Literally synaesthesia means "a crossing of the senses." For a long time it was thought that synaesthetes were fabricating their experiences. Michele Ernsting talked to artists with whom she shares this neurological condition.
"The letter A is a combination of crimson and titanium white mixed to a middle value pink,” says artist Carol Steen. “My letter B is the colour of a black sheep in England on an overcast day. The letter C is the colour of Caribbean waters in the shallows and Z is like the colour of beautiful light ale."
I'm afraid I can't agree with Carol. My A is the colour and lustre of ripe strawberries. B is the colour of kelp in a turquoise sea, C is the colour of light brown gravy and Z is cotton candy pink. While we don't agreed on colours, Carol and I do have something in common; a condition known as synaesthesia.
Crossing of the senses
For Carol and I, synaesthesia is more than a general crossing of the senses. It specifically means we see colours when we work with letters and numbers. But synaesthetes may also see colours when they hear music, or experience taste when they are touched.
There are many examples of famous synaesthetes, including the writer Vladimir Nabokov, the painter David Hockney and the musician Duke Ellington, who said: "I hear a note by one of the fellows in the band and it's one colour. I hear the same note played by someone else and it's a different colour. If Harry Carney is playing, D is dark blue burlap. If Johnny Hodges is playing, G becomes light blue satin."
For a long time is was thought that synaesthetes were "making it up". But recent neurological studies show that people with synaesthesia do in fact perceive things like music or words with several senses.
Experiments have shown that the stimulation of one sensory channel elicits an impression in another. The colour-connections also remain constant over time though they remain subjective. For me, a strawberry coloured A can only ever be strawberry coloured.
Researcher Chretien van Campen studies the phenomenon. He says there are two main theses as to why people experience it: One is that synaesthesia is an accident, a mis-wiring in the brain. The other is that this is a normal competence which we all possess as babies, and for some reason most of us lose the ability later in life.
I can't imagine what the world would look like without my mingling of letters, numbers and colours. It's equally tricky to explain to others how it works.
In the programme Short Circuit, Carol Steen and artist Ans Salz describe their mental landscape and discuss how this unique cross wiring of their brain adds a new dimension to their art work.
‘Short Circuit’ was produced and presented by Michele Ernsting. The program was originally broadcast in January 2003 as part of the series Sound Fountain.