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Old 07-27-2010, 02:42 AM
antonio107 is offline
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Sound Colour Synesthesia


I have a question for the cynical and skeptical types on here! I am a student of music, and in a few of my grad classes, I got into a heated (but civil and respectful) debate on the nature of synesthesia as it pertains to music.

My initial reaction to an inexplicable phenomenon is to call bullshit. My professor attempted to counter by citing examples of people who swore they saw colours when certain pitches were being played. I've seen little segments on the Discovery channel when researchers try to see what's going on in the brain when this "phenomenon" takes place, yet I never bothered to watch them the whole way through.

My first problem with this is that synestheses (or whatever the noun is) can't seem to agree on what sound produces what colour. There's no objective "colour" for any type of music or sound, except for very metaphoric language that's culturally encoded (playing the "blues," for example).

The example my professor tried to give as the definitive "proof" that this wasn't a bunch of self-deluded people was Olivier Messiaen, who claimed to have this talent. One of his students, as an anecdote goes, played a very complex chord (some very precise combination of 6 or 7 notes in an octave; like a cluster, but the student made sure to remember which notes he picked). Messiaen described the notes and all the different colours and shades which he felt in there. The student would then replay many years later when they met after a long hiatus. He played the same chord, and Messiaen described the same colours, word for word.

Now, my inclination is to say that it is nothing more than proof of an extremely adept and trained ear. He didn't *see* the colours of the notes, because there was nothing for his eyes to perceive. Everything about it seems akin to ESP and teleknesis, and yet I don't even know how to tackle this problem one way or another.

Where's the burden of proof? Do I need someone to "prove" to me that they can see colors, and if so, how would one propose going about "proving" that? Or, has there already been studies which prove (or disprove) anything related to this phenomenon?

Thanks in advance!
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Old 07-27-2010, 03:21 AM
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I have synesthesia regarding letters, numbers, musical notes, chords and keys. Unlike some people I don't literally "see" the colors, but I know what color an item is. The best analogy would be looking at a black-and-white photo of a landscape. You're just seeing shades of gray, yet you "know" the grass is green.

One interesting fact is that the synesthesia works in only one direction. I know that the letter "M" is brown, but actually seeing a brown color doesn't evoke "M-ness."

Regarding music, I don't have any idea what it would be like to literally "see" colors based on particular sounds, yet I nevertheless know what the colors are. It shouldn't be difficult to set up a double-blind experiment; I'd be very interested in the results.
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Old 07-27-2010, 03:49 AM
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Tough one! I'm not exactly sure how it would be for others. Whenever this came up when studying music, I never thought that they would be "flat" or stationary colors. If something sounded "blue", wouldn't the shades still change a lot as the notes play in a "blue"sounding song? SHades of cerrulian, periwinkle and navy mixed in there?

If I had this, I think I would see a #4 minor seventh chord as at least 6 or 7 colors.
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Old 07-27-2010, 10:16 AM
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Wasn't this one of the superpowers on Heroes?
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Old 07-27-2010, 10:26 AM
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There appears to be a neurological basis for synesthesia, which indicates that it's not bullshit. This article is old but it gives some of the details.

Quote:
Perhaps most intriguing as arguments for the ''realness'' of synesthetic phenomena, however, are the handful of brain studies that show differences in brain functioning of subjects who have synesthesia. In 1982, Dr. Richard Cytowic, a Washington neurologist and the author of ''The Man Who Tasted Shapes'' (Putnam, 1993), led the way by measuring brain metabolism in a single synesthetic subject -- a man who at a dinner party announced that the meal would be late because ''there are not enough points on the chicken.'' Dr. Cytowic found that during synesthetic experiences, the man showed decreased blood flow in brain areas of the cortex responsible for language and abstract thought -- findings the neurologist argued were indications that synesthetes were not simply using their imaginations or playing with language.

A more sophisticated PET scanning study, published in 1996 in the journal Brain by Dr. Eraldo Paulesu, Dr. Baron-Cohen and colleagues, compared brain functioning in six synesthetes to that in six members of a control group. The subjects, all women, were blindfolded and listened to sound cues delivered through headphones. Synesthetes, the researchers found, showed increased activation in some areas of the visual cortex when responding to sounds; control subjects did not.
The quote is on page two. And if anybody was wondering, Simon Baron-Cohen is related to Sacha Baron Cohen.

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Originally Posted by antonio107 View Post
My first problem with this is that synestheses (or whatever the noun is) can't seem to agree on what sound produces what colour. There's no objective "colour" for any type of music or sound, except for very metaphoric language that's culturally encoded (playing the "blues," for example).
Why would there be agreement? This is something that happens in a person's mind. It's a property of their brains, not of the words or numbers or whatever triggers it for them. They're experiencing activation of two senses at the same time, not extrasensory perception. The word for people with synesthesia, by the way, is synesthetes.
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Old 07-27-2010, 10:26 AM
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I've experienced synesthesia as an effect of psylocibin, many years ago - in that case, strains of music brought to mind certain colours. Not being trained to music, it is difficult to describe, but it is I think a 'real' neurological effect and has nothing to do with non-rational mental powers.

