By Ilana Herzig | Originally posted at Artsy.net.
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.
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.
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.”