Synesthesia in brief


The term synaesthesia has been coined from two Greek words, syn (together) and aisthesis (sense). John Locke in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) mentioned a case of synaesthesia, describing a blind man, who answered the question about what the purple colour was, ‘It resembles trumpeting.’ Generally, the idea of a link between music and fine art can be traced to ancient Greek philosopher Plato, who was the first to apply musical terms ‘pitch’ and ‘harmony’ to paintings. Also, it should be remembered that Beethoven referred to B minor as ‘black clef,’ and D-major – as ‘orange clef,’ while Schubert compared E minor with ‘a young lady dressed in white, with a pink and red bow on the chest.’

In his essays, Kandinsky recalled that he had heard a strange hissing noise, when he mixed colours on the palette. And this is how he described his impression of Wagner's Lohengrin, “The violins, the deep tones of the basses, and especially the wind instruments at that time embodied for me all the power of that pre-nocturnal hour. I saw all my colors in my mind; they stood before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me” Accidentally, this impression has become one of the main motives that inspired the promising 30-year-old lawyer to transform his life and become a painter.

"Color study with lozenges", 1913

As to Kandinsky, some non-believers argue whether he had synaesthesia inherently or as a result of experiments with the colour theory, as well as with Goethe’s, Schopenhauer’s and Rudolf Steiner’s ideas. Others believe that synaesthesia is just an individual sensation having nothing to do with human physiology.

However, a group of neuroscientists has recently managed to prove that a synaesthete can really see sound. A series of experiments showed that in spite of being blindfolded, people exhibited activity in brain areas responsible for ‘visual activity,’ when they listened to sounds. What is left to do is to find the gene that is responsible for this.

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