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Synaesthesia: The Fascinating Sensory Phenomenon You Need to Know About

Daniel Arwas January 11 2023

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Synaesthesia is the rare ability to interpret one sense as another: People with synaesthesia can often hear colours, taste feelings or smell sounds. How does this psychological condition work, and what does it mean for contemporary artists and the art community?

Have you ever found yourself thinking about how green the number 5 is? Or how Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.6 tastes rather salty? Have you ever felt the bass of a Phil Collins solo on the small of your back, or seen the clear outline of musical notes as they dance around your eardrums? If you have, that is amazing. As for those of you who have not had such experiences, or wish to know more, the above instances depict a psychological condition called synaesthesia.

Synaesthesia, derived from the Ancient Greek words “synth” and “ethesia”, meaning ‘to perceive together’, is a seldom spoken about and moderately uncommon ability in which people recognize one sense as another. People with this ability may visualize happiness as a colour, or hear anguish as a letter. At this point you, as an insightful contemporary artist or art lover, may be thinking - “well yes, I often associate anger with the colour red, and feel joyful whenever I hear the song “Perfect Day” from Legally Blonde. Or perhaps you feel a wash of sadness drift over you every time you smell your grandmother’s baked cookies coming straight from the oven.

Whilst comparable, these are a completely separate genre of mental responses; they are conditioned through taught metaphors. We learn at an early age that anger looks red - the colour of blood and war. Songs that have upbeat tunes that allow us to reminisce about nostalgic, simpler times will always give us a feeling of happiness. And of course, Pavlovian teachings note that individual responses to specific smells often create the most powerful associations with our memory.

Synaesthesia is the very specific, unlearned and biological interweaving of our perception from one sense to another. Some people clearly taste the colour yellow as a crisp, clean musical note of the number five. While others may simply hear certain sounds and subsequently picture the shapes associated with them. Many artists and art enthusiasts believe synaesthesia is an indication of genius-level intellect (cue all readers vividly remembering the last time they felt that they heard the colour blue). Although modern research seems to have disputed this claim, it seems simply to be more of a purely genetic, biological condition.

Regardless of where it comes from, the implications are fascinating for art lovers: Imagine being able to see Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, one of the greatest pieces of music ever written. Consider the idea that you could taste a Lucien Freud painting, or feel a Jackson Pollock masterpiece (if you believe that to be possible) on the base of your spine. Sounds crazy and fantastical at the same time. For long-standing members of the art community who are constantly trying to find different ways to interact with each other’s art, synaesthesia presents a fascinating potential to perceive art in completely new, uncharted fashions.

Some experts believe that up to 4% of people are synesthetes, although others claim that the figure lies closer to 1 in 2000 (0.25%), depending on the register of which one fully defines “synaesthesia.” This means that contemporary artists could theoretically create completely new artwork pieces and exhibitions to engage the incredible sensory experiences of those who have synaesthesia. Indeed, this may challenge many other members of the art community to see how synesthetes see the world, how they associate ideas and sense, and infuse multiple sensory experiences with one another, to give audiences a feeling of how it might feel to have this unique talent.

Many art enthusiasts would adore being able to cross-reference one sense with another, but this postmodern notion of manifold sensory art is a concept that has been introduced previously. Museums as high profile as the Met in New York have been displaying exhibitions that engage smell, hearing and touch in addition to sight, that art lovers from around the globe have come to pore over. What’s unique about synaesthesia is the ability to have this extra-sensory experience without having to create links between senses, as the individual mind can do it for itself all on its own. It is a thoroughly thought-provoking psychological phenomenon and one that certainly deserves more attention than it is shown.

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