Synesthesia

Synesthesia was observed in the eighteenth century. John Locke in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689, p. 276) relates that a studious blind man bragged one day that he now understood what scarlet signified. When his friend asked what scarlet is, the blind man answered that it is the sound of a trumpet. Synesthesia, a relatively rare neuropsychological condition, is an exaggerated form of cross-modal mapping in which the individual may "hear" colors or, seeing the color red, may detect the "scent" of red as well. Synesthesia is of interest as it illustrates a form of involuntary cross-modal mapping, a type of involuntary perceptual metaphor. That some great artists have been synesthetes suggests that a neural predisposition may lead to the creation of novel metaphors.

The neurologist Richard Cytowic (1993) reported the case of "a man who tasted shapes." This synesthete explained that flavors have shapes and that when cooking a chicken, he "wanted the taste of the chicken to be a pointed shape but it came out round." There have been well-known poets and musicians who were synesthetes, such as Scriabin, Vas-ily Kandinsky, and perhaps best known, Baudelaire. Vladimir Nabokov in his autobiography Speak Memory (1989) reveals that he too is a synesthete, which he describes as a case of "colored hearing": "The long a of the English alphabet has for me the tint of weathered wood; the French a evokes polished ebony. This black group also includes hard g (vulcanized rubber) and r (a sooty bag being ripped)." Nabokov's "colored hearing" undoubtedly contributed to his remarkable linguistic sensitivity.

The linguist Roman Jakobson (1995) observed that "free standing" phonemes have synesthetic properties. An example he cited is "the tense /u/ in English words that suggest foolishness—rube, boob, nincompoop, stooge, goof, etc." He further noted that these semantic-sound parallelisms move on an unconscious level. Jakobson observed that there is a polarity between "light" and "dark" vowels that enhances the contrast between the Latin dies (day) and nox

(night). Dies sounds lighter than nox. Jakobson quoted the art historian Gombrich, who wrote, "It is my conviction that the problem of synesthetic equivalences will cease to look embarrassingly arbitrary and subjective if we fix our attention not on likeness of elements but on structural relationships within a scale or matrix. When we say that u is dark blue and i is bright green, we are talking playful nonsense. But when I say that i is brighter than u, we find a surprising degree of general consent. I think that the majority would agree that the step from u to i is more like an upward step than a downward step" (Gombrich 1960, p. 370).

In our experience of music and visual art we take synes-thesia for granted. This is evident in so-called program music, where visual scenes are represented aurally. Susanne Langer (1967) was one of the first to note the significance of such cross-modal "sensuous" metaphors in all forms of art. One thinks, for example, of Mussorgsky's musical depiction of a visual scene, Pictures at an Exhibition, or Mendelssohn's Fingal Cave Overture, describing an actual cave in the Hebrides. There are also reverse examples where something visual portrays an auditory experience, such as Mondrian's "Broadway Boogie-Woogie" (Gombrich 1960).

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