What is Synaesthesia: Myths and Reality

Bulat M. Galeyev


The author presents his understanding of synaesthesia and its manifestations in art, arguing and defending the opinion that it is not the mind anomaly but a norm of human psychics (perception, imagination, creativity). He considers it as a specific manifestation of non-verbal thinking, realized by either involuntary or purposeful comparison of the impressions of different modalities, on the basis of structural or semantic and, most of all, emotional similarity. On his opinion, synaesthesia is social, cultural, but not biological phenomenon. It is exactly language and art that serve as the "testing areas" where synaesthesia is formed and most actively cultivated. The functions of synaesthesia in monosensory and bisensory (i.e. synthetical) arts are discussed separately.

Introduction: let's come to common understanding on terminology

The interest has become noticebly higher to "synaesthesia" phenomenon in last years. Such "synaesthetic" boom was only in the end of XIX century in Europe (France, United Kingdom, Russia), and then in Germany and USA in 20s of XX century. Nowadays, experts on synaesthesia discuss the problems not only at traditional conferences and on pages of hardcopy journals, but also, due to progress of information exchange means, create special WWW-sites and hold teleconferences. But if one compare the interpretation of "synaesthesia" term by International synaesthetical association (http://nevis.stir.ac.uk/~ldg/ISA), French group SynaesthesiaMetafort (http://www.metafort.com/), Leonardo Journal (http://mitpress.mit.edu/e- journal/Leonardo/home.html) and by other researchers (see, for example, one can notice that even now these interpretations differ. This complicates, naturally , mutual understanding and provokes misunderstandings and conflicts. But the discussions are necessary (that are these discussions which give birth if even not to truth, then at least to formulation of problem worth solving). I don't beleive my opinion on problems being discussed is absolute true, but I have been involved tightly in the researches of synaesthesia for 30-40 years and have published several monographs and dozens of articles on the topic. And it seems to me that I have answers to some questions being discussed in printed editions and on the WWW. But to my regret, the most part of my publications are in Russian, language unaccessible to Western readers. The language barriers have negative effect on my work too. That's why I and my colleagues have been able to prepare and publish in English only few short articles and reports, being, to all appearances, translated roughly [1,2,3,4,5]. And the content of my monographs was presented in the West in yet more short reviews, not providing enough full idea of my positions [6,7].

In view of this, I will try to join the discussion being carried on in the West and to present, though again in short, the kind of author's thesis of my previous publications on synaesthesia for possible discussion of my arguments on the pages of the Leonardo journal.

Subject of our investigation: synaesthesia as psychic phenomenon

It is well known to experts that the very term "synaesthesia", along with its temporary synonym "colour hearing", was brought into scientific usage about hundred years ago. But even encyclopedias and thesises lacked and lack now uniformity in establishing limits of the term and, respectively, in its definition. The synaesthesia was interpreted, first of all, as:

For example, they ascribe such expressions as "skyblue sound of flute" (by Russian poet K.Balmont) to literature synaesthesias, pictures by W.Kandinsky, J.Belmont, H.Valensi - to painting synaesthesias, pieces by K.Debussi, N.A.Rymski-Korsakov, O.Messian - to musical synaesthesias, even implying in such way existence of special "synaesthetic" genres (program music, musical painting) and what is more - of "synaesthetic" forms (kinds) of art (light-music, musical abstract films). Most noticeable raise of interest to such interpretation of synaesthesia is observed today, when intensive experiments in synthesyzing modern audiovisual, computer aids (means) are conducted. So, one can see that the situation is actually not very favourable for mutual understanding.

In connection with this, one should recall Descartes who warned that to get convention about terms means solving half of problem! Taking into account the specificity of the situation a researcher should warn in each case what is his interpretation of a term used. And one should certainly suggest from the very beginning possible conditioning of all such interpretations of synaesthesia by basic, psychological phenomenon ("intersensorial links"). And the conditioning is actual as we'll see later. All the abovestated is more or less evident - both in methodological and in logical aspect.

