What colour is the letter F? What texture does a Mozart symphony have? Can you taste the rainbow?
If the only thing such ideas suggest is the Skittles ad campaign, you’re probably not synaesthesic. But for up to four per cent of the population, such questions make perfect sense.
Synaesthesia is, simply, a union of the senses: a neurological phenomenon whereby one sensory experience involuntarily prompts another. So, the word Pimlico might feel like bubblewrap; the sound of a flute conjures a mauve mist; the letter J can be female and shy; the month of April brings the smell of apples.
Around 70 types of synaesthesia have been identified, and while some are rare, others are surprisingly common. It’s likely that you, or someone you know, is quite certain that each letter of the alphabet has a colour, or can describe the images they see when they listen to music.
These are not metaphorical or whimsical imaginings; for synaesthetes, these intertwined sensations are a fact of life, automatic and everyday, unchanging and very real. For me, Monday is red in the same way that grass is green.
Scientists have not always acknowledged the condition: although it was a popular subject in the 19th century, in the 20th it was neglected until the 1980s, and even then it was treated with scepticism, as there was no way to prove it existed. Then, in 1987, advancements in neuroscience led to MRI scans which established that synaesthesia was real: the “visual activity” part of the brain lit up when participants listened to music.
That triumphant research was in part carried out by Simon Baron-Cohen, founder of the UK Synaesthesia Association – and a man who has recently been getting the message out to an audience far beyond scientific journals through his involvement in the research and development of Peter Brook’s latest play, The Valley of Astonishment, which won warm reviews when it opened at London’s Young Vic last month.
The show brought to life a series of case studies, based on the real experiences of synaesthetes. The main character Sammy finds her synaesthesia helps her to perform astonishing feats of memory – only to her, they’re not so astonishing: “It’s like breathing,” she shrugs. For Sammy, one man’s voice comes out as “great yellow splats”, while another’s is “very orange, very nice”. The number 2 is a high-spirited person, but 3 is gloomy; the letter A is “something white and long”, while E moves very fast.
Speaking after a performance, Baron-Cohen suggested that while the show was “very true” to the science of synaesthesia, in contrast to the rather dry academic journals he usually writes for, “Theatre crosses the divide between art and science, to communicate the astonishment of the brain, the mind, through imagination.”
Recreating the experience of synaesthesia is no easy feat. I saw The Valley of Astonishment and while the play had characters eloquently describe the condition, attempts to render the experience often fell short. For instance, depicting a man who sees colours when listening to music, an actor swept a broom wildly across stage as the lights changed colour, flooding the area in purple or red, to live jazz piano and cymbals. But a complex, shifting piece of syncopated music is unlikely to provoke a simple block of red. The synaesthesic experience is far more nuanced.
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