DECEMBER 15, 2004

Tangled up in blue notes

Research into synaesthesia keeps advancing
— but would we even want a 'cure'?

Imagine listening to Miles Davis' Kind of Blue and seeing the musical notes as a beautiful cascade of colours. It may sound wonderful — but what if, also, every time you heard a vacuum cleaner you felt an itch between your toes? Welcome to the world of synaesthesia, a condition where so-called 'synaesthetes' perceive stimuli to one sense (like smell) simultaneously with one or more of the other senses (such as sight or hearing).

"Synaesthesia is a subjective experience so the only way to know about it is through what people tell us," says Dr Phil Merikle, a psychologist and co-director of the Synaesthesia Research Centre at the University of Waterloo. The most common form of synaesthesia is grapheme synaesthesia, where colours are associated with letters and digits. Seeing the letter "Q" might trigger a vision of green, while the number "5" might trigger a fuchsia explosion. For some synaesthetes, a specific sound — such as birds chirping outside the window — might cause them to see streaks of purple. For others, a word such as "poetry" might trigger the smell of bubble gum. While some synaesthetes literally experience these second senses, others only experience the association in their mind.

As for what causes the condition, the jury is still out. "There is a lot of speculation right now," says Dr Merikle, who was once told by a synaesthete that his name made her taste peanut butter. One generally held belief is that the condition is rooted in a neurological anomaly. But some evidence suggests that synaesthesia can also be passed on genetically.

Dr Daphne Maurer, a psychologist at McMaster University, suggests we are all born with the condition, but our nervous system develops by "pruning" neurons and eventually separating our senses. Synaesthesia therefore develops when the pruning process is incomplete.

"Exactly what's [causing it] is where much research is going on," says Dr Elizabeth Pector, a synaesthete and family physician in Chicago. "We know there may be some association with attention deficit disorder or autistic disorders." But not everyone views synaesthesia as a problem to be cured.

"Some synaesthetes see it as more of a trait or a different way of seeing the world, rather than something that is to be treated or fixed," says Dr Pector.

There may even be a 'mystical' component to synaesthesia: a recent paper by Dr Jamie Ward in the October issue of Cognitive Neuropsychology suggests that the coloured "aura" seen by psychics and healers may be a rare manifestation of the synaesthesia where people associate colours with emotions.

Some of the most famous synaesthetes are prominent musicians. It's questionable if we really would have wanted to 'cure' synaesthete trumpeter Miles Davis — whose Kind of Blue inspired a whole new era of 'cool' jazz. Elvin Jones, the legendary jazz drummer, associated colours with his cymbals and drums. And virtuoso violinist Itzhak Perlman is widely believed to be a synaesthete, though he has been known to deny having the condition. Synaesthetes may have an advantage in music, since they are able to "see" the notes in addition to hearing them says Dr Merikle. But like Mr Perlman, many with the condition are either unaware they have it or choose to not acknowledge it in order to avoid being seen as different.

"It is important for doctors to know about [synaesthesia] because they could have people coming in [with it]," says Dr Merikle, whose research is challenging long-held views of the condition.

"Up until a year ago, everyone accepted that one in every 2000 people has synaesthesia," he says. "The other accepted number is that there is a 5:1 or 6:1 female to male ratio for synaesthetes." New research from his group and others finds that one in 200 people may have the condition, and that there might not be a gender bias at all.

Though there are accepted tests for diagnosing certain types of synaesthesia, the condition is not curable and there are no treatments — which may be a good thing for the future of music.

For more on synaesthesia visit Dr Pector's site: and the Synaesthesia Research Centre:



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