By Helen Massy-Beresford (Hertford, 1998)
Synaesthesia, the inherited condition where stimulation of one sensory pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second — tastes linked to words, say, or colours with sounds — has long been associated with the arts. But scientific research into the phenomenon has undergone a revival in recent years.
The Oxford Handbook of Synesthesia is an overview of the latest research into a condition affecting at least 4.4 percent of the adult population and shared by, among others, David Hockney, Nikola Tesla and, most recently, pop star Lady Gaga. At over 1,000 pages long, the handbook is no lazy bedside read or a pop-science bestseller, but the care the editors – Julia Simner (St Edmund Hall, 1990) and Edward M. Hubbard – have taken to make the book accessible to non-specialists shines through.
The handbook recounts the revival in synaesthesia research that began in the twentieth century and now sees scientists looking into everything from links with autism to the implications of synaesthesia for learning among non-synaesthetes. Complicated concepts are set out clearly; there is a wealth of anecdotal detail and attention-grabbing chapter headings make it easy to dip in.
The chapter Synesthesia, Alphabet Books and Fridge Magnets is an intriguing look at how synesthetes come to believe in the first place that, for example, ‘M is blue’ or ‘C is yellow’, and recounts an example of a girl whose synaesthetic colour pairings corresponded closely to a set of fridge magnet letters she had as a child. When she moved to Russia and learned the Cyrillic alphabet, many of the letters that looked like Roman letters took on the same colours — even when they represented different sounds.
Elsewhere, Synesthesia in School-Aged Children explores a theory about why synaesthetes have synaesthesia in the first place. It’s based on two well-accepted assumptions: that children have more highly connected brains than adults, and that adult synaesthetes also have hyperconnected brains. The theory proposes that all children may have synaesthesia-like experiences and that, on rare occasions, this early synaesthesia might continue into adulthood because of a genetic predisposition, possibly one that interferes with the normal processes of cell death and synapse elimination.
Perhaps best, though, is the first-person account of synaesthesia by Sean A. Day, which provides a vivid insight into his experiences – describing the colours that appeared to him when he played percussion in a school band and the hues he perceives when tasting different foods. He also touches on the social aspects of the condition. Most synaesthetes simply assume everyone ‘sees’, for example, Tuesday as purple, until conversations with incredulous friends show them otherwise. But there has sometimes been a stigma attached, as in the case of the composer Jean Sibelius, who perceived connections between sound and colour, but feared being mocked if he spoke of his experience too widely.
Given the wealth of information on offer, I’m prepared to overlook the handbook’s only serious flaw. From my perspective, as a grapheme-colour synaesthete, the ‘Synesthesia’ of the front cover begins with an ‘s’ so it should be pink — not blue.