Sally Carter and Birte Twisselmann: Imagining synaesthesia

Mixing of the senses
Synaesthesia, this “mixing of the senses,” is a difficult thing to describe. I have read David Eagleman’s editorial and an anonymous patient’s and psychiatrist Steve Logdail’s patient’s journey article. I see that having synaesthesia may add colour and depth your writing, if writing is your thing (see below for synaesthesia as a literary device) But I can’t help thinking that words are not enough to give a non-synaesthete an idea of what it’s like to live with the condition.

I first heard about synaesthesia at a talk at the Dana Centre in London in 2007. An animator called Samantha Moore was presenting a project she had been working on and that was funded by the Wellcome Trust. She had collaborated with musicians and Dr Jamie Ward, a reader in psychology at the University of Sussex, to try and animate synaesthesia. Synaesthesia seemed an amazing way to experience the world.

She went on to make a documentary called An Eyeful of Sound. It’s only 10 minutes long. It includes an interview with Dr Ward about the science of the condition, but the best bits are the animation and with the interviews with synaesthetes. They give you a good idea of what it might be like to “see” music, and listening to the interviewees with synaesthesia try to describe it is fascinating. After a while their responses sound poetic:
“Hearing colours,
Seeing sounds,
Tasting smells,
Tasting and feeling sounds and colours.”

One of the synaesthetes describes her world as a, “weaved cheese cloth of sound.” Another says that she became more aware of her condition when she heard an orchestra playing, saying, “I didn’t realise it was individual instruments. I thought there was some sort of coloured quilt.” Food gets a mention too, with a woman saying certain music was like, “waves of chocolate.”

The overall look of the film also fits well with how some of the interviewees describe their world. “I see things very flowingly – really, really flowingly … And that is how everything seems, “swirly rather than static.”

The soundtrack is very effective. Moore chose some everyday sounds, played them to the interviewees, and recorded their responses. She took the sounds and interviews to a musician at the University of Toronto who composed the gentle sound track.

Without being able to experience it yourself, this film illustrates in pictures and sound what it might be like to have synaesthesia – and it seems pretty wonderful at times. All those senses firing away might get a bit too much though. One of the synaesthetes in the film says, “I can never really get away from it, but I do like silence.” I’m no doctor, I just work here at the BMJ, but after watching this film I reckon that if you play heavy metal music to someone with synaesthesia their head might just explode.

You can find out more about the film at

Sally Carter is a technical editor with the BMJ.

Synaesthesia in literature

In literature, synaesthesia falls under the general category of tropes, more specifically, metaphor and symbol. Critics have proposed patterns that synaesthetic metaphors follow, whereby smell and taste will be talked about in terms of hearing or vision, which in turn will evolve towards being talked about in terms of touch. Ample examples for this kind of literary metaphor exist: “sour smell,” “loud red,” “sharp crack,” or “bitter smile” may serve to illustrate what I mean. Writers of all periods have used such tropes to great and poignant effect (Mary Shelley, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Vladimir Nabokov are selected examples of a whole range of authors whose works contain lead characters who experience synaesthesia; for a more extensive list follow this link).

Of course such metaphors change over time and throughout cultures, but they remain easily recognisable. A well known, comparatively early, example of the use of synaesthetic metaphor as a means of characterisation is in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, namely, in Nick Bottom’s speech, which he makes when he finally awakens without the ass’s head:

“The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen,
Man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive,
Nor his heart to report, what my dream was … .”

While this may at first glance mainly serve to make Bottom appear confused and stumbling, as a stylistic device it may echo passages from Geoffrey Chaucer and the Bible.

Adding such “flavours” to literary works is, among other things,  a highly sophisticated way of raising readers’ awareness of how they themselves may perceive and experience the world around them – and maybe the extent to which we’re all synaesthetic, to a greater or lesser degree.

Birte Twisselmann is a web editor with the BMJ.