The study of synesthesies - intersensory connections in the
polymodal perceptive system - is a bright example of the infinite 'dramas of
ideas', happening in the study of man - the most complex natural object ever known.
The investigation of that psychic condition began to proceed, with difficulty,
step by step, about 100-120 years ago, inspired by the public manifests of French
and, after them, Russian poets-symbolists. They claimed the creation of new form
of art, based on "melting of senses" and, in particular, "color hearing" ("'A'
black, 'E' white, 'I' red…" in A.Rimbaud's poem; "the dawning, blue sound of
the flute" in K.Balmont's verses). At the same time, positive sciences joining
to the discussion of this unusual incomprehensible phenomenon, discovered
something abnormal about it, not only from the artistic, but also from the
point of view of psyche studies.
By the way, this discussion has much in common with an old one,
evoked by rather unimportant case of color hearing - a statement of a certain blind
Sounderson who lived in XVI century - that "the sound of trumpet seems scarlet
to him". The list of world-famous thinkers who responded to that casual phrase
is striking - J. Locke, "Essay concerning Human Understanding", 1690; G.W. Leibniz,
"New Essays on Human Understanding", 1704; A. Shaftesbury, "Characteristics", 1712;
D. Diderot, "Letter on the Blind", 1749; E.B. Condillac, "Traitu des systumes", 1749;
A. Smith, "Of the External Senses", 1757; I.G. Herder, "Treatise on the Origin of
Language", 1772. Philosophers in those times examined psychological problems as
well, because psychology did not exist yet as separate science. It is remarkable,
that all of them took the mere figurative phrase (just notice the word 'seems')
as direct evidence of actual (!) seeing of color in response to the sound.
The acquaintance with the above works has convinced us that
philosophers' interest in that particular fact was not incidental. It was inspired,
first of all, by the constant search of new arguments in the heated discussions
about sensationalism (the problem of objective character of our sensations; the
sufficiency and hierarchy of sensory organs; their unity and the ability to
substitute one another; their relation to consciousness and so on). And sometimes
such keen interest for the possible abnormal "mixing of senses" together with its
inadequate evaluation, would lead to general doubts in the primacy of the objective
reality over the consciousness. In most obvious form it had been demonstrated by
the physiologist J. Muller, who, on the base of such 'co-sensations' as a tooth-ache
caused by scratching against the glass, put forward an idea of 'specific energy
of sensor organs'. Later on this idea was a starting point for H.Helmholtz's
epistemological 'hieroglyphs' concept that runs counter common sense.
If such a great mind might fell a prey to prejudice, then what about the average
men, blinded by the extravagant synesthetic verbiage of the poets, often using
it for claiming their own exclusiveness or simply for shocking the "hopelessly
Although since the end of XIX century many scientists assumed
associative-productive origin of synesthetic compaisons in culture and art
(V. Ivanovsky, P. Sokolov, L. Sabaneyev, N. Pern - in Russia; T. Ribot, A. Binet,
E. Claparede, T. Flournoy, Ch. Rossigneux, V. Segalen - in France, and many others),
there still remained some prejudice against the long ago compromised concept
of the "association of ideas" (characterized by J. Locke as "some sort of madness").
This made some researches to seek for more 'reliable', more 'scientific'
explanations of synesthesia, 'color hearing', etc. - as a rule, in the physiology
of higher nervous activity. Some supporters of 'anatomic concept' supposed that,
for example, Rimbaud's 'color hearing' or Scriabin's correspondences between color
and tonality occurred due to 'short circuits' between different sensor
'lines'; some others believed that nervous stimulation could be transferred between
the auditory and visual areas of brain (I. Baratoix, A. Benua - in France; F. Mendoza
- in Spain, G. Lomer - in Germany, and others).
Close to that views was 'ataviatic concept'. According to that,
all 'synesthets' just retained, in rudimentary form, the initial 'integral sense'
supposedly inherent in all human beings at early stage of growing up, both in
onto- and phylogenesis. (M. Nordau, R. Valaschek, G. Werner - in Germany, and others).
And some researches attempted, already in these early times, to give sort of
neuro-physiological explanation, suggesting certain cerebral structures
responsible for such 'mixing of senses' (a summary of these hypotheses is
available in later Russian editions, see
[1, pp.64, 74; 2, p.54]).
What accounts for paradoxical fact, contradicting even to
plain logic, that synesthesia is considered simultaneously as a miracle, and
as anatomic or psychic abnormality, that is, in the end, as 'useful illness'.
Judging from the psychological dictionaries, such absurd situation remains
up to now!
