Synesthesia: A New Book in the “Essential Knowledge” series by MIT Press

My new book, Synesthesia, is out February, 2018. Pre-order here.

An accessible, concise primer on the neurological trait of synesthesia — vividly felt sensory couplings — by a founder of the field.

….not a disorder, but an extra trait like perfect pitch. Might evolution keep synesthesia prevalent at 4% of the population because it underlies the neural basis of metaphor and makes us more creative as a species? Food for thought.


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Some People Can See Sound, or Taste Color. Does It Make Them More Creative?

By Ilana Herzig | Originally posted at

Photo by Cody Davis.

What if you could visualize the crescendo of an orchestra as a barrage of color and texture, like something out of the Disney movie Fantasia? Or if observing a rippling stream caused your brain to reverberate with the musical notes of a cello?

This is something of what life can be like for those who experience synesthesia, a condition in which two or more senses are coupled together. That means that hearing sound can stimulate visual imagery, or a color can have a particular taste or personality trait.

According to neuroscientist and professor Richard Cytowic, roughly four percent of the population bears the synesthesia gene, which isn’t always expressed. Around one in 90 individuals is an actual synesthete. “Some people are born with two or more of their senses hooked together, so that my voice is not only something that they hear—they might also see it or taste it or feel it,” Cytowic says. And what’s more, synesthetes are usually “shocked to discover that not everybody is like them.”

While there are a variety of forms, not all have been described or documented. According to Dr. Nicolas Rothen, common types, by his reckoning, include: music-color (things that are heard are translated into various hues), grapheme-color (which imbues letters and text with corresponding colors), and sequence-space, wherein sequences like numbers, days of the weeks, or months of the years produce “inducers” (often vibrant spatial arrangements). Cytowic cites some additional subsets of synesthesia that he has noted, including varieties in which flavors or personality traits are paired with colors or sounds.

Garden with Blue Terrace

David Hockney – Garden with Blue Terrace, 2015 | TASCHEN

“Pianos are pink, and violins are orange, and a cello is green,” says Carol Steen, a visual artist who has synesthesia and co-founded the American Synesthesia Association in 1995 with Patricia Lynne Duffy. “If someone plays a piano, my first impression is pink, but I can tell you that the last note on the right-hand side of the piano is an incredibly light white, creamsicle kind of character.”

She describes how something simple—like an 18-wheeler traversing a pot-holed street—can generate a wash of colors in her mind, from bright orange to a sort of black-and-white static. Steen describes another instance in which she observed a man playing a Japanese flute; to her synesthetic mind, the music gave the impression of a “metallic green, kind of a sad green, not so bright.” The notes themselves elicited a mingling of reds and oranges rising out of the green background. Years ago, Steen attempted to capture this sensory impression in a painting.

Life with synesthesia can certainly be different for those who experience it. Filmmaker Lucy Cordes Engelman, for instance, perceives time as a tangible, visual object. She thinks of it as “a long orb that exists in a kind of dark—similar to outer space—that I can zoom into and be right in the thick of, or spring outwards, launch off of, and be very far away [from].” That holds for whether she’s thinking of a 5,000-year span of history, or simply recalling the year 1945, Engelman says. In all cases, time for her becomes a three-dimensional “contracting, expanding, undulating, perspective-based timeline that exists in space.” Engelman collaborates with her husband, the painter Daniel Mullen, to create physical manifestations of what she experiences (which is actually what brought them together). To date, the pair has worked on a series of paintings that spotlight “the different possibilities of how time can be depicted and visualized,” Mullen explains, with the artist translating his wife’s synesthetic interpretations. The results (on view at Uprise Art’s downtown Manhattan space) resemble intricate arrangements of multi-colored glass panes.

1940-1988 AD

Daniel Mullen – 1940-1988 AD, 2017 | Uprise Art

So what causes these unexpected phenomena? If not passed down genetically, “it’s a spontaneous mutation,” Cytowic explains. And while we may not yet understand entirely the “evolutionary pressure keeping the gene high in the gene pool,” for now “we can simply enjoy this as a remarkable variation on human perception.”

