Synesthesia is the mysterious mingling of the senses that creates the experience of “seeing” sounds or “hearing” colors. Neurologist Richard E. Cytowic, M.D. has spent his career exploring this remarkable phenomenon, and has some fascinating insight into how these sensations are formed in the brain, and how we might use it to reunite our fractured society. Plus… meet the man whose extreme form of synesthesia mingled all five of his senses!
Phil Stieg: Hello and welcome to Dr. Richard Cytowic, the man who revolutionized our understanding of synesthesia. What is synesthesia? How common is it? How may it affect your life? And of what neurologic importance is it? Are all to be answered by Dr. Cytowic, are we all synesthetes, do you tap your foot to music? Let’s hear what Richard has to say about that. Richard, thank you for being here with us today.
Richard Cytowic: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Phil Stieg: This is not a common phenomenon, so let’s please explain to everybody what synesthesia is.
Richard Cytowic: Well, everybody knows the word anesthesia, which means no sensation. So synesthesia means joined or coupled sensation. Children, there are children, four percent of the population, born with two or more of their senses hooked together. So that my voice, for example, is not only something that they hear, but something that they might also see taste or feel as a physical touch.
Phil Stieg: What’s it like to be a synesthetic person? It’s got to be confusing. I would think,
Richard Cytowic: Well, what’s it like to see? No, I mean, it’s not confusing at all It’s sort of like a blind person saying to you, oh, you poor thing. Everywhere you’re looking, you’re always seeing something. Doesn’t it drive you crazy having to see everything? And the answer is of course not, because that’s the texture of our reality. Synesthetes simply have a different texture of reality from the rest of us.
Phil Stieg: I was struck in your book, Synesthesia, published by MIT Press and their Essential Knowledge series, of all the synesthetic examples you gave I was trying to figure out what does that mean? There aren’t enough points on the chicken? That one I couldn’t tie together.
Richard Cytowic: Well that’s Michael Watson, who is the man who tasted shapes. He said, well, you’re a neurologist, maybe you understand. When I taste something, I also feel it in on my face and in my hands. A feeling sweeps down my arm and I feel weight, shape, texture, and temperature as if I’m actually grasping something. And I was just trying to be polite. And I said, “Oh, you have synesthesia.” And he said, “You mean there’s a name for what I do?” And I thought, “how strange, how could he not know?” And that was the beginning of maybe this is something that I should look into, you know?
Phil Stieg: Describe for us what are the most common types of synesthetic events?
Richard Cytowic: Well, the most common would be grapheme, which is the written elements of language, and they usually evoke color, whereas phonemes the spoken elements of language to traditionally evoke taste’s. Color figures very, very prominently in synesthesia. The days of the week are often perceived as color. There’s also one kind that stands all by itself, which is called number forms. So anything that’s a sequence. So the alphabet, the integers, historical dates, baseball, batting averages, whatever, anything, they can be quantified as a sequence, then assumes a physical place in three-dimensional space around the body. So November, well, that’s brown down by my right knee, and different colors for appointments and birthdays and things like that.
Phil Stieg: Is synesthesia consistent and always the same?
Richard Cytowic: Yes, the associations are consistent over a lifetime so that if your B is blue and your F is green, it’ll be that way until your dying day. I had a letter earlier on from a nice woman in West Virginia that says I’m 85 now, and the colors still shine as brightly as they did. So and that that that sort of consistency was initially one of the tests of genuineness, as it was called, is that you would give a person a matching thing, you’d give them a list of names or words or numerals, and you write down the responses and then you without announcing this, you would pull this stunt off a year later without giving them any warning. And they were like almost 100 percent consistent. Whereas if you gave this to a volunteer group that has tried to teach them synesthesia and they perform worse than chance.
Phil Stieg: Synesthesia is an involuntary automatic reaction, right, versus something that is voluntary.
Richard Cytowic: Right. It happens to you. You don’t make it happen. So, for example, if I if I show you a can of Coke, you don’t decide, OK, now I’m going to see red and white. You just see it. The same goes for a synesthete. If I show you a matrix of fives in which I’ve embedded a hidden figure made of 2’s, it’ll take you a while to search and find it. But synesthetes who see 2’s as differently colored than five instantly say, oh, it’s a circle, it’s a square. It’s a triangle. There’s a perceptual grouping and a pop out. So that’s one way to show that synesthesia is perceptual. It’s not a memory and it’s not invented. Is it involuntary? Well, sure. If I projected digit into your peripheral vision while having you stare straight ahead, you can still make it out. But then if I surrounded by other digits, it becomes invisible, a phenomenon called masking. Now I do this to synesthetes and they too can’t see it. But they’ll say, well, it must be seven because I’m seeing green. So this tells this that there’s something happening on an unconscious level that’s allowing these cross connections to the color region to activate.
