Artists, Metaphor and Synaesthesia

Over the years many have noted that there seem to be a disproportionate number of artists, writers and musicians who have synaesthesia.

Synaesthesia is a condition where two senses are activated at the same time. Some synaesthetes see colours when they hear music or see numbers, others may spontaneously adopt a particular body position when they hear a particular sound. In an article in The Guardian, synaesthete and singer-songwriter Soraria says, “”Tuesdays are always yellowish, Mondays are white. And numbers have shapes.”

Brain scans reveal that Synaesthetes actually experience simultaneous activation of usually separate areas in the brain. And one interesting observation is that the most common types of synaesthesia involve the activation of pairs of brain areas that are very close together.

From this, it has been suggested that synaesthesia is due to an excess of cross-connections between certain brain areas (Ramachandran and Hubbard, 2001). Hence, whenever one area is activated (numbers), the other is activated at the same time (colours).

This could explain why Synaesthesia is more common in artists and poets. The cross-wiring hypothesis proposes that cross-wiring enables “linking to seemingly unrelated realms in order to highlight a hidden deep similarity”.

Ramachandran and Hubbard present a metaphor from Shakespeare – “It is the East and Juliet is the sun”. Reading this, the brain “instantly forms the right links”. We understand that Juliet is like the sun – warm and radiant, not that she is a ball of Hydrogen.

The writers explain – “We can think of metaphors as involving cross-activation of conceptual maps in a manner analogous to cross-activation of perceptual maps in synaesthesia”.

So while we all have a capacity for metaphor (and indeed all experience synaesthetic links to a certain extent), synaesthetes are born meaning mappers.

Doesn’t that just make you want to have synaesthesia? What a world to sink deep into, one unseen, yet ever tangible as your senses get entangled in these shifting currents, the density of meaning.

Ramachandran, V. S., & Hubbard, E. M. (2001). Synaesthesia--a window into perception, thought and language. Journal of consciousness studies8(12), 3-34.

 

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