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March 8, 2005

BehindTheMedspeak: Synesthesia

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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"

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fly open and then off their hinges.

Unforgettable.

March 8, 2005 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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