Synaesthesia means “joined senses”. There are many different forms of synaesthesia: each of the five senses can be joined to each of the others leading to conditions where, for example, a certain taste or smell will trigger a visual or auditory response.
I am a synaesthete. I experience coloured hearing, and see visual representations of time. For example, when I hear squealing brakes I see silver zig-zags floating before me; when I hear kettle drums I see slowly-expanding, dark red, upright ovals; when I think of the year, I see before me the outline of an upright oval with the months of the year strung on it like beads, with February always in that two o’clock position, and the portion of time just ahead of the present always slightly expanded.
As synaesthetic experience is exclusive to the person who experiences it, while each particular synaesthetic experience is real and infinitely repeatable for its originator it can never be duplicated in anyone else—not even in another synaesthete, who will have his or her own unique response to every particular stimulus. So, other synaesthetes with coloured hearing will each experience their own, unique visual response to the stimulus of squealing brakes, while other reported synaesthetic responses to time include coloured days of the week, and a completely linear representation of the shape of a year.
Synaesthetic responses are fixed: I have always seen that silver zig-zag in response to squealing brakes, and always will. I won’t see blue spheres, or green clouds: for me, that squealing noise IS silver and zig-zag-shaped, and cannot be anything else. It is only when I try to communicate synaesthesia to others that I alter it: in my attempts to record the synaesthetic experience (to describe it, to write it down or to paint it), it is immediately translated from concrete experience into the more fluid realm of metaphor.
So, what does synaesthesia have to do with a blog about publishing?
Consensus is that we are all born synaesthetic but, as our brains and nervous systems develop and grow in those first few months, our senses separate. In synaesthetes, however, some of this sensory separation remains incomplete. Perhaps we all retain an echo of it: perhaps it is the faint, unconscious memory of a more complete, connected whole which we respond to when we read a subtly synaesthetic text.
Laurence Marks, a Yale University psychologist, has described synaesthesia as “the basis for metaphor”*; Pulitzer Prize-nominated neuropsychologist Richard E Cytowic has stated, “If it were not for synaesthesia, we probably would not have language”;** and V S Ramachandran, Professor of Neurosciences at the University of California, went further when he said, “We begin with a disorder that’s been known for a century but treated as a curiosity. And then we showed that the phenomenon is real, what the underlying brain mechanisms might be, and lastly spelled out what the broader implications of this curious phenomenon might be…. finally all the way to understanding abstract thought and how it might have emerged, metaphor, Shakespeare, even the evolution of language—all of this in this one little quirk… synaesthesia.”***
* Marks, Lawrence E. 1990. Synaesthesia: Perception and Metaphor. In Frederick Burwick and Walter Pape, eds., Aesthetic Illusion: Theoretical and historical approaches. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
** Cytowic, Richard E. 13 June 2005. Well, what is synaesthesia? Interview in Eyebeam Art and Technology Center online journal.
*** Ramachandran,V S. 2003. Purple Numbers and Sharp Cheese. Reith Lectures 2003: The Emerging Mind.