Synesthesia and the Artist in all of us.
Sounds have temperatures. Cello is lukewarm. Japanese samisens are chilly, but in the comfortable way. Kettle drums are warm. The sound of ice cracking is hot, but only for an instant.
Little insight into my brain’s wiring there. I don’t imagine sounds have temperature to everyone, but they do to me. Temperature—texture—motion—whatever you call that thing dictating balance and vertigo. Rock and roll is sculptural to me—so’s a symphony—or a room crowded with talking people and clinking dishes.
Likewise, those tangible things all have sounds.
I’m what’s called a synesthete. Synesthesia is what it’s called when your body receives THIS sensory input and your brain thinks it’s this other one. Billy Joel’s a famous example—Vincent Van Gogh too. They both had it where their brains would give them visual data for sound and vice versa, and they both used that to different dramatic effects in their careers. I can well imagine that Van Gogh painted the music he saw in the colors, and I don’t know what you think of Billy Joel but I could believe his songs were also paintings.
To some extent, all artistic output seeks a synesthetic experience. For no reason other than evocation, perhaps. An artist—any kind—needs to evoke a sense of something in the person receiving the art. A visual artist represents a tree, say, or a bowl of fruit. They’ve given you something visual to play with, and they hope you hear the wind in the trees, or smell the fruit. It can get more abstract when an artist does something adventuresome, like put you on the surface of Mars with the harsh, warm roaring of a symphony (if you’ve never listened to The Planets by Holtz, it’s worth doing and trying to feel the texture and see the colors in the sound—based on what I know about our solar system, I think he created a pretty good sculpture).
Even when an artist isn’t a synesthete the level of brain chemistry, art tends to rely on a synesthetic approach to making a point. All art does, even if it’s not quite art.
There’s a strong connection between synesthesia and creativity. It isn’t necessary for creativity. Only about four percent of the population’s got synesthesia. Or that’s what you can say based on the records, the science, etc. I theorize there’s more of us than that, though. My sort of synesthesia, for instance, doesn’t sound a lot like synesthesia for a few reasons. Not the least of which being that EVERYONE can feel sound as if it’s a tactile thing. Loud noises ARE tactile things. Soft noises too. And so often, moving things make sound—or sounds come from moving things. Language isn’t well equipped to express the realities of confusing sound and tactile senses. So it may be more than four percent of us in the world with synesthesia. It’ll be an interesting next decade. It’s still an active subject. And synesthesia is still usually labeled a “medical condition,” as if it’s something wrong with you. When it seems that most synesthetes hardly feel inconvenienced by being one. Pharrell Williams is apparently famous for being a synesthete and talking about how important it is to destigmatize the term. A lot of synesthetes find that being one enhances their life in some way.
Many synesthetes have strong creative lives. Although not all highly creative people are synesthetes. But the connection has been heavily studied, with the same result confirmed every time. Synesthesia helps with creativity, but it’s not necessary. But people keep asking whether ALL creatives have a little synesthesia.
It’s interesting that people keep asking, even though the science seems clear.
When people keep asking the same question, even after they’ve had an answer, it tells you something about human nature.
I don’t know what it tells us about human nature.
But I can guess.
Here are my credentials, to back up my guess:
I’m a synesthete
I’ve been a novelist since I was twelve
I may not be a genius, but I’m far from stupid
I’m a human, so human nature is second nature to me
I’m as wilded-out by it as the next person
Those got out of the way, here’s my guess: People keep asking whether all artistic types have synesthesia because art feels like magic. Art does something weird to us. It bypasses what makes sense and jiggles around in the part of ourselves that we don’t know how to put words to. Art goes right past understanding and into the part of us that we spend our whole lives trying to understand.
And THAT feels like magic.
And so art MUST come from a pack of cheaters. Artists must be cheating, because their whole job is doing things that the rest of us can’t imagine. That’s the point of art: imagining new things. But art came out of someone else’s imagination. Ergo, that someone else must be cheating.
Synesthesia seems like a good candidate for that cheating. It SOUNDS like an artistic superpower. Art is absorbed through the senses, and synesthesia certainly sounds like getting your sense of senses leveled up. (Saying this as a synesthete: eh? Shrugging. It helps with some things.)
How much do you love this video we made? It got us a record number of artists taking a Scent Quiz. Go figure!
Thing is, synesthesia is only one item on a long list of culprits used to explain where artistic thinking came from. Tom Waits has his muse, and that’s an idea that’s old as stories. Socrates called his a daemon. And it used to be that people talked about “having a genius,” rather than being one. Interesting to note the history of the language.
People always want to know the cheat. I don’t know if there is one. There may be. From where I sit, it feels like the cheat is the will to work. But I’ve only ever been me.
There seems to be a lot of creativity among synesthetes, but not all creatives are synesthetes. That being said, a creative person can simulate synesthesia. They can, and they probably have to. With any given media, it’s impossible to engage ALL of the senses. And, I think you will find, most artists aren’t interested in doing that anyway. A musician might also be a scent technician, but they probably won’t be inventing a guitar that sprays the perfume they associate with each individual note they’re playing—although that might be cool.
Kristina from our Content Team recently interviewed Pat Duffy, the first synesthete to write a book about Synesthesia. Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens is a unique look at the quirky neurological phenomenon known as synesthesia. Sometimes described as a blending of perceptions, synesthesia occurs when one of the five senses is stimulated, yet two respond. This collision of sights, smells, sounds and tastes make for an odd, yet extremely colorful way of thinking!
Patricia Duffy draws from her own struggles and breakthroughs with synesthesia to help the reader better understand the condition.
Along the way she introduces us to among other things, the different variations of synesthesia, brilliant synesthetes from the past, the likelihood of inheriting synesthesia, and the ongoing research devoted to it and its frequent connections to the creative process. It seems that we've just discovered something we've previously suspected: Kristina is a synesthete which explains a lot. She's a vj.
No, I think that creative people like the challenge. That’s the real source of the magic.
I don’t think I’ve ever met an artist who’s trying to create a perfect representation of a whole anything. That would just be the thing, and that might have merit in itself it would raise some questions about value. Most artists seem more interested in creating a perfect experience of the smallest fragment of some greater whole, thus creating a whole out of that grain, thus suggesting that every whole is infinitely divisible and by that division increased in itself. Art doesn’t want to be the thing it’s representing. Art seems more interested in using a small set of tools to stimulate one or two senses and through them to engage the rest of our senses, and in that way to engage our sense of self.
Not all artists are synesthetes, but it does look like most art is synesthetic. Funny how that works.