Synesthesia anesthesia

What colour is cool? Synesthesia is a hot topic amongst artists, and on the Internet. There it is. I’ve just used words from the vocabulary of touch sensation (cool and hot) applied to something visual (colour) and something abstract (a topic).

The painter and theorist Wassily Kandinsky went further in describing in terms of heat the characteristics of the humble blank square, or at least the “basic plane” (BP) to which the painter applies the first horizontal or vertical strokes.

When the one or the other pair [horizontal or vertical] predominates, either in the width or height of the BP, this preponderance determines in any particular case the predominance of the cold or the warm in the objective sound. Thus, from the start, the individual elements are brought into a colder or warmer atmosphere, and later on this condition cannot be completely eliminated due to the greater number of opposing elements — a fact which should never be forgotten (p.115).

Three well-dressed women with umbrellas dancing under fountain's water jetsHe concludes this difficult (and perhaps forgettable) paragraph by referring to extremes that “can lead to painful, and, indeed, unbearable sensations.” Whatever he means by this and other theories in Point and Line to Plane, there’s certainly a conflation of the senses: sight, hearing, touch, and the detection of visual imagery, sounds, heat and pain. All senses are mixed in.

This alternation or conflation of the senses is a common literary trope, simply described as the use of “sensual imagery,” undoubtedly a subtle art. From John Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale we read “I cannot see what flowers are at my feet; Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,” arguably combining sight, touch, weight and smell in the one sensory experience. It would presumably have appeared less of a synesthetic reflection had Keats said simply: “It’s dark so I can’t see the flowers on the ground nor see the heavily scented blossoms still on the branches.” He’s also saying what he can’t see, which introduces the interesting proposition of denying synesthetic experience. All of this places synesthesia nicely under the umbrella of metaphor.

Clinical synesthesia

The conflation of the senses relates to synesthesia as a psychological condition. Neurologist Richard Cytowic explains this.

The word synesthesia, meaning “joined sensation”, shares a root with anesthesia, meaning “no sensation.” It denotes the rare capacity to hear colors, taste shapes, or experience other equally startling sensory blendings whose quality seems difficult for most of us to imagine. A synesthete might describe the color, shape, and flavor of someone’s voice, or music whose sound looks like “shards of glass,” a scintillation of jagged, colored triangles moving in the visual field. Or, seeing the color red, a synesthete might detect the “scent” of red as well. The experience is frequently projected outside the individual, rather than being an image in the mind’s eye. I currently estimate that 1/25,000 individuals is born to a world where one sensation involuntarily conjures up others, sometimes all five clashing together. I suspect this figure is far too low. (Cytowic, 1989, 1993)

Elsewhere he asserts that genuine synesthetes are not speaking metaphorically when they say they see colours at the same time they hear sounds. On the other hand according to neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran, synesthesia provides a clue to our understanding of how we generate and deal with metaphor, proffering an explanation in terms of neural cross-wiring and cross-activation.

… just as synesthesia involves making arbitrary links between seemingly unrelated perceptual entities like colors and numbers, metaphor involves making nonarbitrary links between seemingly unrelated conceptual realms.

Perhaps it’s reasuring for artists, designers and poets who include metaphor in their creative palette to know they are in touch with the basics of human cognition.

What’s a hot topic anyway?

If Google is anything to go by, in June 2012 the metric at the top of a Google results page for “synesthesia” showed 15.9 million results. By way of comparison, “anesthesia” returned 38.7 million, “metaphor” 34.3 million, “Arab spring” 12.4 million, “symbolism” 5.7 million, and “kleptomania” 0.27 million. What’s a cold topic? “Transilience,” “schizothemia,” “nomadology,” and “basic plane” only number in the thousands. Is relating number to temperature and quality metaphor or synesthesia?


  • Cytowic, Richard E. 1995. Synesthesia: phenomenology and neuropsychology – A review of current knowledge. PSYCHE, (2) 10, http://psyche.csse.monash.edu.au/v2/psyche-2-10-cytowic.html.
  • Cytowic, Richard E. 1989. Synesthesis: A Union of the Senses. New York: Springer-Verlag.
  • Cytowic, Richard E. 1998. The man who tasted shapes: a bizarre medical mystery offers revolutionary insights into emotions, reasoning and consciousness. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Cytowic, Richard E. 1995. Synesthesia: phenomenology and neuropsychology – A review of current knowledge. PSYCHE, (2) 10, http://psyche.csse.monash.edu.au/v2/psyche-2-10-cytowic.html.
  • Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. 1980. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press.
  • Ramachandran, V.S. 2011. The Tell-Tail Brain: Unlocking the Mysteries of Human Nature. London: William Heinemann.

Also see Nomadology and colour, I am Spartacus, This is not a hideout, and Digital metaphors and the baroque.

About Richard Coyne

The cultural, social and spatial implications of computers and pervasive digital media spark my interest ... enjoy architecture, writing, designing, philosophy, coding and media mashups.


2 thoughts on “Synesthesia anesthesia

  1. The conflation of the senses in Kandinsky’s work, “sight, hearing, touch, and the detection of visual imagery, sounds, heat and pain” mixed in remains me of some experience about my friend. She like to hurt herself with sharp knife on the skin of her wrist when she was a teenager(deliberate self-harm (DSH), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-harm). At that time I don’t have any idea about synesthesia, however, as she is smart and outgoing without mental disease, I believe (at that time) that the pain she felt might not only stimulate physical excitement, but also lead to a cross-sensory phenomena, and she did told me, that these pain trigger off consistent illusions which she enjoyed in. Is this multi-sensory cross touch and vision can be seen as a kind of synesthesia, as it is also involuntary and neurological phenomenon?

    Besides, when I first saw this synesthesia topic (in neurological definition rather than as a literary tropes), it immediately make me think about an article in my deserted old blog (just daily mumble) I wrote 4 years ago (http://www.blogbus.com/kimohow-logs/ 102645951.html), involuntarily mentioned about my preference in the four symbols in poker. Specifically, I like Club most. It gives me an impression of modesty, quiet, mysterious and a sense of distant, while the Diamond feels like trenchant and fragile, Spade feels like cold, proud and isolated, and Heart feels like mincement. So I took part in the synesthesia test online from The Synesthesia Battery, TEST, http://synesthete.org/pretest_start.php? action=register&remail=&semail=&ch=synesthete.org , it turned out that … I have no typical synesthsia at all. However, it makes me even more curious about how a “normal” people feel about synesthesia, and how they could use it if similar phenomena happens to them. (Then I choose synesthesia as my essay topic;)

    Posted by kimo | December 13, 2014, 2:16 pm


  1. Pingback: Are you aware of your brain? | Reflections on Digital Media & Culture - April 20, 2013

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