From Jones and Bartlett, a book on Stem Cells from Dr. Ann A. Kiessling and Scott C. Anderson:

Selected Articles:

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 brain.

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 here?

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 these links:


Copyright © 2000-2014 by Scott Anderson
For reprint rights, email the author:

Here are some other suggested readings in neurology: