Category Archives: Psychology

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.



Why you really are stronger than you think.


We spend so much of our mental lives travelling backwards and forwards through the dark tunnel of time, gathering fragments of light that enable us to reconstruct the past and forecast the future. Psychology has provided some very counter intuitive insights on the processes by which we reach past the boundaries of the present (beyond which, nothing is certain). One of these is immune neglect.

Immune neglect is our blindness to our own psychological and emotional durability. It refers to people’s “failure to anticipate how much their psychological immune systems will hasten their recovery” when bad things happen (Gilbert et al, 1998). Subjective happiness is remarkably stable, and most events do little to change it. When bad things happen, immune mechanisms kick in, helping us to rationalize, reconstruct and minimize the impact negative events have on us. So we are able to rapidly make sense of things that happen to us, but because these processes operate outside of conscious awareness, we often don’t realize how durable we are. When asked to forecast the emotional impact future negative events will have on them, people’s estimations are significantly greater than ratings by people actually experiencing that particular event.

Part of this bias is due to focalism – the tendency to neglect other events in our lives which will influence our thoughts and emotions, as though negative events occur in vacuums. In reality, our lives are really not quite as empty as we think they are.

“You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we’re apart… I’ll always be with you.” ~ A.A. Milne

Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2003). Affective forecasting. Advances in experimental social psychology35, 345-411.