Definition of synaesthesia.
Synaesthesia is the neurological mixing of the senses. A synaesthetic may, for example, hear colors, see sounds, and taste tactile sensations. While this may happen in a person who has autism, it is by no means exclusive to autistics. Synaesthesia is a common effect of some hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD.
Synaesthetics often experience correspondences between the shades of color, tone of sounds, and intensity of taste that they assosiate with an alternate sensation. For instance, a synaesthetic may see a more intense red as the pitch of a sound gets higher, or a smoother surface might make one taste a sweeter taste.
Synaesthesia is a legitimate rhetorical device in poetry. In a familiar example, Andrew Marvell characterized the fruitful and serene atmosphere of the garden as
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade” ( —”The Garden”)
Synaesthesia has influenced many artists in various fields, including poets Charles-Pierre Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud, and an ersatz synaesthesia has been overused and cheapened since, as a shortcut to modernity. Composer Alexander Scriabin, in his orchestral work, Prometheus: The Poem of Fire (1910), included a part for a “clavier à lumières”. This instrument was played like the piano, but produced colored light instead of sound.
Alexander Scriabin may have been, but probably wasn’t, a synesthete. The color system he described and which he used in pieces such as Prometheus, unlike most systems and synesthetic experience, line up with the circle of fifths, indicating that it was a thought out system that was also influenced by his theosophic readings, and based on Sir Isaac Newton’s Optics. Many other artists have used fabricated synesthetic systems including the Italian futurists including Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, and Kandinsky.
Amy Beach was a synesthete, seeing different colors for different keys, as well as possesing absolute pitch. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Olivier Messiaen were quite likely also synesthetes. Contemporary postminimal composer Michael Torke is a synesthete, who, in addition to composing a series of “color” pieces based on his perceptions, also perceives colors for various time units. French drummer Manu Katché and world renowned oboist Jennifer Paull are both synesthetes, Katche seeing various images with music, and Paull seeing an expanded unexplainable spectrum to various sounds, the sensation of the oboe compelling her to take it up.
The works of writer Vladimir Nabokov contain many synaesthetic descriptions, and the physicist Richard Feynman admitted to seeing the algebraic symbols of Bessel functions in colour.
As digital entertainment becomes more developed, the possibility of synaesthesia through technology has begun to be considered. Several video games already use the term in their advertising, most notably the 2001 Playstation 2 game REZ (which does have some elements of synaesthesia in its gameplay, notably the interaction of controller vibration, music, player interaction and graphics).
- Crétien van Campen, Artistic and psychological experiments with synesthesia gives the historical background.
- Richard Cytowic, Synesthesia: phenomenology and neuropsychology emphasizes the involuntary nature of the cross-modal perceptions and “distinguishes it from metaphor, literary tropes, sound symbolism, and deliberate artistic contrivances that sometimes employ the term “synesthesia” to describe their multisensory joinings.
- Crétien van Campen, Synesthesia and artistic experimentation comments on Cytowic, adducing the examples of Scriabin’s and Kandinsky’s experiments as relevant for the study of synesthesia.
- Hearing Colors, Tasting Shapes
- Synaesthesia – union of the senses (from Kuro5hin)