaps. Or, I theorize, like Orhan Pamuk.

The book is not exactly beach reading in that it is dark and complex, but I can’t imagine reading it in any other place. I must speak to Mr. Pamuk one day, I think, and see if he is aware that he has this type of trait in addition to his many other positive ones.

Later, in hopes of writing about this, I pitch the story to an interested colleague at the New York Times and contact Mr. Pamuk through his publisher. The novelist says that it “rings true for me” but that he doesn’t want to explore it for the first time on the pages of a major newspaper. It appears it’s a new term to him and in this way he is no different than most synesthetes, including me, who often don’t know other people don’t think this way well into their adulthoods. He has recently won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his book, Snow, which rings bells for me again with a terrorist named "Blue." I don’t agree with him on this color –my terrorist would be pale yellow because “T” is a light yellow to me. And I realize neither of the “moods” of the benign blue nor the yellow match the horrors perpetuated by the character. In that way synesthesia’s metaphors don’t always make sense to those who don’t experience it.

I try many more times to draw Mr. Pamuk out with emails, but confirmation comes for me another way. It's not long before he uses the word synesthesia in a book with the title so tantalizing to me: Other Colors. “I experienced the events as emotions, a sort of synesthesia. I experienced the joy of youth, the will to live, the power of hope, the fact of death...’’

Did I do that? Even though Mr. Pamuk did not elaborate more for me by then I received the  wink from the page and possibly the title of the wonderful book.

Our worlds finally collide when the Norman Mailer Writers Colony honors him one night at Cipriani in Midtown Manhattan. I am an alumna of the program. I wait for Mr. Pamuk to arrive and when he does, for the crush of reporters and the flashbulbs of the photographers to subside. I introduce myself and remind him of our conversation.

"Aren’t you a synesthete, Mr. Pamuk?" I ask.

 “Yes, I am a synesthete,” he smiles. “In fact, I’m very proud of that; like Nabokov!”

While it is a coup by any standard to have found an undiscovered brain trait in a Nobel Prize winner, it could have been luck. I wanted to find more evidence. And then it happened again. And again.

I happened to catch a snippet of Vanessa Williams singing the beautiful Disney “Pocahontas” song, "Colors of the Wind," while driving one day. It occurred to me how many songs use color imagery. But this seemed more literal.

When I returned home, I searched for it on YouTube and listened more carefully. The words "can you paint with all the colors of the wind?" in the chorus felt entirely organic to me, as though the writer of the lyrics could envision a breeze full of spectrums. Could he be a synesthete? I wrote an email to the song's lyricist Stephen Schwartz, the legend who also penned “Pippin,” “Godspell,” “Wicked” and many other iconic compositions to check my intuition. He has three Grammy Awards, three Academy Awards and six Tony nominations and I worried for a moment he would think my question strange. Like Pamuk, he had never given an interview about it.

But he wrote back and was delighted I’d picked up on his trait: "...certain keys definitely have a color identity for me. For instance, to me, D-flat major (by far my favorite key for its sonority and richness on piano, which is the instrument on which I usually compose) is a deep orange. The other 'flat' keys also tend to suggest warmer colors lower in the spectrum, whereas the sharp keys, such as A or E, feel both brighter and cooler, in the blue or green family, and B major seems sort of bright purple to me. C major, for whatever reason, seems yellow to me, which I guess makes it both more neutral and less emotionally nuanced. Obviously, this is highly subjective."

As I reported previously here, he says he once saw the color-breakdown-by-keys of composer Alexander Scriabin, (who may not have been a synesthete but identified as one in an age when it was chic to do so) and was struck by how different his own color associations were, some extremely so.

"So, it seems clear that composers who have a response to keys that involve color (and as I say, in my case it is only a vague impression) do not all respond the same way. We bring our own personal associations and reactions to those colors to (or perhaps project them onto) our feelings about the keys."

