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Literally Psyched

Literally Psyched


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From the words of an albino, a brilliant blend of color


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Georg Tobias Ludwig Sachs was born on April 22, 1786, in the mountain village of St. Ruprecht, Kärnthen, or Carinthia – the south of present-day Austria. From the first, he was notably different from his parents and siblings: he was an albino. (His youngest sister, eleven years his junior, would be one as well.) We don’t know if this physical distinction had any negative impact on the young Georg—but it certainly piqued his curiosity. He proceeded to embark on the scientific study of albinism at the universities in Tübingen, Altdorf, and Erlangen, and at the last of these, produced his 1812 doctoral dissertation. It was about albinism: “A Natural History of Two Albinos, the Author and His Sister.”

Today, though, Sachs is remembered not for his thoughts on the nature of the albino, but rather those on another curious condition that was far less noticeable—but received a chapter of its very own in his thesis all the same: synesthesia. Georg Sachs just so happens to be the first known synesthete in the medical or psychological literature.

For some synesthetes, each experience is colored. Credit: Creative Commons, carlandcannon Flickr stream.

Synesthesia means, literally, a cross-mingling of the senses, when two or more senses talk to each other in a way that is not usually associated with either sense on its own. For instance, you see color when you listen to a song on the radio. Taste shapes as you take a bite of your spaghetti. Frown at the 3 on that piece of paper because it’s giving you attitude—it seems irritable. Smile at the woman you just met because her name comes with a beautiful orange glow. The variations are many, but in every scenario, there is a sensory cross-talk that reaches to a neural level. As in, if I were to put you in a scanner while you took that bite or listened to that musical composition, the relevant areas of the brain would light up: your brain would actually be experiencing color, shape, or whatever you say you’re experiencing as if you were exposed to that very stimulus. It’s a condition that affects, by the most recent estimates, roughly 4% of the population.

When Sachs wrote of his sensory landscape, he strove to remain as scientifically objective as possible. He described his experience in the third person, becoming simply, “the brother,” and tried his best to keep his observations on a neutral level.

“There is much which either never comes before the eyes, or which cannot be reckoned with usual sight, that either does not belong to the sense of vision, or which is not perceptible to the senses,” he writes of his condition. This, in turn, “in the mind of the brother inspires dark ideas of different colors, so intimate and recurring, that cannot be conceived of, or only scarcely and with difficulty, without a certain attention.” Sachs then tries to get at the core of his experience: “I cannot express it better than to say a colored idea appears to him.”

A synesthetic alphabet. Image credit: Creative Commons, twitchfract Flickr stream.

Sachs’s automatic merging of color and thought extended beyond colored ideas. Numbers, days of the week, time periods, letters, notes of music: all of these elements “adopt those colors. These introduce themselves to the mind as if a series of visible objects in dark space, formless and noticeably of different colors.” He goes on to examine the strength and vividness of each color, its frequency of occurrence, the context in which it appears or changes (for instance, in compound numbers, he finds that the higher number’s color eventually prevails, though all colors remain distinguishable). In short, he goes on to document many of the hallmarks that we now use as criteria in establishing whether or not someone has synesthesia.

And then, just like that, he’s back to talking about albinism, his main topic of interest. The sudden aside is concluded just as abruptly as it began.

But here’s the curious thing. Even back in the early 1800s, the initial responses to Sachs’s thesis professed an interest not just in its main topic but specifically in that single chapter, in his description of the strange relationship with color that, well, colored his life in profound fashion. One anonymous reviewer called it a “curious connection of ideas,” while another (also anonymous) posited that the condition had something to do with “an overall higher sense of vision.”

In 1848, the French ophthalmologist Charles-Auguste Édouard Cornaz, whose main area of specialty was congenital eye disease, posited that Sachs’s synesthesia appeared to be “at opposite to me with dyschromatopsia … and I would propose to give it the name hyperchromatopsia (perception of too many colors).” In other words, he saw it as the opposite end of a spectrum that began with colorblindness.