Phil Stieg: You listed a number of the artists that have had this I mean, Nabokov, Stevie Wonder, Eddie Van Halen, David Hockney, Rimsky-Korsakov, Franz Liszt. I mean, this is not a —
Richard Cytowic: Lady Gaga!
Phil Stieg: All right. Lady Gaga, my favorite! This is not an insignificant list of people. So I would think that there is some selective process that would want to keep that creativity or entrepreneurial spirit going in humankind.
Richard Cytowic: Well, there are famous artists who happen to be synesthetes, and that’s what we know about their synesthesia, but they’re far more synesthetes who are not famous artists. However, if you take a group of individuals with synesthesia, you find that, in fact, they do pursue some creative pursuit. They play a musical instrument. They speak a foreign language or two. So there is a high level of creativity. One study says that synesthesia is seven times more common among artists than non-artists.
Phil Stieg: Is there any cross between being a savant and being a synesthete?
Richard Cytowic: Well, yes, there is the savant Daniel Tammet who wrote an autobiography called Born on a “Blue Day”. Now, Tammet is known for having won the European prize for having memorized the most digits of pi. But he also has got synesthesia. He’s got temporal lobe epilepsy and he is a savant. All of those conditions, those three conditions share a marker on chromosome number four. So he is helping us edge closer to having a molecular understanding of synesthesia.
Phil Stieg: Also interesting to say that a significant number of people have the gene or genetic composition for synesthesia, but it certainly isn’t that common. So why is that? Is that.
Richard Cytowic: Well, four percent of the population have it. So that’s fairly common. it really is.
Phil Stieg: Yeah, it’s funny, I don’t know anybody that’s ever told me that they’ve got synesthesia.
Richard Cytowic: Well, maybe you haven’t been listening carefully?
Phil Stieg: So obviously it’s genetic if I’m a synesthete. And what’s the number one was the likelihood my child is going to have it. Number two, are they going to have the same perception of reality as I do or will be something different?
Richard Cytowic: Synesthesia runs strongly in families as sort of Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin, noted well over a century ago. And it can go from either sex parent to either sex child. So the likelihood will be 50 percent – 50 percent of their offspring will carry the genes. And whether those genes are expressed is a different story, because it’s not expressed with 100 percent fidelity. But no, they won’t have the same kind of synesthesia as the parents do. Even identical twins can have different kinds of synesthesia.
Phil Stieg: I’m glad you mentioned Darwin in your previous sentence. Is there some evolutionary advantage or, you know, why is this gene hung around for so long?
Richard Cytowic: Well, that’s a good question, isn’t it? I mean, four percent of the population is a big gene pool to keep a pretty but outwardly useless trait going. So you have to assume that it’s doing something of importance in order to be kept that high in the gene pool. And what I and others think is that it’s a gene for metaphor, which by definition is seeing that dissimilar thing, the similar in the dissimilar. So a woman says, I know it’s two because it’s white. Well, “two” and “white” then are similar in some sort of way. So it may make us more creative as a species.
Phil Stieg: So you’ve been studying this topic now for nearly 41, 42 years, which is an amazing duration
Richard Cytowic: and I’m and I’m only 25 I know.
Phil Stieg: So you get an A for persistence and grit. What have you learned. What’s different about your understanding of synesthesia?
Richard Cytowic: Oh, well, in early on, it seemed everybody who starts this thinks it’s going to be simple to answer, but when you answer one question, ten others arise. And I mean, at this point, I’m just the eminence gris. I mean, I mentor younger people who really do the latest research and stuff. And that’s been a paradigm shift, too, because at the beginning I would get phone calls and letters. Some people would say, oh, I’d love to do my PhD thesis on this, but my chairman would throw me out if I even proposed such a thing. I was struck by the vehemence with which people said “this cannot be real! This is not a brain phenomenon. They’re just making it up!” So eventually they got the pictures of the brain that they insisted on and that that put an end to the criticism, although, frankly, the MRI scans really don’t really tell us that much that we didn’t already know.
Do synesthetes have increased connections in their brain between different areas? Of course they do. Everybody does. It’s just that synesthetes have more of them and they’re consciously aware that they do. Now, let me give you an example of this. So sight and sound are normally coupled so tightly that even bad ventriloquists convince us that the dummy’s talking. Cinema likely persuades us that the dialogue’s coming from the mouths on the screen, not the speakers behind us. OK, so and we all lip read, even though we never think about it. The noisier it gets, the more we have to look at a person’s face and mouth to see what they’re saying. So we are all synesthetes , we’re just not aware that we are.
Phil Stieg: To a certain degree, we all are.
Richard Cytowic: Yes, we are.
