Synaesthesia – a multisensory experience


I first met Jane Mackay when she had just returned to London after two years as a volunteer teaching paramedics in Papua New Guinea. Later, when I was a mature medical student, I was able to spend a couple of weeks at her practice in Walworth, one of London’s roughest areas, and her enthusiasm encouraged me to consider inner city practice.

I knew Jane was a talented musician, but her artistic ability didn’t come to public notice until she was recovering from a back injury and took up her childhood hobby of painting, because she found standing easier than sitting. Her first solo public exhibition was in Salisbury in 1993; at her Aldeburgh exhibition  in 1997 I met one of the doctors from Walworth looking anxiously at the rapidly spreading rash of ‘sold’ spots on the pictures and muttering that she feared the practice would be advertising for a new partner before too long.

On Millennium Eve Jane removed her name from the GMC register and threw her stethoscope into the Thames. Her artistic career has blossomed. As well as her many paintings, her work now illustrates CD covers and books and has appeared as a stained glass window.

Most of her paintings are inspired by music and determined by her synaesthesia. For her, and for the three percent of the population with synaesthesia,  auditory signals are experienced both as sound and as colour. Music evokes visual images and her paintings develop them. Sometimes the images are almost unchanged in the final painting, sometimes they are the stimulus for further elaboration.

Obviously, music can evoke images for all of us, and we talk about dark base notes and light top notes. Perhaps we are all a bit synaesthetic, but for people like Jane the visual associations provoked by sounds are both consistent and particularly vivid. So Wednesday is always yellow and angular. At least it is for Jane;  her sister, who is also synaesthetic, sees Wednesday as green.

Jane didn’t realise that her experience was unusual, and she didn’t have a name for it until the exhibition of  her first big series of paintings, based on the music of Benjamin Britten, and she was talking to a psychiatrist about how the music inspired her work.

Jane’s form of synaesthesia, ‘coloured hearing’ is the most common, but any senses can be mixed up. For a lexical-gustatory synaesthete Wednesday might always taste of corned beef and Thursday of strawberry ice cream. For other synaesthetes, elements of a series such as numbers or months are located in space, perhaps with colours attached. So Monday may be shoulder height and four feet away on the left whereas Friday is down near the right foot.

It is hard to imagine a sense that you don’t have:  how do you describe visual experience to the blind? So non-synaesthetes wonder what it is like and tend only to anticipate problems. Isn’t there sensory overload? Apparently only rarely. Doesn’t it cause confusion? No, no more than simultaneous visual and aural input confuses the rest of us. In fact, synaesthesia can give you useful extra clues. Can’t be sure whether someone is from Australia or New Zealand? Instead of listening for the give-away vowels, a synaesthete  may know that Australians always sound dark red whereas a Kiwi accent evokes a bright blue sensation. Maybe synaesthete doctors can use colour to help distinguish cardiac murmurs. That would have been really useful in final exams. Synaesthetes can find their gift useful when learning foreign languages. It can help with remembering vocabulary: for Jane, Friday is black and white check, but vendredi is a blue-tinged green patterned with grey. And it could be much easier to get one’s tongue round pronunciation of foreign languages if strange sounds had colours attached.

For young synaesthetes, it comes as a shock to discover that other people don’t know that the days of the week are coloured. In The Chrysalids , John Wyndham’s  1955 post-holocaust novel, children with unusual sensory abilities – in the book, telepathy – are cast out of society for being mutants. Synaesthetes do not suffer that fate, but no-one I know except Jane has ever revealed themselves to be synaesthetic, and I wonder if having their experience dismissed as childhood fantasy or attention seeking deters them from talking about it, or even acknowledging it, in adult life.

Jane is not the only synaesthetic artist. It is a quality she shares with David Hockney and Wassily Kandinsky, and with musicians such as Duke Ellington and Franz Lizst. Other famous synaesthetes include writer Vladimir Nabokov and physicist (and amateur bongo drummer) Richard Feynman, for whom elements of equations had different colours.

The neurological basis of synaesthesia is not clearly understood, but functional PET scanning demonstrates that in synaesthetes with coloured hearing, but not in the rest of us, an aural stimulus excites both the aural and the visual cortices. Perhaps in most of us the synapses which link the different sensory modalities  die off, or alternatively in synaesthetics the balance between neuronal excitation and inhibition is tipped towards disinhibition.  So perhaps the capacity to experience a sensory stimulus in more than the conventional modality is something we are all born with. Research into synaesthesia is shedding light on brain development and organisation, and on the nature of consciousness. It may contribute to our understanding of conditions like dyslexia and autism. And maybe when we understand it better, all of us will be able to develop our potential to enjoy a multisensory experience.


Illustration  Arvo Pärt - The Beatitudes, Jane Mackay

First published in NASGP Newsletter 'The Sessional GP' in March/April 2007

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