Sachs, however, had seen his own condition in a different light. Not only was it not an “abnormality,” as Cornaz had described it, but it was shared by “a very famous man” (anonymous, alas) and was likely a product of “the minds,” and not the eyes. In that view, he was much closer to the modern understanding of synesthesia—though even today, researchers remain unclear as to the exact causes of the condition. Is it a sort of neural hyperconnectivity that is present in some brains but not others? A condition where neuronal inhibition and activation thresholds are somehow lower in some cases than in others, so that connections that are theoretically present in all heads are actually activated in some? A case of hyper-imprinting in infancy or early childhood? All or any or none of the above, depending on what specific type of synesthesia we are dealing with? The answers remain elusive, albeit tantalizingly close.

Newton believed in a physical correspondance between music and color. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, Godfrey Kneller 1702.

But whatever the case, one thing is clear. Synesthesia has long exerted a magnetic pull on the scientific and creative mind. Be it in Isaac Newton’s theory that a physical law would be discovered to explain the relationship between the seven colors of the light spectrum and the seven tonal intervals in the octave, or Robert Boyle’s account of a man who, while congenitally blind, could tell the color of a cloth through touch alone; in Charles Baudelaire’s poetic rendering of the correspondence of perfume, color and sound and perfumes that are green as meadows and fresh as oboes, or Arthur Rimbaud’s “A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: vowels,” there is no shortage of speculation on just what it means to see a world where senses are more fluid and open than we would otherwise have them be. Sachs just happened to offer the first known account that was more than artistic license or creative speculation.

He would never know just how important his ideas had become. Two years after the publication of his “Natural History of Two Albios,” Georg Sachs died of “nerve fever.” He had just turned 28. Who knows where his academic career would have taken him had he survived—but as it is, he left behind an account of sensory experience that remains as relevant now, over 200 years later, as it was when it was first conceived. And isn’t it somehow poetic that the first known scientific account of such brilliant color comes to us from someone who was an albino?

 
Jewanski, J., Day, S., & Ward, J. (2009). A Colorful Albino: The First Documented Case of Synaesthesia, by Georg Tobias Ludwig Sachs in 1812 Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 18 (3), 293-303 DOI: 10.1080/09647040802431946

Simner, J. (2012). Defining synaesthesia British Journal of Psychology, 103 (1), 1-15 DOI: 10.1348/000712610X528305

Maria Konnikova About the Author: Maria Konnikova is a writer living in New York City. She is the author of the New York Times best-seller MASTERMIND (Viking, 2013) and received her PhD in Psychology from Columbia University. Follow on Twitter @mkonnikova.

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





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  1. 1. Jean 7:57 pm 02/26/2013

    One wonders if his death diagnosed as the result of “nerve fever,” was indicative of a situation, tumor, other pressure, that affected the color perception centers of his brain.

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  2. 2. plexed 10:20 pm 02/26/2013

    Synaesthesia seems to change over time, at least in my personal experience. I used to associate letters and numbers with colors and tastes (a little) when I was young. Now reaching 50, I have a hard time doing the association without really thinking about it. I wonder if the brain increases in organization over time, reducing the “leakage” between sensory centers.

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  3. 3. Maria Konnikova in reply to Maria Konnikova 9:27 am 02/27/2013

    Very interesting! There are a number of theories on why that may be the case, but no definitive explanation. Thank you for sharing your experience!

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  4. 4. Maria Konnikova in reply to Maria Konnikova 9:28 am 02/27/2013

    Interesting question. Synesthesia has been known to be “acquired” as a result of brain injury or trauma. However, in those cases it tends to appear later in life, post-injury. As far as we know, Sachs had the condition his whole life.

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  5. 5. ryanjsheaffer 1:15 pm 02/27/2013

    Over 60 types of synesthesia have been reported,but only a fraction have been evaluated by scientific research the fact that this was able to look at it. from the third person and write a book about it with a scientific background is really astounding. i also dont really see how it would be possible for this to be a form of color blindness when people are associating sounds with colors as well. Different Stimulations seem to be just firing off multiple neurotransmitters that are apealing to different sences

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  6. 6. Maria Konnikova in reply to Maria Konnikova 3:56 pm 02/27/2013

    Yes, what you say about multiple types and the difficulty of reconciling that with the possibility that synesthesia is a type of colorblindness is quite valid. But we also should remember that back in the 1800s, scientists knew next to nothing about the condition–and very likely didn’t suspect that these types even existed.

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  7. 7. Geopelia 8:10 pm 03/6/2013

    I often smell things on TV. Great for a cooking or gardening program, not so good when detectives dig up a body!
    I wonder though if it is just the brain imagining smells, which then seem real.

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