August 10, 2003
Ears Looking at You, Kid
Some people see with their ears and hear with
their eyes. These "crossed wires" may expose the workings of the
Have you ever had the feeling that the person you're
talking to has a loose wire or two in their brain? Turns out, you
might be right. An amazing cross-wired brain syndrome called synesthesia
(for joined sensations) may explain a lot of weirdness and poetry
in the world - at the same time that it sheds light on so-called
normal brains. Of course, there really aren't any wires in the brain,
but the long axons of nerve cells carry signals through the brain
in a similar fashion.
The story of synesthesia goes back hundreds of years,
but there has always been a bit of doubt involved. After all, don't
we all agree that the sky is blue and that a lemon tastes sour?
Well, yes and no. To some people the number four is blue and some
kinds of music taste sour. Are we even talking the same language
Actually, it's not as bad as all that, and in fact
most synesthetes are well-adjusted and more or less happy to munge
their different senses together. But it does challenge a fairly
basic assumption that we all share the same sensory mechanisms.
For a person who sees colored numbers, trying to describe it to
normal people is like trying to explain a sunset to a blind person.
Try this yourself. Look at this picture, which has a bunch of 5s
and a pattern of 2s concealed in their midst:
Not easy to see the pattern, is it? But here's how
a synesthete might see it:
Unless you're colorblind, the pattern just pops out.
Turns out, this is one of the tests that have been used to prove
that synesthetes aren't just making up fanciful stories (known clinically
as "fibs"). When you show them the black and white numbers, a true
synesthete immediately perceives the pattern. Amazingly, here's
a case where crossed wires - usually a very bad thing to do in a
typical circuit - actually enhances perception. That also means
that perhaps we shouldn't feel sorry for synesthetes either. Is
it really a handicap to be more perceptive? Maybe we could all do
with a little dose of synesthesia.
In fact, we may all have some crossed wires. We think
of metaphors as poetic license, but perhaps they're just an honest
attempt to describe synesthetic experiences. Think of these phrases:
loud color, sour note, dark music, cold personality, blue mood,
sharp sound, bitter cold. The astute reader will notice that I've
included a couple of things not typically classed with the five
senses: a sense of temperature and temperament. So sue me. But these
phrases represent cross-talk between different senses -- they are
wacky, totally mixed-up expressions. And they all make perfect sense.
Given these metaphors, it is perhaps not surprising
that authors like Nabokov, poets like Rimbaud, artists like Kandinsky
and musicians like Rimsky-Korsakov may all have been synesthetes.
Let's try another example. Here are two scribbles.
One is named Kiki, and the other is Maumau. Show them to your friends
and ask them which is which:
As you've probably already figured out, almost all
your friends (like 98%, including your goofy friends) will label
the sharp squiggle Kiki. That wasn't hard, was it? But what part
of your mind correlated the "sharp" sound of Kiki with the angles
in the picture? Perhaps we're all wired a little funny.
There might be a good reason for that. Research
is indicating that as children, we may all be synesthetes. Only
by grabbing and sucking on everything in sight do we gradually nail
down the circuits for each of the senses. Synesthetes may just retain
the ambiguity longer.
Are you green with envy that you don't have
synesthesia? Don't be -- perhaps we all have a few crossed wires.
But don't go into a blue funk either. Instead, take a chill pill.
That should put you back in the pink.
For more information on synesthesia, click on
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Here are some other suggested readings in neurology: