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Fantasia: A Composer’s Experience of Synesthesia

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Ed. Note: This blog originally appeared on Sleights of Mind.

Composer and synesthete Harley Gittleman visited our institute  recently to discuss his perception. Synesthesia is when you experience more than one sensory perception in response to stimulation of  a single sensory modality. Often, people see numbers as having colors (even when they are uncolored physically, they see specific replicable colors matched to numbers. Estimates are as much as 5% of the population have some degree of synesthesia.

Harley perceives specific colors and shapes when he hears certain tones. That’s especially interesting in his case because he is a professional composer and musician. Harley played some of his wonderful music for us = and pointed to colors as he experienced synesthesia in relationship to the tones, in real time. His daily life is awash in color, motion and shape. He listens only to talk shows when he drives and he’s been known to walk into a wall or two when he absent-mindedly attends to the floating colors and shapes in front of him instead of to the real world.






Current theories suggest that synesthesia is due to wiring between neighboring brain areas that usually are not connected together. This idea is bolstered by brain imaging studies showing increased connectivity and mutual functional activation between neighboring brain areas in synesthetes  as compared to non-synesthetes.

Synesthesia might be due to mutations in genes controlling neural plasticity and pruning of neurons. In that case, it may have an adaptive value from an evolutionary standpoint, as it brings new insight and relationships between neural experiences in a way that is interesting and fairly harmless.

Do you experience synesthesia? If so, is it useful to your everyday life?


Stephen L. Macknik About the Author: Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen L. Macknik are laboratory directors at SUNY Downstate Medical Center. Follow on Twitter @illusionchasers.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. JRWermuth 4:58 pm 05/7/2013

    Yes – and, not sure.

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  2. 2. jgrosay 12:18 pm 05/8/2013

    I guess synesthesia, for example considering Bob Marley’s music as colorful or coloured after several years of Cannabis products use, is too close to delusional or hallucinatory experiences, as to make a decission not to discuss it openly and even less considering it a normal phenomenon. Some that injected Cocaine referred hearing noises just after dosing; many of these experiences can be considered as poor performance of CNS in persons having this kind of sensations, and all this can be measured in an objective way.

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