The Human Brain Scan

The great mentalist The Amazing Kreskin is a synesthete.

Posted Feb 25, 2012

Courtesy Amazing Kreskin.
Source: Courtesy Amazing Kreskin.

The first time I meet The Amazing Kreskin, it's through friends, and the setting is the beautiful Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan. I have not yet had a brain scan to confirm the synesthesia I experience, but that day I was scanned by the truly amazing mentalist. I'll explain.

Over tea and coffee at our table of four he asks me to slide my reporter's notebook across to him. "You see your numbers in color, don't you Maureen?" "Yes," I reply, dutifully passing the writing pad.

"Think of any two numbers one through 10," he tells me. At first I only see them as a line of black print on a white background, but soon I've honed in on my colorful five and two. "You have them?" he asks, scribbling something out of sight, his intelligent brown eyes dancing.


"Tell us."

"Five and two; blue and yellow," I say aloud to everyone at the table.

He holds up the pad, and there it is: blue five and yellow two. He's not only gotten the numbers but the colors right!

Seeing is believing and I'm convinced something extraordinary has happened, though I realize readers of this story will have to take my word for it unless you're lucky enough to meet Kreskin one day and have him look into your own minds. This interview first appeared in Tasting the Universe, my first book about synesthesia.

The man who logged 80 appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and even got his name from Mr. Carson and changed it legally from George Joseph Kresge, apparently wanted to meet me because hearing about me through friends made him think about his own color associations seriously for the first time. His music is colored. So are some words and some people. For example, the word "magic" is black and red, even before he owned an the exquisite black and red silk cape inspired by his childhood comic book hero, the crime-fighting Mandrake the Magician. His dear mother is yellow, and a favorite movie and ghost story from the 1940s has a blue soundtrack, not at all a metaphorical association.

"It's interesting about color because if someone brought up to me an art form, such as conjuring and magic, I could see black and red. It is so rich in my life that I could feel the color. I have an incredibly expensive black silk cape lined in red, and it just fills me, because as you know from discussions, you not only see color vividly, but you can feel color." 

He sees auras around people, most often hypnotism patients he's been asked to help relax. Aura-seeing is now considered a form of synesthesia due to research done by Dr. Jamie Ward of the University of Sussex in England. He has an eidetic memory, as many synesthetes do, and as well as perfect pitch, and he can play and sing more than 1,000 songs, often with his own arrangements, from memory on piano. And needless to say, he is an empath of the highest order, literally feeling the thoughts of other people.

He remembers far back into childhood this feeling a fascination with and affinity for color. "Color was a naturally integral part of my life, no one put it there." And he has noticed colors truer than those of in the physical environment -- the ones in his own mind.

"In movies there's also a great richness. Orson Welles taught me this: there's a greater richness in some respects [than what] you can project the color[ onscreen]. Don't misunderstand me, I like movies like Gone With the Wind or Dr. Zhivago, but in many respects there's more color to black and white movies. The most natural, where more could you have a more natural richness than what comes out of you? The best scenic director or the best technically minded person is never going to hit the exact color that would fit your response to something."

He naturally thinks of color in settings that wouldn't necessarily prompt it for most people, he explains. "When I sit down at the piano and play a piece like I did the other night to an audience, Stella by Starlight  from the movie The Uninvited...I can see dark, rich blues seeping through the story, that suddenly become darker to become black. It's not a violently bloody movie but it is a ghost story."

And apart from the arts prompting color responses, he tells me that says periods in history also evoke color for him. "When I think of the Salem witchcraft trials, a tragic early part of American history, I can see color all around it; dark grays and browns.

"The more I'm thinking about it, I think, Oh my God." He says he never really thought about having synesthesia himself until now. This happens frequently among synesthetes; they just assume everyone must think that way.

"People who know me well, I can tell within three or four minutes on the telephone, I get an aura, and the bottom line is I just love colors. What a dimension in life to have color everywhere," he remarks. "I'm in awe of a lot of things that we don't often think about. This life is absolutely delectable."

He has begun to study the trait in earnest. As someone who can speed read three or four books an evening and retain the information and who has a personal library of 3,000 psychology books alone, he's already gotten to the heart of the matter the time we next talk.

"It's interesting how when you look at the historical factors of synesthesia, going back to Greek times and in recent times when it was totally ignored. We seem to forget... Even though I've been an entertainer since my early teens, my background is in psychology and I spent time with a very fine psychologist from Denmark, Dr. Harold Hansen who worked in intelligence in the second World War here. Then he was a clinician in New Jersey; one of the finest I have ever met in my life.... He really got results. He was truly beyond his clinical knowledge and what have you.

"I had this office for years with him and he felt I had a healing quality around me. It's interesting because as the years went by we came to an interesting conclusion; I certainly had less right to do it. But having read a few thousand psychiatric and psychological texts and catalogued them in my own home, he used to say, ‘Throw them out the window.' I understood years later why. If you look closely, the theories of psychology change every eight to twelve 12 years, with new knowledge and a new perspective and new people. So we have to look at the fact  that, in all walks of life, including synesthesia, which was ignored and then celebrated and forgotten again, and now people are showing great interest. People tend to become authorities on their own point of view. Even a highly trained clinical behaviorist becomes an authority on his own point of view," he says. This explains the frustrating gap in interest and inquiry into synesthesia so well, I think.

"There's a lot of dogma in these things. This is not criticizing any area of therapy... but the problem, and we have to be aware of this as fair human beings, it happens in broadcasting and other things, when an organization becomes successful it becomes dogmatic," he explains. "Then when something ‘poses a threat' to their thinking, it is often not only scathingly denounced but often minimized or ridiculed."

Life can often still surprise him, despite near-omniscience. He recounts extraordinary instances of synchronicity among audience members from different nights in his road show, where when unplanned similarities occurred twice in recent performances. "It really threw me," he admits, when two women on different nights picked the same word out of a book, and two men on different nights each mentioned the brothers they had individually lost 14 months previously.

Kreskin tells me after each of his thousands of performances over the years, he has written a page or two about the evening. He has had an amazing traveling laboratory over the years. "It's unscripted; my audience writes it for me," he says, obviously delighted by this fact.

In subsequent conversations, Kreskin says that he believes synesthesia may be central to his extra-sensory abilities. Indeed, there are studies being conducted now at major research institutions looking for connections between anomalous experiences and synesthesia. I'll report on that work in a future entry.

Kreskin with photo of magician Harry Blackstone
The Amazing Kreskin poses with a photo of someone he admires -- the magician Harry Blackstone.

The Amazing Kreskin has been perceived as a showman when, in fact, I believe he is a yogi master of the highest order. "The mind is a fascinating thing. My life has really been an incredible adventure," he says, the true student of life that he is. "I'll say it as they do on television," he tells me at the close of our most recent conversation. "This is not goodbye. This is ‘to be continued....'"

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