At first - about myths and their origins

The very factor complicating the situation is difficulty in basic understanding of the intersensorial links on the psychical level. Some researchers interpret "synaesthesia" as "anomaly", even "disease" (though "useful"), while others regard it as a miracle, the mystic human faculty (which can be opened only to the masters of esoteric cults). It is also difficult to agree with the "positive" science, when it tries to reduce the purely artistic, metaphoric analogies, such as "colouring- timbre" of W. Kandinsky, "colouring-tonality" of A. Scriabin, to neurophysiological peculiarities of their brains (besides, to unique and unnecessary, such as "sixth sense", "third eye", "fifth leg", etc.). But most remarkable on the background is the fact that both in Russia and Western countries, the majority of theoretical works are devoted not to synaesthesia itself, but to its manifestations, researches being carried not in field of psychology, but in the related fields of science - in linguistics, musicology, aesthetics, pedagogy. The reserachers consider synaesthesia just as a matter of fact, and study its functioning in language, art and culture. All this, while taking into account the discordance in explanations of the very essence of synaesthesia, leads, of course, to the mess in their conclusions. In this connection the vital problem arises, so to say, "to put in order" the basic, i.e. psychological, understanding of the "synaesthesia" phenomenon. That is what I have had to deal with for many years, though as art theorist I mostly cared, certainly, for functions and role of synaesthesia in artistic creativity.

When looking through the literature on this subject I was stricken (as well as I am stricken now) with the fact that many researchers tried, for some reason, to search for the essence of synaesthesia precisely and only on out-, over-, pre-human level, not within limits of norm of human psychics, language and art where it actually belongs to. I don't reject the possibility of anomalies, deviations in synaesthesia. Anomalies occur in every psychical phenomenon - both in perceiving, in memory and in thinking. But by no means this fact does not allow to interpret as anomalous the phenomena themselves. The fate of the term "synaesthesia" turned out to be more tragic. I will not cite discouraging examples from Western publications, being too numerous, but confine myself to providing an example from "native" scientific sources. Prominent Soviet academician (neurophysiologist) A. Luria noticed, describing the actually unique, rear clinical case of actual co-sensations experienced by his patient Shereshevsky in his book, the Western researchers like to cite too [8], that synaesthesia occurs sometimes with "cerebral atherosclerosis" and is observed also with "late pregnancy intoxication". And in the same passage Luria cites in one row with abovementioned facts, without any additional comments, Scriabin's "color hearing"! This time honorable academician is a victim of prejudice and author of evident nonsense. Scriabin could suffer from cerebral atherosclerosis, but least probably from last pregnancy...

Jokes apart, it is evident that the basic stimulus for estimation of synaesthesia's nature as anomalous one is interpretation of all its manifestation as literal " co- sensations", being applied just to artistic and poetic cases. The term "synaesthesia" is the composite one ("synaesthesis"), being ethymologically deciphered as "co- sensation". In the same time, they don't pay attention to the fact, that Ancient Greek's word "aesthesis" is also the root of term "aesthetics". And nobody will interpret seriously the aesthetics as "science on senses". Maybe, there is something wrong with understanding of the very word "aesthesis"? But let us note that such situation of the vagueness in the understanding of this (such) word is inherent to many languages, for example, to Russian language as well as to English one. For the latter, the word "sense" has as many meanings as the word "aesthesis": it is the root of the words "sensation", "sensorial", "sensitivity", and is also used for describing emotional sphere phenomena, and what is more, thinking processes (as, for example, in the phrase : "there is no sense in...").

Since such vagueness of the term is inherent to many languages, it means that we have deal with not etimological absurdity only. The reason of it is of more deep, namely epistemological kind. The matter is, as it appears, that existence of separate terms "sensation", "perception" and "emotion" is a result of mere scientifical abstraction. Actually, in the very sensory act the sensation and emotional reaction (and sometimes the realizing of the sense of the object) is integral, indivisible, simultaneous process. It is precisely this fact that explains the incorrect use, from the point of view of strict science, of the word "sense" in the combinations "organ of senses" or "sense organs". It would be more correct to say "organs of sensation". This is that epistemological peculiarity of "sensuality" which is the base for inadequate interpretation of the term "synaesthesia". Just this is the reason , on my opinion, of stable tendency to interpret literaly such statements of musicians, Scriabin, for example: "Cdur is red for me" as evidence of real perceiving colour while listening to music...

But, at any case, the stable prejudice still exists, as if Scriabin "possessed" the unique ability of "color hearing" which is understood as an actual "co-sensation", actual seeing of chords and tonalities in certain colors. Better acquaintance with the problem, including the study of Scriabin's documents, the questioning among the writers, painters and children, make us doubt the correctness of this opinion. In fact, while looking into the problem more deeply, the synaesnhesia appears to be not so unique feature, and the expression like "he possesses the ability of synaesthesia" is rather incorrect. The ability to connect in consciousness the visual and audible phenomena, sounds and smells is inherent to everyone (though to a different extent, depending upon a degree of creative imagination). Moreover, it's noteworthy that common language is synaesthetical quite through, and really is a cemetery of synaesthetic metaphors, such as "bright voice", "loud colors", "sharp sound", "dull timbre", "light music", "baritone" (i.e. "heavy tone"). As a result, one may conclude that the very notion of "colour hearing" appears to be a metaphor, and Scriabin, of course, never saw any real colors while hearing music and comparing C-dur with red colour. As well as Kandinsky never heard any real sounds when he compared, for example, the viola timbre with a green colour. The explanation may be as follows: being the men of artistic nature they concentrated their attention on this ability, which is common to all people, and tried to understand it.

