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March 8, 2005

BehindTheMedspeak: Synesthesia


Synesthesia is the involuntary experiencing of a sensation in addition to one directly perceived.

For example, when you hear a certain sound, you see a particular color.

The current issue (March 3) of Nature magazine contains a most interesting report of a professional musician who is able, literally, to taste what she hears.

A story in The Economist (March 5) described her experience: "A major third sounds sweet. A minor third, salty. A fourth has the flavor of mown grass. Only an octave is tasteless."

The stimulated sensation in synesthesia is usually color vision: words or numbers take on particular hues.

The woman described has these sensations as well; individual tones take on their own colors.

What sets her apart is her perception of musical intervals as flavors, a phenomenon recorded only once before.

That "once before" is described in one of the great books I have read in my life: legendary Russian psychologist A. R. Luria's "Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book About a Vast Memory."

In it Luria describes, with grace, clarity and lyricism, the story of a man named "S" who could not forget anything.

His whole world was a teeming mass of interactive sensory experience, overpowering him and essentially rendering him very unhappy and essentially nonfunctional.

Luria shows what happens when "the doors of perception"


fly open and then off their hinges.


March 8, 2005 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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