Sight, smell, taste, touch, sound. . . synesthesia?
Updated: Oct 5, 2020
I first came across the condition known as synesthesia while watching an episode of Australian medical drama 'All Saints' maybe 10 or so years ago (yes, I am a closet fan). My interest in the condition was recently reignited while listening to a recent episode of Clare Press’ podcast Wardrobe Crisis, featuring up-cycling queen, co-founder of Fashion Revolution, and teacher at Central Saint Martins, Orsola de Castro. The interview takes place in de Castro's Hong Kong apartment, to which she introduces the view as;
“I love the view in Hong Kong, it’s so pattern-y.”
So what is synesthesia?
Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which sensory or cognitive input leads to atypical output. For example, imagine hearing music, and simultaneously sensing he sound as patterns of colour.
This blending of the senses is experienced by only a minority, with estimates in the range of 3-5% of the population. Every individuals experience of synesthesia is however different, with more than 60 types. Some of the more common forms include:
Grapheme-colour synesthetes might "see" the days of the week, letters and numbers as particular colours
Lexical-gustatory synaesthetes experience a particular taste in their mouth when they hear a given word
Odour-visual/spatial synaesthetes see shapes, movement and colours when they detect certain smells
Chromesthesia involves the perception of colours after hearing certain sounds
Spatial-sequence synesthesia is the visualisation of numbers, such as dates and times, as points in space
One way to look at it: Illusion verses hallucination
I have to admit, I really struggled (and still do) to imagine what it would be like to hear colours, or taste words.
One way that has helped me to think of it however, is as a kind of misperception of the world. You have illusions, which are a misperception of a trait of an actual object, and hallucinations, which are perceptions of an object that aren’t actually there. Take a grapheme-colour synesthete for example (as described earlier), who might see the days of the week as particular colours. This, in a nutshell, could be described as 'misperceiving' a trait related to the days of the week (the days of the week are not actually coloured). This experience could be considered illusory. On the contrary, a synesthete who experiences non-existing landscapes in response to fear is seeing something that doesn’t exist - this experience is hallucinatory.
Many individuals with synestehisa are aware that the world isn’t the way that they see it -“known illusion” or a “known hallucination”. Consider the famous Muller-Lyer Illusion (which may take you back to your graduate psych days). Here you have a perceptual appearance of two line fragments being of unequal length, resulting from the overestimation in line length of the configuration with arrowheads pointing inwards (> <), and an underestimation when the arrowheads are pointing outwards (< >), when in actuality the lines are equal. This is a “known illusion” because you know that what you experience isn’t so.
Synesthesia in the creative industry
Iris van Harpen
While researching for this blog I stumbled across the 2010 couture collection of Dutch fashion designer, Iris van Harpen. Titled Synesthesia, this collection visually captured the 'entanglement of sensory perceptions' experienced by syntesthetes, with the illusory designs featuring specially treated leather, and shiny metal foil. Described as treating the human form as an ‘extremely receptive, hypersensitive, and fragile whole’, van Harpen also incorporated ‘hypersensitive, vibrating instruments and extra receptors’, providing the wearer with an new experience of the world.
I was unaware that American singer, songwriter, producer, entrepreneur and fashion designer, Pharrell Williams is a synesthete. He has been credited with introducing a new generation to the condition, with his third album with band N.E.R.D. (No One Really Dies), titled”Seeing Sounds”, focusing its content on synesthesia.
Williams has commented that he can't remember a time that he didn't associate music with colours he sees in his mind's eye.
“It’s my only reference for understanding. I don’t think I would have what some people would call talent and what I would call a gift. The ability to see and feel [this way] was a gift given to me that I did not have to have. And if it was taken from me suddenly I’m not sure that I could make music. I wouldn’t be able to keep up with it. I wouldn’t have a measure to understand.”
It was also fascinating to learn that Canadian singer, songwriter and instrumentalist, Alessia Cara, reflects the colours she sees in her performances, including some of her outfit choices. I have included a link below to her ‘Here’ video, where it is instantly apparent that it is purple.
"Most people don't believe [I have synesthesia], they're just like, 'Yeah, yeah, whatever' and I'm just like, 'No, I swear, it's true!' I see songs in colors, I see days of the week. Each day of the week I relate to a gender and it's very weird. I can taste words sometimes. It's very strange.”
Now, I know the previous two examples are not ‘fashion’ specific, but this doesn’t take away from the fascinating nature of this condition - and, there are reportedly many other big name syntesthetes (e.g. Geoffrey Rush, Lady Gaga, Charlie XCX, and Vincent van Gogh).
Could syntesthetes be the answer to helping us better understand the neuroscience of creativity?!