As it appears, let's repeat once more, the abnormal
synesthesia (in a form of actual co-sensations) really exist, having a status
of very rare psychic phenomenon. It can be characterized as an obsessive,
unintentional, invariable psychic condition (by some assumptions, even inherited
and genetically determined condition). Some researchers specially note, that
this form of abnormal perception - they call it 'constitutional synesthesia' -
can be evoked (modelled) in normal subjects under certain conditions, for example,
sensory deprivation, meditation, epilepsy, and, with more guarantee - by drug
influence, which may cause besides hallucinations also real 'co-sensations'
There are known less dramatic forms of synesthesia, first
of all, 'color hearing', which can be considered, by their obsessive character,
as some sort of abnormality, acquired in the course of maturation, although not
nestled on the anatomic level. Such sort of synesthesia usually appeared in a
childhood as a result of casual intersensory associations (associations by
contiguity). And had they been connected with a strong emotional experience,
they would be fixed in memory, ousted to subconscious level and stay their for
life as some kind of 'dear neurosis'. For example, a grown-up man would ever
see the name 'Julia' in yellow color just because his first love in early
childhood used to wear yellow dress. Russian psychiatrist I.Yermakov at
the beginning of XX century was the first to explain the neurotic origin of such
synesthesies, claiming his discovery as "the brilliant victory of Freud's concept"
Naturally, such synesthesies are more frequent than
'constitutional' ones, but they still belong to a number of marginal phenomena
that would distort the understanding of synesthesia as a normal psychic condition.
Already in 1930-s the scientists had become definite in discerning of associative
synesthesies, which play big role in everyday communication, culture, and
abnormal or 'constitutional' synesthesies. The latter were referred to 'clinical'
cases (with reason) by the outstanding German researcher of that period A.Wellek.
As if in revenge, today's researchers refer the normal common case to
'pseudo-synesthesia', with a negative air on it, counter to 'constitutional'
synesthesia which seems more interesting to them.
In spite of remaining confusion with the discerning of normal
and abnormal case of synesthesia, the studies of normal synesthesia's manifestations
(most interesting case, serving important functions in culture) were going on
successfully. Among the marked achievements in that field are: an ascertainment
of the regularities in the intersensory correlation by 'semantic differential'
method (which was specially developed to study 'color hearing' phenomenon
classification of the most common synesthesies in everyday language (L.Marks
a study of metaphoric synesthesies and their functions in the art (B.Galeyev
As it happened, for many years the studies of synesthesia
were conducted rather by the linguists, art critics and musicologists than by
the psychologists. But since the 1980-s the burst of interest to the very nature
of synesthesia is observed in Western countries (in USA first of all).
During this last period the attention is focused exactly on the abnormal,
'constitutional' form of synesthesia (being considered as a 'true' form of it).
The boom was produced by the emergence of new tools in neuro-physiology and
neuro-psychology: electroencephalography, computer tomography, etc, which allowed
the researchers to consider the results of their studies as more reliable.
All that could be just greatly appreciated. More than that,
were these new technologies used correctly and adequately, under the supervision
of science considering a man as an integral whole, surely they would help, at
last, to draw a definite line between normal and abnormal cases.
But it turned out otherwise. Some researchers, seized with
euphoria by the potentialities of new technique, restricted themselves in the
study of 'constitutional synesthetes' only, using tomography method to trace
in minute details their 'movement of thoughts'. They believed, this would help
them to approximate to the understanding of 'color hearing' nature - the unique
gift, which 'great synesthetes' Rimbaud, Rimsky-Korsakov, Scriabin, Kandinsky,
Chiurlionis and Messiaen supposedly possessed of
Once again the same situation as in the end of XIX century repeated - and again it's
not only excessive claims which are faulty, but also unjustified involving of all
these famous names to draw more support to (let me say it) their poor understanding
of the nature of 'color hearing' inherent in the musicians and painters (see about
it [9, 10, 11]).
Let's remind that prominent Soviet neuro-psychologist A.Luria
was the first to point out in 1970-s the cerebral areas which probably have
something to do with the origin of 'constitutional' or abnormal synesthesia
(he never studied other cases). To his opinion (which could not be corroborated
by direct measurements in that time) synesthesia occurs "on the level of upper
tube and sub cortex area"
(By the way, he applied his speculations, rather mechanically, to A.Scriabin case!).
