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essay \"Synesthesia: The Melding of the Senses\"

Jan. 23th, 2004 Fri.

Argumentative Research Paper

Synesthesia: The Melding of the Senses

        Upon waking in the morning, thoughts, sounds, and feelings bombard the five senses: touch, smell, taste, hearing, and sight. But what if the normal sounds and sensations were followed by the sight of a color or by a certain taste? What if the sound of music caused someone to see a wide range of colored shapes? (Underwood 67) This describes different types of synesthetic experiences. Originally thought to be the product of an over-stimulated imagination, this very rare neurological phenomenon affects about ten in one million people. (Herman n. page) Derived from the Greek words "syn," meaning together, and "aesthesis," meaning perception, synesthesia is the combination of two normally independent senses (Herman n. page) —such as seeing colors caused by sounds or experiencing a bitter taste from touching an object. (Emerson n. page)

        Known to medicine since the early-eighteenth century, doctors usually ignored this medical rarity or brushed it off as fake. (Cytowic Man 52) Not until the late 1970s did research begin into the origins of synesthesia. Neurologist Richard E. Cytowic’s research and findings on this topic have encouraged vast interest both medically and worldwide. In The Man Who Tasted Shapes, Cytowic explains his research to pinpoint what and where synesthesia was located in the brain. Describing technology and history, Cytowic writes, "The history of medicine teaches that certain diseases go in and out of fashion. Beyond a handful of cultural curiosities such as these, however, people’s behavior—and here I mean the physiology of their perceptions—does not change. The reason we had changed is because we no long observed human physiology directly, but through the lens of technology. Hands-on medicine had become passé." (36) In 1999, research had been started to prove that synesthesia is an actual experience, rather than just an evoked memory. Scientists began by asking directly whether the synesthetic experience was "a memory, or do you actually see the color as if it is right in front of you?" The researchers quickly realized that such questioning was leading nowhere. (Ramachandran n. page) As happened when Cytowic questioned his study’s subject MW, he found that the subject could only answer describing the shapes he tasted in terms of similes and metaphors. Cytowic kept track of exactly what MW said: "The shape changes with each moment, just as flavor does. If you use sweet and sour sauce, for example, you taste the sweetness first, and then it becomes tart a moment later. The shape changes the same way according to how the taste changes." (Man 66) MW, who liked to cook, did so according to the shape he could create, while never using recipes. "That way I can taste one glorious shape. I don’t like too much going on," MW explained to Cytowic. (Man 66) As Cytowic’s pilot experiment continued with numbered liquids unknown to MW, his subject apologized: "The sensations are so hard to describe. If I sound metaphoric, I don’t mean to be. I have to grope so for the right words." (Man 67)

        Synesthetes typically have trouble describing their experiences to non-synesthetic people. Ranging anywhere from colored letters and numbers (the most common, known as chromesthesia) to smells or tastes evoking colors (second most common) to the most rarest form of touch or even sound evoking smell. (Herman 54) At young ages, synesthetes attempt to explain their colors or objects to others, but find no understanding in the majority of people. Some synesthetes are lucky in the fact that family members also have synesthesia, in which case, this condition is genetically linked. (Cytowic Man n. page) When Cytowic presented his findings on synesthesia to the International Neuropsychological Society’s (INS) North America meeting in February 1981, he unknowingly lit the match that started the fire of interest in this medical rarity. (Cytowic Man 106)

        Synesthesia has shown up in many countries and in both medical and literary references around the world. Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov was a colored synesthete who, upon describing how his letter building blocks did not match his own synesthetic colors to his mother, was completely understood. Mrs. Nabokov shared her son’s chromesthesia and was affected also by music, not just letters and numbers. This shows the genetic linkage of synesthesia and can be seen in the fact that after marrying a fellow synesthete, Nabokov’s son, Dimitri, was also synesthetic. (Cytowic Synesthesia n. page) Famous composers Scriabia and Messiaen both saw colors in music and often composed according to the colors they experienced. Many researchers such as Peter Grossenbacher, head of the Consciousness Laboratory of Naropa, University in Colorado, have found through surveys that a good portion of documented cases were some type of artist, writer, or musician. "Synesthesia for them is part and parcel of what ends up being a more expressive life," Grossenbacher stated. His research findings suggest that synesthetes probably have larger connections between the sensory regions, thus being able to experience their uniqueness. (Underwood 67) Famous artists such as David Hockney, composer Franz Liszt, and physicist Richard Feynman all experienced varying degrees of synesthesia. (Cytowic Synesthesia n. page) That majority of people whose everyday lives involve synesthesia usually keep such experiences to themselves, but upon learning that it is a natural phenomenon and not crazy talk, they reach out to others. (Emerson n. page)