Often associated with musicians, synesthesia (of varying degrees) has been cited in connection with everyone from Billy Joel and Lady Gaga to Vladimir Nabokov, Duke Ellington, and Stevie Wonder. The New Yorker posited that Marilyn Monroe might be part of the club. Synesthetes also populate art history: Wassily Kandinsky, David Hockney, Charles Ephraim Burchfield, and Joan Mitchell (and, Steen speculates, potentially Vincent van Gogh as well) had synesthesia, writing about and utilizing it in their practices. It has played a part in the inspiration of art movements such as Synchronism and Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider). Dr. Lawrence E. Marks of Yale University makes note of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, the 16th-century Italian painter, “who developed a theme for characterizing the notes of the musical scale in terms of different color.” Steen goes even further back, maintaining that there are signs of synesthesia in paleolithic art.

While synesthesia was largely dismissed in scientific realms around the 1930s, research (largely spearheaded by Cytowic in the ’70s and ’80s) and articles (like “Synesthesia and the Artistic Process,” co-authored by Steen and Juilliard art historian Greta Berman) have brought the topic back into the mainstream spotlight. Synesthesia has since been linked to other cognitive areas (like memory); Steen highlights as well that many individuals with autism have a higher chance of being synesthetes. In terms of musicians like Stevie Wonder, whom he’s studied extensively, Marks also speaks of “a connection between perfect pitch and synesthesia.” In representations of synesthesia in visual art, some have cited the appearance of the Klüver “form constant” (recurring shapes and patterns studied by German-American psychologist Henrich Klüver in his research on geometric hallucinations, including those that result from drug experiences).

“It’s just delightful to have watched this paradigm shift.” Cytowic says, “not only in science,” where the previous dogma strictly dictated that “the senses travel along five separate channels and don’t mix,” but also in the larger public perception. “It’s totally changed.”

Carol Steen, Clouds Rise Up, 2004-5. Courtesy of the artist.

Joan Mitchell – UNTITLED, 1957-1958, Cheim & Read

And what effect does synesthesia have on creativity? Marks explains that creative cognition (essentially an aspect of creativity)—a test of which might ask its subject to conjure as many non-traditional uses for an object like an umbrella as possible—“seems to produce higher scores among populations with synesthesia.” Studies have suggested, as he noted in a 2014 article, “that people with synesthesia do have enhanced creative abilities, creative cognition.”

Cytowic corroborates that “synesthesia is more common among artists than it is among the general population.” And moreover, “even those who aren’t performing artists or, let’s say, ‘working artists’—they [still] will play musical instruments, they’ll know a foreign language or two, they’ll be expert knitters or potters. They’ll have some sort of creative hobby in their lives.”

Plenty of people may experience degrees of conjoined senses, and it’s even been proposed that nearly everyone experiences “weak” forms of synesthesia, a sort of cross-talk between different senses in the brain (Steen mentions the combined smelling and tasting of food as one example). But what constitutes actual synesthesia?

Research has come a long way, but the conception and definition of synesthesia is constantly evolving, and researchers still have a lot to discover in the relatively young field. For instance, Cytowic notes, brain scans alone don’t tell the whole story, and can even be misleading. He mentions an area in the brain (known as V4, or the “color center”) often associated with synesthesia; it tends to “activate” in fMRI scans. “I don’t want people to point to V4 and say, ‘There it is, there’s synesthesia,’” Cytowic cautions. “Many, many other areas are active in this network that supports synesthesia.”

In addition to neuroimaging, though, a variety of behavioral tests can confirm whether someone in fact has synesthesia, Marks explains. A researcher might quiz a potential synesthete about what color associations they have with specific letters of the alphabet. “Then you ask them two years later about the same letters,” he says. “Synesthetes are remarkably consistent over very long periods of time.” Cytowic also adds that the difference between synesthetes—versus those who only claim to be—is that while individual experiences may be quite specific, in general “synesthetes all basically tell the same story” as others who share their version of synesthesia.