American psychiatrist R.Cytowic continued the cause began
by A.Luria, using Single Photon Emission Computerized Tomography (SPECT) to locate
areas in the brain, responsible for synesthesia origin. He dealt with only
'constitutional' synesthesia condition, too (considering A.Scriabin a
'constitutional synesthet'). SPECT method involves the introduction of
radioactive xenon 133 into the blood flow. It is believed that any change of
neural activity in certain cerebral area is accompanied with the increase of
blood flow through that area, and consequently, the increase of xenon-133
radioactive emission in this spot. The latter effect can be located
and measured, enabling scientists to study the working brain of the 'synesthetes',
exactly in that time when they actually experience synesthesia. Such experiments
were conducted by R.Cytowic and showed remarkable "shut-down of the cortex" in
synesthesia condition. This made him think the 'limbic system' (ancient area of
the brain) to be more likely place for synesthesia origin. Similar inhibition of
the cortex is observed in other conditions: free hallucinations, drugs intoxication,
eideticism and other forms of hypermnesia. This proves once more (for all
R.Cytowic's objections) that 'constitutional' synesthesia' belongs to a number
of deviations from the normal cerebral activity. To R.Cytowic's opinion, all
sensations are firstly processed by the limbic system unconsciously, in blended,
integrated form. Their differentiation into separate species such as visual,
tactile, etc. sensations occurs at the next stages. Now, in case of
'constitutional synesthetes' these processes in the limbic system may be released,
come into consciousness and experienced as synesthesia. Basically, we are all
'synesthetes'; the difference is that 'constitutional synesthetes' are aware of
their initial, blended form of sensations, while the rest do not. Thus Cytowic
has indirectly supported the 'atavistic' concept of synesthesia popular at the
beginning of XX century
and referred 'true synesthetes' as 'cognitive fossils'. I think that in this case
'blended' are not the sensations themselves, but their protopathic components,
which excessive intensity would cause such deviations from the norm.
English scientists S.Baron-Cohen and J.E. Harrison, using more
complex method (Positron Emission Tomography, or PET) studied marginal case of
'color hearing' (obsessive involuntary 'seeing' sounds in colors). They assert
that the origin of synesthesia is determined by the direct links between two
cortical areas, processing visual and auditory information
H.M. Emrich from Hannover Medical Institute has concluded
that synesthesies are determined by the cortical areas communicating through
limbic structures .
Scientist V.S.Ramachandran from the University of California
sees the mediator of sight and hearing areas in the cerebral zone called TPO
(a junction of Temporal, Parietal and Occipital lobes) which proceeds "cross-modal
synthesis of sensations" to build the integral image of object. He also produced
some evidences that the mechanisms responsible for metaphoric thinking and
synesthesia share one and the same cerebral zone. At the same time he proved
the real sensory nature of the extreme links of synesthetic associations chain
P.Grossenbacher also seeks the origin of synesthesia at the
genetic level, yet he prefers functional approach. He supposes that synesthesia
is caused by the incorrect work of the brain, rather than anatomic anomalies,
pointing out that this condition can be evoked by enough dose of drugs. Obviously
in that case the additional pathways can't be grown in a moment. As it is known,
brain contains multi-sensory areas which process information received from
specialized single sense areas. There exist also 'feed-back' pathways running
from multi-sensory back to single sense zones. In normal condition these feed-back
links are inhibited. Grossenbacher believes that in synesthetic
brain this inhibition might be reduced resulting in the experience of synesthesia
As we can see, all these explanations differ one from another
appreciably. Maybe, it's just because the researcher study different things,
using different methods. So the dispersion of estimated portion of 'constitutional
synesthets' in the population is not surprising. 120 years ago Bleuler and Lehman
cited the figure 12%; Luria (studying, in fact, only isolated cases) - 50% for
children and 15% for adults. More strict in the estimation of 'constitutional
synesthetes' ratio were R.Cytowic - only 1:100000 at first, then increased to
1:25000; Baron-Cohen - 1:2000; Emrich - 1:1000; Ramachandran - 1:200. All
researchers emphasize that the number of female 'synesthetes' far exceed that
of male's (with male/female ratio 1:10 by Baron-Cohen and 1:3 by Cytowic). The
latter also reported higher rate of left-handers, homosexuals and artists among
Judging to all, the situation here changed only slightly since
the end of XIX century, when synesthesia admirers collected synesthetic cases,
ranking Rumbaud and Scriabin with the notorious Sounderson from XVI century or
housewives who shared their 'dear neurosis' with everybody around them. Articles
were being published under the titles such as "One more possessor of 'color hearing'
is found - a peasant from Bavaria", or "an Eskimo from Greenland", or "an Indian
of Pueblo tribe" and so on. The present situation simply looks more reputably
and more striking to the average man, as it involves fascinating things - computers,
magnet-resonance tomography and so on. It's not surprising then, that quite a few
Synesthesia List's members (web forum held by the American Synesthesia Association)
express distrust and negative attitude to many scientific data a-la Cytowic, when
they are applied to the synesthesies borne by the culture and functioning within it.
Let's remind that the revival of interest to the psychological
problems of synesthesia in 1980-s - with a predominant reductionism approach -
has been provoked not only by the emergence of new neurophysiological methods.
Synchronically it was stimulated by the needs of quick-growing new-media industry
- the formation, on the base of computer technologies, completely artificial
audio-visual realm (various kinds of multi-, hyper-, inter-media, virtual reality).
