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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Synesthesia (also spelled synæsthesia or synaesthesia, plural synesthesiae or synaesthesiae)—from the Ancient Greek (syn), meaning "with," and (aisthēsis), meaning "sensation"'—is a neurologically based phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. While cross-sensory metaphors (e.g., "loud shirt", "bitter wind" or "prickly laugh") are sometimes described as "synesthetic", true neurological synesthesia is involuntary.

Artistic investigations

synesthesia in art; synesthesia in literature

The word "synesthesia" has been used for 300 years to describe very different things, from poetry and metaphor to deliberately contrived mixed-media applications. It is crucial to separate artists using synesthesia as an intellectual idea—pseudo-synesthetes such as Georgia O'Keeffe who used such titles as "Music-Pink and Blue" — from those who had the genuine perceptual variety, such as Wassily Kandinsky or Olivier Messiaen.

The French Romantic poets Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire wrote poems which focused on synesthetic experience, but were evidently not synesthetes themselves. Baudelaire's Correspondances (1857) introduced the Romantic notion that the senses can and should intermingle. Rimbaud, following Baudelaire, wrote Voyelles (1871) which was perhaps more important than Correspondances in popularizing synesthesia, although he later admitted ""J'inventais la couleur des voyelles!" [I invented the colors of the vowels!].

Synesthesia has been a source of inspiration for artists, composers, poets, novelists, and digital artists. Nabokov writes explicitly about synesthesia in several novels. Kandinsky (a synesthete) and Mondrian (not a synesthete) both experimented with image-music correspondences in their paintings. Scriabin composed color music that was deliberately contrived, whereas Messiaen invented a new method of composition to specifically render his bi-directional sound-color synesthesia. For example, the red rocks of Bryce Canyon are depicted in his symphony Des canyons aux étoiles ("From the Canyons to the Stars").


History of synesthesia research

The interest in colored hearing dates back to Greek antiquity, when philosophers asked if the color (chroia, what we now call timbre) of music was a quantifiable quality. Isaac Newton proposed that musical tones and color tones shared common frequencies, as did Goethe in his book Theory of Colours. There is a long history of building color organs such as the clavier à lumières on which to perform colored music in concert halls.

The first medical description of "colored hearing" is in an 1812 thesis by the German physician Sachs. The "father of psychophysics," Gustav Fechner, reported the first empirical survey of colored letter photisms among 73 synesthetes in 1876, followed in the 1880s by Francis Galton. Carl Jung refers to "color hearing" in his Symbols of Transformation in 1912. Research into synesthesia proceeded briskly in several countries, but due to the difficulties in measuring subjective experiences and the rise of behaviorism, which made the study of any subjective experience taboo, synesthesia faded into scientific oblivion between 1930 and 1980.

As the 1980s cognitive revolution made inquiry into internal subjective states respectable again, scientists returned to synesthesia. Led in the United States by Larry Marks and Richard Cytowic, and later in England by Simon Baron-Cohen and Jeffrey Gray, researchers explored the reality, consistency, and frequency of synesthetic experiences. In the late 1990s, the focus settled on grapheme → color synesthesia, one of the most common and easily studied types. Psychologists and neuroscientists study synesthesia not only for its inherent appeal, but also for the insights it may give into cognitive and perceptual processes that occur in synesthetes and non-synesthetes alike. Synesthesia is now the topic of scientific books and papers, PhD theses, documentary films, and even novels.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Synesthesia" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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