        After a brief sidebar on his INS speech in Omni magazine, Cytowic experienced something akin to opening the floodgates. (Man 112) In September 1983, media interest on his INS speech stirred thousands of people who lived with synesthesia. The synesthetes, long ago brushed off by the medical community, expressed great relief, emotion, and amazement at learning there was a name for their lifelong affliction. Cytowic wrote of this unexpected outburst in The Man Who Tasted Shapes: "To learn a medical doctor had validated what previously had been a private experience brought about an emotional catharsis, an unburdening and a sense of joy in discovering that something the synesthetes had kept secret for years was shared by other people." (113) People all over the country were anxious to describe their own anecdotes about their synesthesia. From drawings to long letters to paintings, the majority sought to describe their sensations. (118) From a letter Cytowic had received after his speech, one woman wrote that one thing she loved she loved about her husband was the color of his voice and laugh. (119) Realizing the overflow of synesthetes, Cytowic developed a questionnaire to send back to use for further research. Using these many self-proclaimed synesthetes as subjects, the neurologist was able to phrase the questions to reflect his own theory on five different levels of synesthesia. (115)

        Neurology is the study of the brain and it was there that Cytowic sought the actual location of synesthesia. The standard view of the brain in the late 1950s was that the outer layer of the brain, the cortex, was the source of all brain activity. (20) As Cytowic described this theory, it is like a cake made out of cardboard with only the icing on it, and the cardboard meaning there was nothing underneath the icing. Up until the 1950s medicine thought that the cortex (primarily the brain) was the only part concerned with moving the limbs. Building on this, the “cardboard insides” of the brain were named the limbic system (or limbic brain). The cortex was where all thinking and intelligence took place while the limbic system was where all the natural, instinctive functions occurred. With his subject, MW, Cytowic sought to prove that the location of synesthesia was not in the cortex—but in the limbic system.

        In his novel, The Man Who Tasted Shapes, Cytowic tested his theory on the location of this rare neurological symptom. With MW’s permission, Cytowic did a CBF (cerebral blood flow) scan to prove that during synesthesia, the cortex is not involved. The CBF scan shows the blood flow or the function of the brain. In the scan of MW’s brain during his synesthetic experiences, Cytowic made an astonishing discovery. MW’s cortex scanned was eighteen percent lower than the normal rate for people! A normal person with this rate would have to be dead! This proved that synesthesia was not located in the cortex, but in the limbic system. Current research is building on this now proven statement and has led to many findings in how the brain works.

        Today, skeptics of synesthesia are hard to come by. With websites, support groups, books (like Cytowic’s The Man Who Tasted Shapes), and continued ongoing research, it is hard to think of this neurological phenomenon as fallacy. Currently, research has shown that synesthetic experiences affect as many as one in every two thousand people, much higher than the one in a million ratio thought to be factual in the early 1990s. Synesthesia research has led scientists and researchers alike to distant lands of theory and hypotheses on how the brain works that would never have been reached without such knowledge of this natural peculiarity.

Works Cited

Cytowic, Richard E. The Man Who Tasted Shapes. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1993.

Cytowic, Richard E. “Synesthesia: Phenomenology And Neuropsychology.” PSYCHE: An         Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Consciousness. Association for the Scientific
        Study of Consciousness. 19 December 2003.

Day, Sean. “Trends in colored letter synesthesia.” Synesthesia List. 31 May 1996. Trends in
        Colored Letter Synesthesia. 7 October 1997. Council for the Arts at MIT. 7 January 2004.

Emerson, Lisa J. Synesthesia: Mixed Signals. 15 Dec. 2002. Mixed Signals. 19 Dec. 2003.

Herman, Steve. "Synesthesia." Global Cosmetic Industry 171:4 (Apr. 2003): 54-56.

Mabrey, Vicki. 60 Minutes II. “A Sixth Sense.” CBS-TV, New York. 14 August 2002.

Ramachandran, Vilayanur S., and Edward M. Hubbard. “Hearing Colors, Tasting Shapes.”
        Scientific American. 288:5 (May 2003): 52. 20 Jan. 2004.

Underwood, Anne. "Real Rhapsody in Blue." Newsweek 142:22 (1 Dec. 2003): 67.

11:13 AM - 08.16.04 Monday


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