Revealing the mind of a synaesthete

Health, Science 2017-03-04
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“Human life is but a series of footnotes to a vast obscure unfinished masterpiece” – Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita

Have you ever wondered if you’re not seeing the whole picture? Can science even define what the ‘whole picture is’ and categorise human sensation? What can we learn from the experiences of synaesthesia today?

Synaesthesia is one neurological example of how our brains truly do differentiate our senses from each other. There are many varied manifestations of synaesthesia, but they share the condition where one sense, such as hearing, triggers a sensation in another, such as taste.

Brain imaging studies have found that synaesthetic colour experience activates colour regions in the occipito-temporal cortex. Additionally, six brain regions are activated, these regions are in the motor and sensory regions as well as ‘higher level’ regions in the parietal and frontal lobe. This has led to scientific speculation that a synaesthete’s brain is wired differently or has extra connections.

Interestingly, this performs a spectrum of artistic characteristics in music, art and literature. I was first introduced to this phenomenon at a talk hosted by the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society. It is studied with as much interest by the arts as it is by science.


Many music artists of today have claimed possession of synaesthetic senses, such as Pharrell, Kanye West, Billy Joel and Stevie Wonder. Pharrell describes his ‘Happy’ 2013 single as “yellow with accents of mustard and sherbet orange”. Synaesthesia almost neurologically embodies the idea that people can have different ‘taste’ in the arts.

My favourite example of synaesthesia at work is in Vladimir Nabokov’s masterpiece Lolita, where much of the language is chiastic (ABBA) to create alliterative and musical sounds. Nabokov himself had grapheme- colour synaesthesia, which is the association of colours with numbers and letters. Some synaesthetes say his prose reads as if it were meant to be visually pleasing, almost like a word painting.

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”

Here, Nabokov imagines the syllables of Lolita walking in his ‘palate’ to ‘teeth’. It contends that his beautiful idea of Lolita does not come from a physical person but is created from the sensory feeling of her syllables inside his head. We could argue the narrator’s love for Lolita stems from a vivid synaesthetic experience.

So are we non-synaesthetes missing out? Most synaesthetes claim that they feel sorry for those people without the condition. Yet, it’s not without its negatives too, such as feeling intensely disgusted by common sounds or words. Personally, I think synaesthesia is still relatable to those without the condition. Nabokov reiterates this idea that synaesthesia is an extrapolation of taste, and allows one to experience the world more intensely:

“I am therefore inclined to think of my synaesthesia as an extension of the typical writer’s overinvestment in words: an extension…”

What are your thoughts on taste and synaesthesia? Do you think science can understand it better by analysing art? Send me your Qs via Twitter @ZaraAtNotch