Art Term Tuesday: Synesthesia

Kaitlin Binkley, Marketing Coordinator

When I was younger, I came across a book called A Mango Shaped Space by Wendy Maas. Like any good 14-year-old, I judged it by its cover: a picture of an unmade bed with a transparent orange cat shape curled up in the covers. I picked it up and there began my discovery of synesthesia, the crossing of two or more senses in the mind. As the main character in the book shows, many synesthetes do not even know they experience things differently from others. So, what is this condition and how does it pertain to the art world?

Synesthesia is a quirk of the brain, a personal and individual experience that the ones without find hard to imagine. A person’s perception of the world is insular and unique, which is why many people with synesthesia don’t realize their word view is different from others. There are no outward signs of synesthesia, and many times not even an internal sign – the brains of synesthetes are no different in structure than a non-synesthete, just the neural pathways.

There are two types of synesthetes: those who project actual colors, forms, or shapes (called projective synesthesia) and those who have a strong and involuntary connection between the stimulus and sense (associative synesthesia). These are the ways synesthetes experience synesthesia, but there are many types of experiences people can have, some more common than others. One of the most common types is grapheme-color synesthesia, where letters of the alphabet and numbers have a consistent and individual color. This can make everyday activities, like reading, difficult as the synesthete is distracted by the colors on the page. In A Mango Shaped Space the main character talks about math being hard, and she changes the numbers on the board to be the “right” color, hoping this will help her know the answer. The colors are not the same for everyone, though in large studies of synesthetes there are some commonalities, like “A” being tinged red.

Another common type of synesthesia is chromesthesia – sounds with colors. Recent resident artist Heather Day has this type of synesthesia, where she will sometimes experience, as she calls it, “a colored filter on the edge of (her) vision” when she hears sounds. She has said that sometimes in conversations she’ll be distracted by the tones and hues of colors the conversation is producing in her vision! Unlike grapheme-color, where there is a little evidence of commonalities, there is no real agreement on the color of a specific note or sound between synesthetes.

This mixed media piece by Heather Day features a white canvas with a spray-painted dark blue line, in the shape of an M, at the top left of the canvas. The middle of the composition is a mix of light blue, dark blue, navy blue, goldenrod, light orange, and pink washes. The light blue is in the center, stricken through with the dark blue spray-painted line. Orange drips mark the lower righthand of the canvas, just above the artists signature.
Heather Day, American, b. 1989. Aplenglow. Mixed media on canvas, 2020. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

A less common type is auditory-tactile synesthesia, wherein a certain sound can cause the synesthete to feel a touch on a body part or a sensation on the skin. Similar to the ASMR craze that has swept the internet in recent years, where a trigger sound or word produces a tingling sensation in people without being touched, this could mean that this type of synesthesia is actually more common than first thought!

There are five senses that everyone knows: taste, touch, sound, sight, and smell. There is also, however, sense of balance, the sense of where your own body parts are in space (proprioception), sense of pain, hunger, emotions, and other internal bodily functions. Almost any of these internal and external senses can be connected in a person with synesthesia, leading to a list of potentially 80 different types of synesthesia! As the experience is individual and internal, it is hard for scientists to study. In fact, people didn’t begin to study this perceptual phenomenon until the late 1880s, and interest waxed and waned during the 1900s, with modern research finally taking off in the 1980s. We’ve learned a lot in the last 40 years, but that is not a long time in terms of scientific study!

Earlier, I briefly mentioned that artist Heather Day is a synesthete, but she is only one in a long line of creative people throughout history who likely had synesthesia. The connection between artists and synesthesia has led to a distinct definition, where the simultaneous perceptions of two or more stimuli evoke one fused experience that produces something more than either understanding alone. Artists are often pushing boundaries, even perceptual ones, so there is a section of art that produced a synesthetic experience in viewers even if they are not synesthetes themselves. A famous example of synesthetic art not necessarily made by a synesthete is the Fantasia films by Disney. There is also a moment in the Pixar film Ratatouille where Remy the rat tastes a morsel of food and, in his mind’s eye, colors and shapes burst forth.

These visual representations help non-synesthetes understand a little more what a synesthete might experience. Some artists in history who likely have or had synesthesia are Carole Steen, Joan Mitchell, Marcia Smilack, Wassily Kandinsky, Vincent van Gogh, David Hockney, Billy Joel, Lorde, and composer Ramin Djawadi of Game of Thrones fame! Some artists we can’t know for sure experienced synesthesia, we can only speculate, as the study and knowledge of the trait is new and continues to progress. Now that you know about it, maybe you have discovered you have a type yourself!

If you would like to learn more or connect with other synesthetes, you can reach out to the American Synesthesia Association or, if you’re in another country, your countries Synesthesia Association.

Visit us at FWMoA to see Heather Day’s exhibition Woolgathers, on exhibit through the end of May, and visit your local library to pick up A Mango Shaped Space or other books on synesthesia to find out more!

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