The great composer says he doesn't know if this response "colors" which keys he writes in, but he feels that the key of the song helps support the emotion or feel of it and when it is transposed into an unrelated key, it loses something in translation.

"For instance, I wrote my song ‘Meadowlark' in A major (because that was the key I could sing it in), but for a woman's voice it had to be transposed; a successful choice of key for the transposed (and now standard) version was E major, because it is to me so close in feel and color to A (although E is a slightly richer and less brilliant key to my ears),” he explains.

“On the other hand, I wrote my song 'Lion Tamer' in D-flat major (as I say, my favorite key), but for singers it has had to be transposed down a half-step or two into C or B. In both instances, I think it loses warmth and depth, and becomes slightly the "wrong" color, so that this (vocally necessary) transposition always bothers me a bit. I feel slightly neurotic writing this, but since you asked, that's just how it feels to me."

It was very gratifying to confirm, once again, that synesthesia is discernable in language choices. It was even more thrilling to find it in such giants of literature and the stage. And it didn’t stop there.

Megawatt music producer, performer, and designer Pharrell Williams had already gone public with his synesthesia when his hit song “Happy” came out. In fact, he’d named his third album with N.E.R.D. "Seeing Sounds" in a direct reference to his brain gift. But I had to smile to myself all the same when he urged people to “clap along if you feel like a room without a roof,” in the lyrics of “Happy” when I first heard it on the radio. What a unique use of metaphor. Happy as a clam, maybe… Happy as a “room without a roof”? Gotcha!

Williams had previously told me that synesthesia is key to his success as a creative. On the phone from London for my first book– in an essay later run by O, the Oprah magazine – the Grammy Award-winner said, "I'd be lost. It's my only reference for understanding. I don't think I would have what some people would call talent and what I would call a gift. The ability to see and feel this way was a gift given to me that I did not have to have. And if it was taken from me suddenly I'm not sure that I could make music. I wouldn't be able to keep up with it. I wouldn't have a measure to understand."

I later plugged the names of more top synesthete musical stars who write their own songs into a lyrics database and scoured it for additional evidence. I found there are many more examples. How about Joni Mitchell’s timeless “Woodstock” with the memorable: “I feel myself a cog in something turning,” and her friend and fellow synesthete, the late great Laura Nyro’s “Lu” lyrics: “Silver was the color, winter was a snowbell...Amber was the color, summer was a flame ride.”  Then there’s Lady Gaga’s “loving you is cherry pie” in her early hit “Paparazzi.” I also found unusual metaphors in songs by Halsey, John Mayer and more in Stephen Schwartz’ work.

The use of metaphors to symbolize in a brief and vivid way what we are trying to express is essential to creative expression. In this more reductive Internet age of emojis and even 140-character political statements on Twitter, they also seem endangered. Michael Robert Dyet, author of Until the Deep Water StillsAn Internet-enhanced Novel asks “What will happen to metaphors when emojis rule the world of communications? Metaphors are elegant, thought-provoking and more than the sum of their parts. They are the red blood cells of language. Emojis, on the other hand, are language robbers. I am not sure the two can peacefully coexist. War must surely break out. If it does, you know which side I will be on.”

As long ago as 1966, the philosopher Monroe Beardsley championed the value of metaphors in an age that was beginning to question their utility. Researchers Lin Ma and Aihua Liu of China’s elite Harbin Institute of Technology point out that in his article, “Figurative Language,” he categorized metaphors as, “the most important and fascinating aspect of language. Beardsley criticized those who simply regarded metaphor as a kind of poetic decoration that was not necessary in our daily life. He pointed out that metaphors not only appeared in poetry and imaginative works such as novels and short stories, but they also played a prominent role in expository and persuasive works. Being functional, they occurred in our everyday conversation.”

Perhaps more than utility and aesthetics, we should consider this: In the cartography of the mind, the sea of similitude of the angular gyrus is a richer fishing ground in people, (be they synesthetes or not), than other primates. It is larger and more developed. 

Therefore, it is one of the very seats of our humanity

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