It is more like a mental association. Many people (for example) have such emotional associations - certain strains of music make them "sad", "romantic" or "excited", seem "heavy" or "light". In certain people (or under the influence of certain drugs) those associations get "crossed" with the parts of the mind that process colour or texture.

Thus is is partly objective (in that for a paerticular person it will be reproducable) and partly subjective, since every person's perceptions will be different.
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Old 07-27-2010, 10:51 AM
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Originally Posted by antonio107 View Post
He didn't *see* the colours of the notes, because there was nothing for his eyes to perceive. Everything about it seems akin to ESP and teleknesis, and yet I don't even know how to tackle this problem one way or another.
Nobody's claiming that synesthesia is related to the supernatural. The consensus seems to be that it's a result of increased connectivity between parts of the brain that don't normally talk to each other. Like any neurological quirk, the details (of what color maps to what sound, etc.) vary from person to person.

Some people get weak mental associations like Malthus's, others have more direct, sensory-like experiences.

And the fact that the colors perceived are generated by an internal process doesn't make them any less real than the bright spots you see when you press on your closed eyes, the blind spots in the vision of people who have had strokes, or even normal color vision. (Read up on the background of some famous optical illusions and you'll see that much of the color and contrast we see is constructed in the brain, not objectively out there.)

Wikipedia gives a good, cite-filled overview of the testing methods used to validate synesthetic experiences. Consistency over time is one measure; even normal synesthetes who aren't famous composers have awesome test-retest reliability, and you can confuse them on a Stroop test (the color words that are printed in the wrong colors--you've probably seen one) using various colored musical stimuli or numbers or what-have-you.

It's fun stuff--this is why people get excited about brain science.
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Old 07-27-2010, 11:17 AM
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TED Talks has a really interesting discussion by Dr. Vilyanur Ramachandran on the neurological basis of synesthesia. The relevant part begins at around 17:40, but the whole thing is worth watching if you have time. Fascinating stuff!
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Old 07-28-2010, 02:50 PM
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I have to reiterate what others have said. Though I've had synesthesia since a very early age (and until recently thought I was the only one), there's nothing supernatural or mystical or irrational about it. It's not some kind of "gift" or "power" that's bestowed on some people and not others. It's just a quirky thing that happens in some people's brains.
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Old 07-28-2010, 05:15 PM
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When I have high fever, I have a peculiar synaesthesia involving numbers. "8" gives me a feeling of pressure (as in like being dropped in a vat of gel) and "e" (as in, the base of the natural logarithm) gives me a feeling of "guilt about a murder I've committed" (I haven't committed murder).

Last edited by Anduril; 07-28-2010 at 05:16 PM.
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Old 07-28-2010, 05:58 PM
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and "e" (as in, the base of the natural logarithm) gives me a feeling of "guilt about a murder I've committed" (I haven't committed murder).
That's irrational.

(On the upside, I doubt this comes up much.)
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Old 07-28-2010, 06:07 PM
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It's actually quite rationa....oh you mean the value of e? Gotcha!

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Old 07-28-2010, 06:13 PM
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Old 07-28-2010, 06:20 PM
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stuff you should know did a podcast on this. The tidbit I thought was way cool was an experiment where they had people sort cards with numbers on them (or it might have been 5's and S's), anyway, the synesthetes could sort them super-fast because even though the cards were all B&W, they 'saw' colors and could sort them out quicker.
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Old 07-28-2010, 06:52 PM
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Originally Posted by antonio107 View Post
My first problem with this is that synestheses (or whatever the noun is) can't seem to agree on what sound produces what colour. There's no objective "colour" for any type of music or sound, except for very metaphoric language that's culturally encoded (playing the "blues," for example).
Of course not. As others have already said, synesthesia has nothing to do with objective reality. Of course, sound doesn't actually have color, but that doesn't mean people can't perceive it that way.