But regardless of all the advances over the last 40 or so years, “the study of synesthesia,” Steen says, “frankly, is in its infancy.” There is much more to be done and to uncover, and opinions often differ.

Composition, VII

Wassily Kandinsky – Composition, VII, 1913 The State Tretyakov Gallery

For Cytowic, there are clear benefits to synesthesia enjoying broader discussion.What it does for the population in general is expand their empathy,” he says. “Once you learn about synesthesia and that people see the world much differently than you do, it opens your mind up, and you’re much more empathetic to other people.”

And the wider acceptance of synesthesia as an actual phenomenon has allowed us to reconsider its effects on artists and artistic practice. The Tate has defined it as an “art term,” and the Denver Art Museum has included it as part of the discussion of Kandinsky’s work. “Wouldn’t it be fabulous to give museums and collectors more information about the pieces they own?” Steen wonders. “To have a fuller understanding of the artist who created them?”

Associate curator of High Line Art Melanie Kress—responsible for the three-person thematic exhibition “Synesthesia,” on view at the outdoor park through March 21st— seconded the value of this nuanced perspective. “Artists always change our relationship to the world,” she says, and for synesthetes in particular, what a “special understanding and relationship to the world that they are able to translate for us.”

Still, some have wondered if synesthesia could act as a detriment, interfering with everyday life or overwhelming those who experience it. While Marks and Cytowic affirmed there are some instances, they are rare. “I’m so grateful for it,” Engelman says of her own synesthesia, but agrees that it can, in some ways, be overwhelming. “It always feels like you’re kind of brimming.”

Originally posted at

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Exhibition and Talk: What is the taste of the color blue?

In November, Marcos Lutyens and I built an interactive tactile sculpture at the Building Bridges Art Exchange as part of a symposium by the International Association of Synesthetes, Artists, and Scientists, in conjunction with UCLA’s Art|Sci Gallery.  We asked
blindfolded visitors to traverse the gangway pictured below and feel, with their hands
and stocking feet, different textures, thermal sensations, proprioceptive inclinations, and
feedback sounds—and then translate these heightened sensations into color and

Great write-up in the HuffPost here.

Check out synesthete CC Hart exploring the gauntlet:

And here is my talk:

Appelusa at BBAX

Jon Adams at BBAX

Anne Patterson at BBAX

Tim Thompson at BBAX

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Why Advertising Falls Flat in Individuals With Autism

Individuals with autism may be impervious to misleading marketing.


Cross posted at The Fallible Mind, my Psychology Today blog.

Which one would you choose?

A new study has found that people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may be impervious to misleading marketing compared to the rest of us [1]. Rather than a disability, having ASD in this case may actually be a strength. With their greater focus on detail, people with autism are better able to tune out irrelevant context such as advertisements. Continue reading

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Can You Hear What You See? More So Than You Imagine

Some forms of synesthesia are shockingly common.


Cross posted at The Fallible Mind, my Psychology Today blog.

Source: Rob Schofield, Flickr

For most people, looking at a painting is a purely visual experience. Enjoyable. Meaningful. Beautiful. It starts with the eyes and ambient light. Outside the gallery, glancing at a rose blossom recruits multiple senses, each of which arise from differently attuned sense receptors. Your eyes see. Your nose discriminates smells. The touch receptors in your skin discern textures. About 95% of us experience the world this way.

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A Semantic Survey of Emotions

semantic survey of emotions

What are your thoughts about orange? Is magenta fast or listless?

Tell us at A Semantic Survey of Emotions at the Main Museum of Los Angeles Art.

A Semantic Survey of Emotions spans the artmaking and neuroscience practices of Marcos Lutyens and Richard Cytowic to inform the development of The Main Museum. By completing a survey (or two), each about a minute in length to finish, participants will not only supply data to the museum that will inform its future organizing, building, and conceptual framework, but that will be used as the material for a new work of art by Lutyens in collaboration with Cytowic. The form of the project is open-ended to accommodate the results, but may include a performance, a talk, an installation, or some other expression we do not yet know.

