“Seeing Music”

December 4, 2009

By: Laura Franzini

The NPR and PRI program Here & Now, which airs on Boston’s WBUR 90.9 radio station, occasionally airs medical-related pieces, often as a way to educate the audience about a particular medical topic or recent breakthrough.

On November 27, Here & Now closed the day’s lineup with a feature called “Seeing Music.”

The segment focused on a rare neurological condition called synesthesia, which is defined as a sensation produced at a point other than or remote from the point of stimulation, e.g. the ability to see music as various colors.

As described by Dr. Richard Cytowic, author of “Synesthesia: A Union of the Senses” and “Wednesday is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia” (coauthored by Dr. David Eagleman) this condition is an involuntary “joining” in which the real information of one sense is accompanied by a perception in another sense. The synesthete (one who has synesthesia) regards these perceptions as real, often outside the body, instead of as imagined in the mind’s eye.

The human brain functions like this: when something is sensed, a message is sent to the brain classifying the sense as olfaction (smell), gustation (taste), vision (sight), audition (sound), or tactition (touch). In a brain without synesthesia, the messages are separate and will arouse only one sense. In a brain with synesthesia, one message may arouse multiple senses.

Therefore, someone with this condition will often see colors while listening to music or eating food. Sean Day is one of those people. Robin Young, host of Here & Now, interviewed Day, along with Dr. Cytowic, about the condition and the experiences of a synesthete.

Day is the president of the American Synesthesia Association, which is a not-for-profit organization that was created in 1995 as a way to provide information to synesthetes and to further research into the area of synesthesia. Though once considered a rare condition, developments in technology, including fMRI scans and the Internet, have shown that synesthesia is not so uncommon.

fMRI scans have allowed scientists such as Dr. Cytowic to further explore the brains of synesthetes and how they work. One of the reasons synesthesia is so fascinating is that it directly goes against the evolutionary trend for increasing separation of function in different parts of the brain. While the majority of human beings perceive light, sound, taste, touch, and smell as separate from one another (chicken is not sky blue), in the brains of synesthetes, the senses are mixed together.

The Internet has allowed synesthetes to learn more about their abilities and to be in contact with one another.

Day has known that he is different from other people since the age of five. He says he remembers pulling out various records to play so that he could see the colors accompanying the music. He realized his unique ability when he noticed that no one else was talking about the colors.

Synesthesia is not without its setbacks, however. Just as certain tastes and sounds clash when perceived together, the additional sensations of synesthetes can make either good combinations or bad combinations. For example, Day tends not to enjoy listening to a French horn in an orchestra because he perceives the French horn as a color that does not compliment the music’s other colors. He describes the sensation as “disturbing.”

And because this condition is still fairly unknown to the general population, there have been cases of children who exhibit signs of synesthesia being punished or labeled as mentally handicapped because parents do not know how to handle their child’s unusual perceptions.

I first heard about synesthesia earlier this year when my Advanced Placement Psychology class was studying sensation and perception. As a fairly artistic person, this condition fascinated me. The ability to sense taste when you touch something or see colors when listening to a piece of music seems to be a natural enhancement (i.e. not produced by any sort of drug) of one’s perception of the world, and one that would be very interesting to experience, regardless of its few drawbacks.

Today, scientists are trying to figure out the gene for synesthesia. This research will hopefully lead to a broader understanding of the brain’s functioning, particularly in regards to sensation and perception.

Related links: The Synesthetic Experience, The Synesthesia Battery, YouTube – Synesthesia, American Synesthesia Association