Phil Stieg: I don’t want people to get confused. By and large, my sense of reading your book is that synesthetes are not sensory overload and they get along pretty well and they function better. But at times it can be problematic. And if so, how and when?
Richard Cytowic: The most common instance in which it’s overwhelming is when synesthesia goes in both directions. Now, normally it’s a one-way street. So that sound goes to vision, but vision doesn’t go to sound. But when it’s bidirectional, it can be confusing. There’s a music teacher, Julie Roxbury, outside of London, who’s been tested extensively to show that it does work in both ways. And she lives a fairly restricted life. Now for one of the BBC documentary She was very game to come into town at night and wander around Piccadilly Circus with the camera crew following her. And she said, oh, the neon green is screaming at me in the traffic and the lights and the decision that she if I don’t get out of here soon, I’m going to faint. So when it’s bidirectional, it can be overwhelming. But this is a very small percentage of synesthetes,- less than one percent.
Phil Stieg: So I guess if you asked a synesthete whether they’d like to have it or not. You’re saying the answer is a resounding yes, they like it.
Richard Cytowic: Oh, to lose it would be an odious state. Yes. But they assume often that everybody is like this. So one seven-year-old said to her friend, best friend, oh, my letter A is the most beautiful pink I’ve ever seen. What does your A look like. And she got a withering look like “you are crazy”. Synesthetes, when they’re ridiculed like that, they don’t talk about it at all, they keep it quiet and hidden. It can be emotionally damaging. She went around basically repressed for until she heard me on a book, talk on WQXR. And she and she called my office. She was in tears. She says, I can’t believe anybody is talking about this. My father has this, but he would never talk about it. I’ve had grown men in tears talking about you’re the first person that ever believed me. So, I mean, so for a physician and for a writer, I mean, it doesn’t get any better than that, people saying you saved my life, you changed my life.
Phil Stieg: So I’m going to ask you the hard question. You’ve been doing this for 42 years. Why is this important? What are we learning from it?
Richard Cytowic: Oh! Because it’s teaching us what regular, normal perception is like. You know, we used to think we had five tubes that traveled totally isolated from other senses. And now we know that there’s an incredible amount of cross connection going on in the brain all the time. So it’s widened our horizon in the way that we think about how the brain is organized. And of course, then in the nonscientific aspect of what has this paradigm shift caused? And to that, I’ll point to all the, you know, sixth graders and young students who have, you know, said, oh, we have to do a science project, I’m going to pick synesthesia. And they say “Wow, everybody, everybody sees the world differently than I do. Other people have their own point of view. So it’s helping them to realize that, you know, instead of I’m right, you’re wrong. It’s like, no, you said things differently than I do. My classmate does. So hopefully it’s making us more tolerant.
Phil Stieg: Maybe you maybe you can infect Congress and the Senate with this problem?
Richard Cytowic: We can only hope…
Phil Stieg: It begs the deeper question then and we’re getting a little bit philosophical is, you know, are you are you really asking what is reality? I mean, you as a synesthete sees things one way I see it another way.
Richard Cytowic: Well, we share a great deal of reality, but it’s just it’s again, it’s like the bright blind person and you. You have a different texture of reality than a blind individual does. A synesthete has a different texture of reality than the rest of us. But we’re all working in the same sort of group. It does give them an advantage in certain things in terms of memory and process and speed of perception and thinking.
Phil Stieg: Richard. In a reflective moment, you must wonder why me? Why did I spend forty-two years doing this? What was it about you? What happened?
Richard Cytowic: Oh, I don’t wonder about why me, because basically these people are so fascinating, how could you not be interested in it’s an inexhaustible topic, but people say, well, why did I believe these individuals when nobody else would? And everybody else is calling them frauds and bogus. And initially, I thought I cited my father, a physician, magician, raconteur, who instilled in me a taste for the offbeat in the unusual. But then you have two decades into that, I realize; Well, no, it’s because I’m gay. And that as a 10-year-old in New Jersey, my father’s medical profession said that I was sick. The state said that I was a criminal and the church said that I was damned and I hadn’t done anything I thought were these people have no idea what they’re talking about. So when I heard that synesthesia, oh, this can’t be real. You see, I thought I remember when people told me I couldn’t be real, so I thought, I’ll show them. And it’s and what’s the harm in looking anyway? And so here we are all these years later.
Phil Stieg: Dr. Richard Cytowic, what a pleasure it’s been to get the feeling through your personal journey with synesthesia, and I’m hopeful that people who listen to this podcast will get a sense of their own personal reality, the fact that they might have a slightly different texture than you and I might have.
Richard Cytowic: Right, and their special worth.
Phil Stieg: Right, and hopefully a tolerance for one another. Thank you so much for being with us.
Richard Cytowic: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.