The surveys draw upon Cytowic’s expertise in synesthesia, or the phenomenon of paired senses (e.g. tasting color), and Lutyens’s past work in the art exploring psychology and utilizing surveys. Lutyens’s partnership with The Main is part of an ongoing, open-ended conversation about the potentiality of the museum.

Take the survey here:

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Keynote at the COLORI exhibit in Turin

In January, I gave the keynote lecture opening “The Color of Emotion in Art,” or COLORI, at Turin’s Civic Gallery of Modern Art, GAM, and Castello di Rivoli museum. I also have a catalogue essay on “Thinking in Metaphor: Color & the Creative Spark,” that accompanies the exhibit. See the cover art by Damien Hirst and watch my summary interview here: Continue reading

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The Science of Why You Hate Ted Cruz

via Quartz.

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Why Ted Cruz’s Facial Expression Makes Me Uneasy

Note: This piece generated a lot of buzz, even getting me a mention on the Late Late Show with James Corden!

[Cross-posted at The Fallible Mind, my blog at Psychology Today]

What message are the Senator’s atypical facial gestures sending?

Source: Gage Skidmore via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

It’s hard to look at Ted Cruz’s face. He’s said to be a brilliant orator with a sharp legal mind. But his expression unsettles me. I understand that my reaction is visceral and automatic, but as a neurologist it is my business to notice things out of the ordinary and probe them. The Senator’s atypical expressions leave me uneasy.

It’s remarkable how many colleagues and former associates say that they “loathe” Cruz. A Bush alumnus told The New York Times‘ Frank Bruni, “Why do people take such an instant dislike to Ted Cruz? It just saves time.” Former Senate Majority leader Bob Dole says, “Nobody likes him,” while Rep. Peter King sees “malice” behind his visage. According to The Washington Post, screenwriter Craig Mazin, Cruz’s former Princeton roommate, calls him a “huge asshole,” and “creepy.” He’s Tweeted, “Getting emails blaming me for not smothering Ted Cruz in his sleep in 1988.” The distaste for Cruz extends well beyond the US: Germans say Backpfeifengesicht, meaning a face in need of a good punch. Continue reading

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Good Mood, Bad Mood? Blame the Bacteria You Eat

The importance of gut bacteria in determining your emotional moods.


Cross posted at The Fallible Mind, my Psychology Today blog.

What makes a person human? People have asked this for millennia. But time and again the answer evades us. It is neither our use of tools or language, our penchant for building societies, nor even sex. Perhaps human cells are the only marker of who we are and why.

Or perhaps not. New studies find that the bacteria in our gut—constituting one’s so-called microbiome—play a huge role in determining our emotions. Continue reading

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The Ways Forgetting Makes You Smarter

Wiping away dated or irrelevant facts clears the way for new learning.


Cross posted at The Fallible Mind, my Psychology Today blog.

Inside the folds of your cerebrum some 86 billion nerve cells communicate through trillions of synapses to accomplish perhaps the smartest thing a creature can do: forget.

The human brain is the mammalian epicenter of behavior, homeostasis, personality, imagination, and intelligence. It can conceive of numbers and count, learns recipes and cook, and keep domestic and foreign biologies in check. That’s a lot to remember.

Estimates of human memory capacity vary, but it’s safe to say that the 19 million volumes held in the Library of Congress, or 300 years of continuous TV viewing, would not begin to fill our brains. Gargantuan amounts of information are input, encoded, and later retrieved via a combination of chemical and electrical messaging that herds those synaptic assemblies into neural networks. The formation and maintenance of these connections is what creates memory. Until quite recently, forgetting was considered a failure of this process. Continue reading

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Four Ways to More Restful Sleep

A routine built around the senses makes it easy to always wake up refreshed.


Cross posted at The Fallible Mind, my Psychology Today blog.

