Synaesthesia mixing the senses at MONA

On 3 and 4 November 2012, I was lucky enough to visit Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) and enjoy a two-day event that mixed art and science to explore the psychological phenomenon of synaesthesia.

Synaesthesia is a ‘joining of senses’, where you perceive something with one sense and at the same time you experience it with another sense. For instance, you may see colours and shapes when listening to music, or colours associated with particular letters or numbers.

MONA’s Synaesthesia event represented this concept with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra playing music from composers such as György Ligeti, Henryk Górecki and Modest Mussorgsky, as well as performances from Brian Ritchie, Kate Miller-Heidke and Meow Meow. It blended this with visual art from the museum’s exhibitions, a film program, including Jonathan Fowler’s Red Mondays & Gemstone Jalapenos, embedded above, and fantastic catering.

It also included a panel discussion on the topic, with synaesthetes Andrew Legg and Margaret Hollis, pianist and music scholar Peter Hill (representing the synaesthetic composer Olivier Messiaen), and University of New South Wales psychologist Dr Karen Whittingham.

After the discussion, I had the pleasure of speaking to Dr Whittingham about her research on synaesthesia, as well as artist and synaesthete Steve Glass. You can listen to this interview on our podcast from 15.11.2012.

A transcript follows after the break…

Steve Glass: My synaesthesia’s pretty simple actually: it’s basically timbre to colour. So every note on the piano keyboard is blue, just different shades of blue, every guitar is red. In my late teens when I started going to places where it was dark and there was loud music, I began to be able to see the sound and thought, “That’s really not quite right now, is it?” I worried about it for a couple of years, then did some research, found out what it was and thought, “Oh, okay, very well. That’s fine.”

Chris: That was artist and synaesthete Steve Glass. You’re listening to Lost in Science, my name’s Chris, and I’m speaking to you from an event called Synaesthesia at the Museum of Old and New Art, or MONA, in Hobart. This two-day event combines music, visual art, film and conversation to try to represent the experience of synaesthesia.

But, you’re probably wondering, what is synaesthesia? Well, I spoke to psychologist Dr Karen Whittingham from the University of New South Wales, to try and find out.

Dr Whittingham: Synaesthesia’s a family of different neurological experiences that come about from a variety of different ways. So if you like, the definition of synaesthesia is ‘joined senses’, syn meaning joined and aesthesia meaning senses or perception, so synaesthesia is the experience of sort of having an experience in one sense that was caused by an event that occurred in another sense. So for example, you might hear a sound, a musical note, or a car siren, and you might experience colour.

Now synaesthesia can come about from a variety of different ways. You could be born with a kind of synaesthesia, you can acquire synaesthesia from a brain injury, or from drug-induced hallucination. And of course, some people even experience some kinds of synaesthesia that are spontaneously arising through something like meditation.

Chris: You were saying earlier that everyone has a little bit of base-level synaesthesia?

Dr Whittingham: Well the parents of synaesthesia are what we call synaesthetic metaphor, something that we all understand. So if I said to you, “You’re wearing a loud shirt today”, or “That was very sharp cheese we had at lunch”, we would all understand what that meant. So synaesthetic metaphors are the parents of synaesthesia, if you like, something that we all have in common, something that we all understand, and the basic formulation of us understanding creativity and metaphor, and the ability to tell a good story.

Chris: Yeah, I’ve noticed it’s embedded in our language, like your very colourful scarf today for instance, we talk about a chromatic scale in music, which is all the colours in the scale itself, so we don’t even think that we’re using such a term.

Dr Whittingham: No, and musicians love to talk about their music in terms of colour.

Chris: So how do we tell then a true synaesthete, someone who actually has, I suppose, what we could have called the condition or the experience of synaesthesia?

Dr Whittingham: OK, so for a researcher or a scientist, we use a number of different classification criteria. So the first thing is that the synaesthesia happens involuntarily. It’s not just good imagination, although people with synaesthesia do have a high capacity for creativity.

So it’s not just imagination, it’s actually an involuntary experience. You hear the sound and you see the colour, and you’re not doing it on purpose. So that’s the first thing: involuntary and automatic, it happens very swiftly. So we look for that in terms of being able to classify somebody, you know, that might qualify to come and do a research study in a university.

We also look at whether or not the experience is repeatable. Now most commonly occurring synaesthesias are repeatable, so if I ask you today, what colour is the number three, and you say to me yellow, and I ask you next week you’ll tell me yellow. And if I don’t see you for a year and I ask you again, you’ll say it’s yellow.