Man-programmer actually plays a role of 'Creator' of this new medium, trying to
make it in most optimal and harmonic form, adapted to human perception. Naturally,
designers' attention has been turned to synesthesia phenomenon. One would think,
modern research technologies should be applied, first of all, to study intersensory
links and the laws of normal form of synesthesia, as the most adequate to the task.
But the present situation in that field makes us recall the
parable about a man who is seeking for the lost coin under the street lamp, only
because there is enough light for him…Alas, almost every Western conference on
synesthesia turns into one more 'party' of 'constitutional synesthetes'.
Respectable scientific editions give space to their tiresome self-observations;
neuro-physiological laboratories conduct experiments with the same contingent,
examining fanciful, casual manifestations of 'color hearing' of abnormal or neurotic
origin (colored vowels, letters, names, days, months, etc). According to such
synesthetes' own admissions, their experiences show no conformity to any definite
law. As for suggested neuro-physiological mechanisms of synesthesia, the discord
is observed in that field too. It seems that the lack of conformity in the
synesthetic correspondences suggests the great variety of possible causes for
their origin (and vice versa).
Not long ago my favorite international journal 'Leonardo'
for the Arts, Sciences and Technology has announced a discussion on the
implications of synesthetic correspondences in multi-media projects. You can
imagine my shock when I saw synesthesia being defined in this announcement
as 'brain anomaly'
The author had to break in with the Open Letter
This letter set out, in short, the same arguments as
presented here in detailed form. Praise God, after that the references to 'brain
anomaly' had vanished from the discussion. It's a pity I have not recall then, to
the point, one joke of the above-mentioned remarkable researcher of synesthesia,
A.Wellek, whose name is consigned to oblivion for some reason. As early as in 1931
he wrote: "trying to find any regularities of intersensory connections on the basis
of clinical synesthetes' evidences is the same as putting the question of ghosts
reality to the vote in a madhouse"
To work out practical rules for polymodal multimedia synthesis
it would be better to examine 'common synesthesia' evidences supplied by language
and art. That does not matter if the internal psychic mechanism of this phenomenon
is not quite understood yet, for it can be taken as 'black box output'. Since
synesthesies functioning in the culture, fit everyday communication so well, one
could expect some general laws at the bottom of it. Any casual, senseless deviations
inevitably would fall out, unable to stand practical test. That is why we always
pointed out that synesthesia fixed in language and literature is an excellent
'laboratorial material' at hand to study these laws
The same relates to the sounding material of music, more precisely, musicological texts
which often involve synesthetic comparisons to describe certain features of music.
For better understanding we give here some examples of, first of all, audio-visual
(i.e., synesthetic), most general, common correspondences
|dynamics of musical soundings
|dynamics of 'gesture': spatial movement and/or
|tempo visual images
|rate of movement and/or rate of transformation;
|accentuation of visual plasticity dynamics;
|visual pattern, dynamics of plasticity;
|change of register the corresponding
|change of gravity, size and change of the
intensity of light (lightness);
|timbre and instrumentation
|coloration of picture and plasticity;
|general color of picture;
|modal attraction (in a field of which weighty
the development of melody occurs)
|Earth gravity (in a field of which all bodies
|rmony, chord, musical vertical and light
|qualitative signs, including color ones;
|change of mode (Minor-to-Major change)
|general enlightenment or darkening;
A study of cultural inheritance would help to reveal some
concrete correspondences existing in human psyche - for example, between certain
timbres and certain colors, tonalities and colors (see about it
Strict adherents of neuro-physiological methods in synesthesia
studies reject apriori such successive approach, referring 'subjective'
introspective methods as obsolete. Getting bored with behaviorism, they give
definite preference to the 'objective' instrumental procedures. Let's repeat,
we are not against such instrumental support, but - if to take up the profound
Wellek's joke - not for the purpose of registering the presence of colored
ghosts in a dark room by means of modern computer technologies.
One could agree, after all, with the proposals like that:
"Post-mortem examinations would allow closer inspection of what's different
about synesthetes' brains… But, so far , no known synesthetes have died and
left their brains to science"
But is it possible, let us ask, to consider poet Rimbaud, painter Kandinsky,
musicians Scriabin and Messiaen as candidates for such 'post-mortem examination'?
To mix their 'color hearing' with brain abnormality is as incorrect as to compare
poetical imagery with clinical hallucinations.
As we can see, the studies of synesthesia are focused now
mainly on the analysis of abnormal deviations of the intersensory connections.
Yet when the results of this analysis are extrapolated incorrectly to the
manifestations of synesthesies of cultural origin, it is itself an example of
'anomaly' in the process of scientific cognition - as far as psychology and
epistemology are concerned.
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Published in the Bulletin of the Russian Humanitarian Scientific Fund, 2005, N1