Monday, July 03, 2006

Is Wednesday Purple?

While preparing to lead a seminar for my upcoming Vermont College residency, I began looking for research on characteristics common to artists, poets, and writers, and came upon this presentation by neurologist V. S. Ramachandran on Synesthesia and the Universal Principles of Art. In the world of synesthesia, one sensation involuntarily conjures up another. E.g., a synesthete might see numbers (or days of the week) in color; might experience shapes in music, or texture in a particular flavor.

All right, this conversation's obviously been going on for awhile, but no one's invited me to join in! I ended up spending an entire afternoon absorbed in the slides and talk.

My understanding of synesthesia being limited to reading Richard Cytowic's book, The Man Who Tasted Shapes, several years ago, I'm newly intrigued by the breadth this presenter's reaching for in making connections with artistic process. No coincidence, he says, that synesthesia's 8 times more common among artists, poets and novelists than in the general population. He draws parallels between cross-wired senses and the ability to think in metaphor, suggesting that synesthetic experience is just an extreme manifestation of abilities we all possess. Ramachandran's written a book that includes material on this subject: A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness : From Impostor Poodles to Purple Numbers.

Ramachandran's commentary on art is more speculative, but it's interesting! I remember observing an art project with 1st-3rd graders a couple of years ago in which kids studied abstract art by Vasily Kandinsky, created their own imitative/exploratory pieces and wrote about them. Have to remember that when I do my next round of workshops in schools.

Back to pulling my thoughts together for that residency. A sparkly 4th to those in the US.


  1. Lovely post. The most beautiful account of synesthesia is in Nabokov's memoir, Speak, Memory. He writes of colored hearing.

  2. Thanks for the reminder, Pooja. Nabokov is said to have been a synesthete in the traditional meaning of the condition. But your post reminded me as well that the crossing of senses, whether it's "true" synesthesia or not, also shows up in children's literature–David Gifaldi's The Boy Who Spoke Colors and the passages in The Phantom Tollbooth about Chroma conducting the sunrise. Dian Curtis Regan tells me she has a story about synesthesia ("Tangled Notes in Watermelon") in the Knopf anthology, What a Song Can Do: 12 Riffs on the Power of Music.