Source: Pixabay

Good sleep can be so glorious as to be some people’s favorite activity. Not much else matters at 2 a.m. when you’re restless and staring at the ceiling. As time ticks by, this alertness can start to feel oppressive. After all, sleep is one of the most basic physiologic states during a human day, and a lack of it wreaks havoc on both mind and body. For those challenged in the wee hours of the morning, that must surely come to mind. Continue reading

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There Is a New Link Between Screen-Time and Autism

Too much exposure, especially in boys, may stunt social development.


Cross posted at The Fallible Mind, my Psychology Today blog.

Source: Gaelle Marcel | unsplash

Brains at every age, especially developing ones, adapt to the environment in which they find themselves. What worries a growing number of advocates are the potential risks of heavy screen exposure, including, they believe, the hastening of autism in the young and attention deficit–hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in older children.

Dangers seem to lurk everywhere when one becomes a parent, from runaway vehicles to microscopic bacteria. But not all threats are obvious. Some, like digital devices, even seem beneficial. Yet screens that line walls, bedrooms, and countertops can present insurmountable obstacles to a child’s growing mind. Even more, so do the screens that kids clutch in their own hands.

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Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating

Here is my review of “Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating” at the New York Journal of Books:

Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating

“Answering questions you would never have thought to ask, Charles Spence reveals how eating and taste have everything to do with the brain and almost nothing to do with the tongue.”

“This looks delicious,” we say. But never, “This is going to taste great.” Why does sight influence taste so profoundly? Why is airplane food universally bad, and why is tomato juice the most popular in-flight beverage when those who ask for it almost never drink it at home? In answering questions you would never have thought to ask, Charles Spence reveals how eating and taste have everything to do with the brain and almost nothing to do with the tongue.

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The Fortune Teller: A Novel

Here is my review of “The Fortune Teller: A Novel” at the New York Journal of Books:

The Fortune Teller: A Novel

“Another tale by Womack that can’t be put down. Superb storytelling. Rounded characters. Stakes worth killing—or dying—for. This is summer reading for every season.”

Take a heroine whose family is steeped in scholarship and regularly curates manuscripts from classical antiquity. Add a wealthy collector who has banknotes to spare. Sprinkle on occult, obscure ties to ancestors who lived three millennia ago, and you have the recipe for Gwendolyn Womack’s latest thriller.

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Reality Lies Beyond What We Can Perceive

Objective reality is an illusion: we re-construct the world around ourselves.


Cross posted at The Fallible Mind, my Psychology Today blog.

Source: Common Commons

Galileo once wondered if we misinterpreted our lives. “I think that tastes, odors, colors, and so on reside in consciousness. Hence if the living creature were removed, all these qualities would be annihilated.” Could Galileo be right—Do our lives happen entirely in our heads?

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Young Leonardo: The Evolution of a Revolutionary Artist, 1472–1499

Here is my review of ” Young Leonardo: The Evolution of a Revolutionary Artist, 1472–1499 ” at the New York Journal of Books:

Young Leonardo: The Evolution of a Revolutionary Artist, 1472–1499

“A corrective look at Leonardo’s first 27 professional years when he was snubbed, struggled, and departed Florence thwarted and penniless.”

Modern minds think of Leonardo da Vinci as a fully formed genius, in the same way they might imagine Mozart, Einstein, or Shakespeare. But this satisfying book upends that cozy claim. It takes a corrective look at Leonardo’s first 27 years during which he was snubbed, struggled, and departed Florence thwarted and penniless. Duke Ludovico Sforza’s reception in Milan was disappointingly tepid, and major commissions went to artists whose names are now forgotten.

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How Music Works

Here is my review of David Byrne’s “How Music Works” at the New York Journal of Books:

How Music Works

“Byrne touches on a broad array of forces that influence and shape the musical experience—from how it is created, performed, recorded, and distributed to more personally meaningful aspects . . .”

Should we consider a musician an artist, or is an artist a musician? That is the central question in David Byrne’s newly revised How Music Works. It is at once a combination of Music 101 and a revealing autobiography by the famous member of the Talking Heads. In this engaging tome, Byrne endeavors to explain how music broke free from elite circles to become the popular commodity it is today.

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