An accessible, concise primer on the neurological trait of synesthesia—vividly felt sensory couplings—by a founder of the field.
One in twenty-three people carry the genes for the synesthesia. Not a disorder but a neurological trait—like perfect pitch—synesthesia creates vividly felt cross-sensory couplings. A synesthete might hear a voice and at the same time see it as a color or shape, taste its distinctive flavor, or feel it as a physical touch. In this volume in the MIT Press Essential Knowledge series, Richard Cytowic, the expert who returned synesthesia to mainstream science after decades of oblivion, offers a concise, accessible primer on this fascinating human experience.
Cytowic explains that synesthesia’s most frequent manifestation is seeing days of the week as colored, followed by sensing letters, numerals, and punctuation marks in different hues even when printed in black. Other manifestations include tasting food in shapes, seeing music in moving colors, and mapping numbers and other sequences spatially. One synesthete declares, “Chocolate smells pink and sparkly”; another invents a dish (chicken, vanilla ice cream, and orange juice concentrate) that tastes intensely blue. Cytowic, who in the 1980s revived scientific interest in synesthesia, sees it now understood as a spectrum, an umbrella term that covers five clusters of outwardly felt couplings that can occur via several pathways. Yet synesthetic or not, each brain uniquely filters what it perceives. Cytowic reminds us that each individual’s perspective on the world is thoroughly subjective.
Wednesday is Indigo Blue
The definitive synesthesia book by the two leading experts: Richard E. Cytowic, MD & David M Eagleman, PhD
“A unique and indispensable guide for anyone interested in how we perceive the world.”
– Oliver Sacks
“A fascinating survey of the enormous variety and creativity of the synesthetic mind.”
– Daniel Tammet, savant synesthete and author of Born on a Blue Day.
A person with synesthesia might feel the flavor of food on her fingertips, sense the letter “J” as shimmering magenta or the number 5 as emerald green, hear and taste her husband’s voice as buttery golden brown. Synesthetes rarely talk about their peculiar sensory gifts—believing either that everyone else senses the world exactly as they do, or that no one else does. Yet synesthesia occurs in one in twenty people, and is even more common among artists. One famous synesthete was novelist Vladimir Nabokov, who insisted as a toddler that the colors on his wooden alphabet blocks were “all wrong.” His mother understood exactly what he meant because she, too, had synesthesia. Nabokov’s son Dmitri, who recounts this tale in the afterword to this book, is also a synesthete—further illustrating how synesthesia runs in families.
In Wednesday Is Indigo Blue, pioneering researcher Richard Cytowic and distinguished neuroscientist David Eagleman explain the neuroscience and genetics behind synesthesia’s multisensory experiences. Because synesthesia contradicted existing theory, Cytowic spent twenty years persuading colleagues that it was a real—and important—brain phenomenon rather than a mere curiosity. Today scientists in fifteen countries are exploring synesthesia and how it is changing the traditional view of how the brain works.
Cytowic and Eagleman argue that perception is already multisensory, though for most of us its multiple dimensions exist beyond the reach of consciousness. Reality, they point out, is more subjective than most people realize. No mere curiosity, synesthesia is a window on the mind and brain, highlighting the amazing differences in the way people see the world.
The Man Who Tasted Shapes
A Bizarre Medical Mystery offers Revolutionary Insights into Emotions, Reasoning, and Consciousness
2003: Revised MIT Press edition with new afterword
Imagine a world of salty visions and square tastes. Although a minority of people experience the world this way, neurologist Richard Cytowic shows how the phenomenon of synesthesia sheds light on how all human brains function.
For over 200 years synesthesia confounded science. Now Dr. Cytowic tells the stories of extraordinary individuals and relates how a decade of experiments led him to conclude that all of us perceive synesthetically. but the ability is usually hidden from conscious awareness.
Cytowic argues that humans are irrational by design: our emotions are more in charge than logical reasoning is. His investigations deliver a fresh perspective on memory, the roots of creativity, the feasibility of artificial intelligence, and the importance of subjectivity.
The Neurological Side of Neuropsychology
MIT Press 316 pp. 51 illus.
Neurologists, neuropsychologists, and cognitive scientists work with many of the same problems and patients and yet know little about the literature and approaches of the other disciplines. The Neurological Side of Neuropsychology is a primer for graduate students, residents, and professionals who wish to increase their knowledge of behavioral neurology. It provides a clear and coherent introduction to contemporary neurological ideas, carefully contrasting the conventional hierarchical model of brain organization with newer ones that scientists from biological backgrounds currently use.
Instead of presenting laundry lists of arcane maladies along with a key of where in the brain the responsible lesion is, or a compendium of tests for a given situation, “the received wisdom that sometimes must be memorized,” Cytowic gives students the historical and conceptual tools they need not only to get up to speed regarding present knowledge, but to go forward.
Synesthesia: A Union of the Senses
Sharing a root with anesthesia, meaning “no sensation,” synesthesia means “joined sensation,” whereby two or more senses are coupled such that a voice is not only heard, but also felt, seen, or tasted.
Synesthetes are surprised to discover that others aren’t like them!
In this first English-language book, Cytowic shows how synesthesia no mere curiosity, but a window onto a wide swath of mental life, such as metaphor, consciousness, creativity, and language. He gives the first complete picture of the brain mechanisms behind this remarkable experience that has confounded scientists for 200 years.
This new edition brings the reader rapidly up to date with the scholarly and scientific debates in this field, and will stand as the new textbook on this unusual condition. – Simon Baron–Cohen, University of Cambridge.
Nerve Block for Common Pain
Dr. Richard Cytowic describes the various options available in treating pain
More importantly, he emphasizes an option that has been underestimated historically. Encouraging physicians in all fields to stray from the norm of dispensing pain pills, Dr. Cytowic examines the reasons for clinging to traditional but ineffective methods of pain relief. He addresses some common misconceptions, sheds new light on nerve block and offers a new attitude to its practical use.