Synesthesia: A New World of Colour

What colour appears in your mind when you think of the word mandible?

For most people, such a question has probably never occurred to them. Why would a word have a colour? Couldn’t mandible be any colour I wanted it to be?

The simple answer is no.

For 1 in 2000 people, this is just one of the many ways they process information and the world around them in general. It’s called Synesthesia, and it’s really quite fascinating.

What is it?

People who experience Synesthesia associate one type of stimulus (such as a number, a letter, a word, a musical note, or even a person) with something that may seem unrelated to everyone else (like a colour, a taste, or a scent).  They can’t explain why something has a certain colour or taste; it just does.

Interestingly, I’ve always noticed that I tend to associate people I know well with certain colours. That colour just appears in my mind when I think of them – my closest friend is a vivid purple, while another is a bright aqua blue. I’ve also done the same with my favourite words. For me, mandible is always red. Chocolate is purple. Magic is silver. Wonderful is a lime green. It’s not something I have to think about – whenever those words pop into my mind, the colour is there as well.

Why does this happen?

According to the University of California, Synesthesia is a result of cross-activitation between parallel centres of the brain that are involved with processing sensory information. Basically, two areas of the brain that lie closely together and that both work with sensory information get their wires crossed, producing a whole world of colour, scent, sound and taste. If, for example, a person with Synesthesia looks at the letter F and sees the colour green, it’s because the green colour perception area of their brain is being stimulated at the same time as their letter recognition area. They literally process one type of stimulus two ways. I think it’s amazing, since there are so many ways that people with Synesthesia experience the world around them.

Who has it?

There are actually a number of famous people, both living and dead, who have Synesthesia. A famous case is Franz Linszt, who would tell members of his orchestra to play notes ‘bluer’, or ‘deep violet, please!’ Geoffrey Rush, the Australian actor, sees numbers and days of the week as colours, while Billy Joel, Tori Amos, and Mary J. Blige see musical notes as colours just like Linszt did. Marilyn Monroe had a unique kind of Synesthesia, where she saw vibrations whenever she heard a sound. Finally, (and my favourite!) Vincent Van Gogh had a type of Synesthesia called Technique-timbre, where he associated the timbre of an instrument with colour or shape. He wrote letters to his brother Theo about this ability, and other artists with Synesthesia have been able to notice these shapes in his work.

It’s all wonderfully fascinating, especially since so many creative people seem to experience this, albeit in different ways. According to researcher Vilayanur Ramachandran, Synesthesia is 8 times more likely to occur among artists and other creative types of people than in other members of the population. Processes similar to blended sensory output might even underlie our general capacity for metaphor and creativity.

I’d love to hear more about other people who have Synesthesia, or at least think they might. How does it present itself for you?




Art and Mental Illness

I’ve always had a fascination with Vincent Van Gogh.

I know, it’s a little obvious – everyone loves his paintings, and his tragically short life makes for a moving story. Self-harming at 36, ending his own life at 37 – all the while creating an amazing body of work that amounted to nothing during his lifetime. It’s incredibly sad, and it’s been the inspiration for countless artists and writers.

What fascinates me most about Vincent though is his bravery.

Vincent spent his entire life moving from one occupation to another, from one woman to another, never finding whatever it was he was searching for. He came by painting honestly – his mother was a painter of watercolours based on nature – but he never obtained any sort of fame or acknowledgment of his talent. He suffered his entire life from depression and what we now know as Bi-Polar disorder, so any professional or personal set back hit him harder than most.

Despite all of this, despite never receiving anything remotely like positive feedback or celebration of his immeasurable talent, he continued to create.

To me, that’s incredibly brave. It takes a lot of heart to continue to pour so much of your soul, and so much effort, into something and receiving almost nothing in return. It takes a lot of bravery to continue to pursue art when so many have told you that what you’re producing isn’t good enough. When you’ve been told that you aren’t good enough. That definitely resonates with me.

As ever, his art seems like a compulsion.  He had all of these turbulent, violent emotions inside him and instead of raging at the unfairness of it all, he used them to create astounding works of beauty and colour. As a coping mechanism, it’s probably one of the best.

Recently I visited the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. There was a wonderful landscape exhibition near the entrance where a few of Vincent’s paintings were displayed alongside pieces from other artists like Paul Gauguin, Maurice Denis, Ferdinand Hodler, and Wenzel Hablik. Wandering around amongst the art, you couldn’t help but wonder what Vincent would make of it. His art had been belittled his whole life – would he be thrilled to finally have the recognition he deserved, or would he feel that his work wasn’t good enough to be presented alongside artworks from his more successful peers?

Whatever he might have thought, his Starry Night Over the River Rhone had pride of place in the centre of the exhibition, with every visitor stopping for as long as they could to take in what was, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful paintings in the entire building.

There’s a beautiful episode of Doctor Who entitled Vincent and the Doctor, where Amy and the Eleventh Doctor travel to rural France a year before Vincent’s death, to meet him. They find a brilliantly creative man prone to fits of violent emotion and deep despair, and take him into the future, to the Musee d’Orsay in the 21st Century, to show him how he’ll be remembered. It never fails to make me cry, but it also fills me with hope. It’s such a hopeful episode, and it’s everything that makes Doctor Who wonderful. What’s more, it’s a tiny window into what Vincent might have been like had his talent been celebrated like he deserved. It might not have changed anything for him. It might have made him a tad happier, or maybe a little braver in his choices.

In the end, Vincent was mentally ill. His mental illness was a huge part of him, and might have had a big impact on his art, or the way he created. Whether mental illness and creativity are linked is something often argued – in my experience, a creative person with a mental illness often uses their creativity as a coping mechanism and their illness as a motivator. With Vincent, the two are inexplicably linked.