It's the same as dreams. Dreams aren't consistent from person to person (or even for the same person). That's because dreams don't accurately represent the real world. But we still experience them.
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Old 07-30-2010, 05:40 PM
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I can never read anything about synesthesia with thinking of one of my favorite last lines in SciFi - "What smells purple?"
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Old 07-30-2010, 05:46 PM
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I don't know if this relates to the topic since it's not about music synesthstesia, but there are other kinds. Some people have already mentioned number/color for example. My mom is blind and I've been researching this freeware application that uses sound to help blind people navigate. That's all it was intended to do. However, sight is such a strong sense, that people who had sight and use this have claimed that they are now able to "see" using the program. So far we haven't tried this with my mom since she's still easily frustrated at this point. I'm worried with the high learning curve with this product that she'll try it and quit so we're waiting while I get everything tested and ready. Hopefully she'll be able to make the leap and begin to "see" with this product as well.

http://www.seeingwithsound.com/javoice.htm

The nice thing is the longer I hold off, the smaller and smaller the laptops are getting. I'm pretty confident now about getting this to work for her. In just the last year, laptop have gotten noticeably lighter and smaller. I'm just hoping there's going to be a breakthrough in battery life soon.
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Old 07-30-2010, 07:10 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by antonio107 View Post
My initial reaction to an inexplicable phenomenon is to call bullshit.
Except... it's not inexplicable. There is a actually an explanation for it now based on brain science.

Quote:
My first problem with this is that synestheses (or whatever the noun is) can't seem to agree on what sound produces what colour. There's no objective "colour" for any type of music or sound, except for very metaphoric language that's culturally encoded (playing the "blues," for example).
That's because synthethesia is based upon unusual brain wiring which varies from person to person. It's like saying fingerprints don't exist because no two are alike.

Quote:
Where's the burden of proof? Do I need someone to "prove" to me that they can see colors, and if so, how would one propose going about "proving" that? Or, has there already been studies which prove (or disprove) anything related to this phenomenon?

Thanks in advance!
The Man Who Tasted Shapes by Cytowic has already been mentioned but I think the 2009 update Wednesday is Indigo Blue is more what you're looking for. It's a discussion of the current state of the science in layman's terms with a healthy description of how they test for true synesthesia vs. metaphoric associations, which I think is one of the things you're asking about.

I suggest you get a copy of the book and read it, which should be helpful to your understanding.
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Old 07-31-2010, 01:13 AM
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Wednesday is Indigo Blue
That's a very misleading title; everyone knows, Wednesday is yellow.
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Old 07-31-2010, 01:38 AM
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I have a little bit of synesthesia (zero is white; five is brown; four is green; two is yellow; nine is indigo; six is blue). I don't for a minute think it's supernatural; it's just some interesting connections in my brain.
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Old 07-31-2010, 04:55 AM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by antonio107 View Post
My first problem with this is that synestheses (or whatever the noun is) can't seem to agree on what sound produces what colour. There's no objective "colour" for any type of music or sound, except for very metaphoric language that's culturally encoded (playing the "blues," for example).
Well, that's to be expected since synesthesia is caused by cross-wiring in the brain that shouldn't be there and only happens by accident and/or trauma... That would be like you saying "all schyzophrenics don't have the same hallucinations, therefore schyzophrenia's fake". The most you can expect is internal consistency.

Quote:
The example my professor tried to give as the definitive "proof" that this wasn't a bunch of self-deluded people was Olivier Messiaen, who claimed to have this talent. One of his students, as an anecdote goes, played a very complex chord (some very precise combination of 6 or 7 notes in an octave; like a cluster, but the student made sure to remember which notes he picked). Messiaen described the notes and all the different colours and shades which he felt in there. The student would then replay many years later when they met after a long hiatus. He played the same chord, and Messiaen described the same colours, word for word.

Now, my inclination is to say that it is nothing more than proof of an extremely adept and trained ear. He didn't *see* the colours of the notes, because there was nothing for his eyes to perceive. Everything about it seems akin to ESP and teleknesis, and yet I don't even know how to tackle this problem one way or another.
I'm not sure sound synaesthetes actually see a particular colour when the sound is played (that would be extremely trippy, wouldn't it ?), they merely automatically asociate a given pitch with a different sensation or concept. Sort of like a "normal" person could say somebody "looks like a Steven" - it's not like there's a quantifiable Steven-ness that only they can perceive, or that Stevens appear different to them, it's just a deep feeling you can't quite shake.
At least, that's how my SO tries to explain it.

Quote:
Where's the burden of proof? Do I need someone to "prove" to me that they can see colors, and if so, how would one propose going about "proving" that?
I'd suggest duplicating the anecdote you quoted above : get yourself a sound/sight synesthete, play him a hundred different tunes and jot down how they describe it. Then jumble the order of the tunes and do it again a day, week or month later and see how well they match. Even if it's a fib, it'd be very difficult for them to remember which fib goes with which tune.
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Old 07-31-2010, 06:50 PM
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Originally Posted by antonio107 View Post
He didn't *see* the colours of the notes, because there was nothing for his eyes to perceive.
This is where you're wrong. Clearly you don't understand what synesthesia is. Synesthesia causes the person to perceive a stimulus with more than one sense, and sound-color synaesthetes literally see color as the aberrant sensation, not just "feel it" or imagine it. With the eyes closed, it's a flash of color than interrupts the darkness you usually see, and with the eyes open it's a wavering of color at the edges of your sight. I find the former a lot more irritating than the latter, because it keeps me from falling asleep some nights, like bike week (to me noisy bikes sound purple, ftr).