Chris: That sort of consistency.

Dr Whittingham: They’re looking for repeatability and consistency.

Chris: Right, OK. Now, I believe that you’re a synaesthete yourself?

Dr Whittingham: I am.

Chris: Could you just please describe your synaesthesia?

Dr Whittingham: Well, I have synaesthesia for touch. So, if I… Well, one of my most extreme experiences was when I broke my ankle playing cricket – later in life, I went for a very long time without an injury – but I broke my ankle, went off to the doctor, had the cast set, and it was lime green, the pain.

Chris: Really?

Dr Whittingham: It was just lime green. It’s a very vivid lime green. With a hint of yellow, but lime green pain.

Chris: OK, so you can recognise different kinds of pain and those tactile experiences through colour?

Dr Whittingham: Yes, but it’s not, my kind of synaesthesia doesn’t involve an over-learned sequence. So in fact I don’t always get the same colour from a pain experience, or from a massage, or from seeing the physio. Because I don’t have those associations paired over a long period of time. But the kind of synaesthesia I have, we don’t know anything about at all.

Chris: OK, so that’s a topic for research then?

Dr Whittingham: Further study.

Chris: So what are you actually researching at the moment?

Dr Whittingham: Well, what I’m hoping to do next year is look at how synaesthesia is used at work, how people make the best use of their synaesthetic experiences. So how does a music synaesthete actually use their synaesthesia for composition, or for reading, or for learning a new piece? How is synaesthesia actually useful for people at work?

I’m teaching on the Organisational Psychology program at UNSW, so that’s a nice fit. And there are quite a lot of researchers now all around the world looking at the neuroscience and the neuroscientific underpinnings of synaesthesia, so my talents are best utilised in a field that I know something about.

Chris: Fair enough. And look certainly, it seems like it has great advantage for creative people, we’re seeing that this weekend here at MONA, all the artists and musicians who are using their synaesthesia, but do you think people use it in other professions as well? In sort of, what we might not consider as the more creative fields?

Dr Whittingham: Yeah, in fact in my previous research I’ve had doctors, lawyers and heads of businesses in some of Australia’s largest ASX-listed companies. And you know, for people who’ve got spatially located numbers, they’re particularly good at doing mental calculations, and sitting in business meetings and going “Yeah no, that’s 4 million.” “How did you get that number so quickly?” Well you know, they do the arithmetic because they’ve got a projected abacus.

Chris: It’s like a hidden power that they have.

Dr Whittingham: It’s a hidden business superpower for some people. But of course, you’ve got to remember, with synaesthesia you’re getting extra information. So you’ve actually got a few benefits there.

Chris: True. One thing that I’ve actually been wondering, there’s the theory that some people who can see auras, that that may be a synaesthesic…

Dr Whittingham: I think that’s synaesthesia for faces. And there’s absolutely not one single study on this. But I did take myself off to Mind, Body, Spirit Festival one year, and I made a quick study of the people who were doing the readings, and doing psychic readings, and as they were exiting the building I would ask them, “Do you also have colours for numbers?” and other things. And a large number of them said yes.

Chris: Ah, so not so surprising perhaps.

Dr Whittingham: For me it’s not so surprising. But it’s certainly something that as a researcher that’s been on anybody’s agenda to look.

Chris: OK. Now, I understand too that it’s actually rather difficult for you to do research in this field because you’re working on people in their everyday lives. So how do you get around that?

Dr Whittingham: Well, I’d have to say, the best way I know is to say thank you! We call for volunteers for research in a variety of ways. I’ve got a website, so not just myself, I publish research studies that people are trying to find participants for, even for studies that are being conducted in Canada or in the US.

So synaesthetes are very hard to find, because there’s not a lot of them. But the ones that do volunteer for study are wonderfully generous with their time. And we’re very grateful to them every time they come!

Chris: So if anyone likes to get in touch and take part in this research, they can contact you through your website?

Dr Whittingham: Sure, there’s information on my website,

Chris: And you spell ‘synesthesia’ without the diphthong, without the ‘ae’?

Dr Whittingham: I do spell it without the ‘a’, not by preference actually. Only because I couldn’t buy the URL with the ‘a’.

Chris: Fair enough. OK, well thanks once again Dr Whittingham, it’s been a pleasure to talk to you, and I hope you enjoy the rest of the weekend.

Dr Whittingham: Thanks very much.

Chris: Cheers.

Dr Whittingham: Bye.


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