It's not uncommon for sound-color synaesthetes to wonder if there's something wrong with their brains when they first become aware of their "ability" because you're not supposed to see anything when you hear things. Do you think we'd worry about our things like brain tumors or halucinations if it sounds only evoked the imagination?
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Old 08-01-2010, 02:15 AM
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I knew a number-color synesthete. Not artistic at all, instead very analytical and extremely skeptical, would not ever have attributed it to ESP or whatever. But was very definite that certain colors would come very strongly into his mind whenever certain numbers were presented to him.

He also had that thing where you sneeze when there's sudden bright light. As long as we are talking about oddball neurological phenomena. I thought he was pulling my leg. Nope.
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Old 08-01-2010, 02:32 AM
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Einstein reported seeing shapes and (I believe) colors that went with the shapes. And some guy named "Daniel," whom I've seen on a few TV specials, is a math freak that says he interfaces with math via colored shapes. Like the number "7" is perhaps a yellow oblong shape that is bent toward one end. Different numbers have their own shape/color, and combinations have their own. He's one of these guys that can carry pi to umpteen decimal places for hours at a time and think the fifth power of 2,743 faster than you can log it into a computer ("I would use a calculator, but it's faster to do it in my head!). I've heard of several genius types who use this same medium for remembering and calculating data.
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Old 08-01-2010, 06:49 PM
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This is where you're wrong. Clearly you don't understand what synesthesia is.
There's more than one type of synesthesia, both quantitatively and qualitatively. Many (most?) of us don't literally see the colors, but we know what the colors are. For me, it's like looking at a grayscale photo, and just "knowing" that the grass is green and the sky is blue.

I remember when I was in kindergarten, and we had to cut letters and numbers out of construction paper. Even by that age I already knew what most of the colors should be, and I accused the other kids of using the "wrong" colors. My eyes were seeing the actual colors of the paper, but my brain knew what the colors should have been.

As an artist, I've done a little experimentation with this . . . painting letters and numbers with the wrong colors. They have a very jarring effect, and I can't look at them for long.
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Old 08-01-2010, 07:03 PM
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fMRI imaging of synesthetes is giving us much greater insight into how the brain is working when they have these types of jumbled senses. In most cases it appears that the brain in is active in much different areas for synesthetic senses than it would be for our normal senses. For many it can actually prove to be a benefit. Daniel Tammet is a Savant/Synesthete who has a very light case of Asperger's (as opposed to most savants who are usually highly autistic, like Kim Peak), he experiences numbers as a rolling landscape of shapes and colors and images which have allowed him to manually calculate pi to something like 20,000 decimal points.

Daniel Tammet: http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardia...kend7.weekend2

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Old 08-02-2010, 05:18 PM
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Like panache45 said, there is more than one type of synesthesia. I experience lexical-gustatory synesthesia, meaning that some words, whether I hear them, think them or see them on a page, have a taste. The taste isn't the same as if what it tastes like fills my mouth (for example, I think angry tastes like sausage, but I don't feel as though I've got sausage in my mouth - the sound just evokes the same sensation on my tongue), but it does have a distinct taste.

Interestingly enough, I also have a seizure disorder, which is more common in people with synesthesia than in the general population (or maybe synesthesia is more common in people with seizure disorders?). Anyway, both synesthesia and epilepsy have a lot to do with the wiring of the brain, so I guess it makes sense that epileptics are more like to have it. I'll bet if more research were done, scientists would find that people with migraines are also more likely to have it.

I've had synesthesia for as long as I can remember - even before the seizure disorder developed when I was in my early 20s. Perhaps that was a precursor? Sometimes I wonder if having synesthesia has made me better at languages - I can make some odd word associations. But who knows?

Either way, given that people are so very different and there really doesn't seem to be any totally normal person without something about them that's different (depression, bipolar disorder, epilepsy, a skin condition, severe PMS, anger issues), the presence and diversity of synesthesia isn't all that surprising.
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Old 08-03-2010, 11:48 AM
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The OP is kind of being a jerk. He's told that certain people experience phenomena in different ways, and his reaction is to call them liars -- because apparently he is the final arbiter of how perception works in every person's head. No one claims that synesthetes have some deeper connection to reality, but we do experience the world differently than people without.

There's an elegant test (which I read about in Dinosaur Comics) to determine if someone claiming synesthesia is telling the truth. Ask them to describe what they see/hear/experience for a certain note (or number, or color, or whatever). Then ask them again a year later. The synthesetes will give you the same answers.

--Cliffy
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