After all, when we say "black horror" or "blue mood", it does not mean that we see these colors actually. When somebody uses, for example, the word combination "cold gaze", it does not mean that "coldness" has to be proved by temperature measurements of the gaze itself with a help of thermometer. If to put aside such scholastic reasoning and look at the problem seriously, it appears that the stability of this prejudice - to consider Scriabin and Kandinsky as some unique synaesthetes, who actually "saw" sounds and "heard" colors, inevitably leads to conclusion, that it is based upon the involuntary striving of bourgeois "Philistines" to explain in a simple way the complex phenomena concerned human psychics and art. (As it is known, they would like to explain the singularity of colouring in the paintings of the great Van Gogh by his probable daltonism, and the ecstatic stretchening of the figures in El Greco's paintings by his hypothetical optic astigmatism). Even the experience of everyday using of language synesthesia proves the fact that the literal deciphering of the notion "synaesthesia" as "co-sensation" does not correspond to the actual content of this phenomenon. I would like to note once more - the real obsessive "co- sensation" could exist of course, but as an exception to the norm. Therefore, such "co-sensations" could not have any relation to art, to Scriabin, to poetical synaesthesia, as well as one could not compare and mix up, for example, the clinical hallucinations with the figurative, imaginative pictures of poetic texts.

What is synaesthesia actually

Synaesthesia, at least of that kind which is used in common language and art, is not a "co-sensation" but rather a "co-imagination" or "co-feeling". By its psychological nature it is "association", specifically "intersensory association". And as any association it can be either passive or active, creative kind, having various degree of emotional experience, up to eidetic one.

As it is known, the simplest, from the point of genesis, are "the associations of contiguity" (which are the basis of metonymy in poetry). Most frequently they are individual and incidental. (By the way, the science in the past confined itself to exactly these psychic links, and, as a result, promoted the negative attitude to the so-called "associationism". For example, this was the attitude to the associative explanation of the "colour hearing" of Kandinsky, though it is obvious from the context of his reasoning, that he did operates with the associations (but of another kind, not "of contiguity").

It is the "associations of similarity" which are of prime importance for art (correspondingly, they form the basis of metaphors and comparisons in language ). Unlike the "associations of contiguity", these ones have much in common for all people. Of course, "associations of similarity" and, correspondingly, metaphors also have subjective, individual character. For example, a certain poet may compare his beloved slender girl with a lily, the second one - with a gazelle and the third one - with a cypress. But all of these metaphors have a certain common kernel (in this case it is the slenderness and beauty). Thus, there is obvious motivation of the comparisons here, and consequently they are very clear to everybody, though they are different from the formal point of view. But "different" does not mean "any". Thus, the beloved girls, slender as a lily, gazelle or cypress, would be shocked if being compared with hippopotamus or tank... And just in the same way Kandinsky explained the basis of his color-timbre associations, using the rule of contraries. He wrote: "Maybe, no one could be found, who wished to search the impression of bright-yellow colour in the bass keys of piano or marked the crimson colour by the sound of soprano". No wonder that Scriabin tinctured the cheerful C-dur in a red colour and not in gloomy black or violet colors. It is clear why Balmont associated high and tender sound of flute with light-blue and not with brown colour.

Let's now return to more detailed explanation of the "associations of similarity" features. Considering the phenomenon of "similarity", one can notice that the similarity may be revealed in the structure, form, gestalt of the visual and acoustic image (for example, the common synaesthetic analogy "melody - graphics" is exactly of this kind). Side by side with this, the similarity may be revealed in the content, in emotional influence (which forms the basis of the above-mentioned synaesthetic analogies "timbre - colour", "tonality - colouring"). The latter type of synaesthesia, based on emotional similarity, is most inherent to art. In this case the psychic links are provided not only by the simplest but also by the superior, social emotions and therefore the synaesthesies may be considered as formed with the participation of the operations of thinking, though they proceed mostly at the subconscious level. In the light of the consciousness only the final result of this intersensory comparison can be seen and fixed in speech. The latency of the intermediate stage brings the element of mystery to synaesthesia, especially while taking into account that in this case seemingly incomparable things are compared. But, to emphasize it once more, all of us do accept and understand these comparisons. It means, there is something common and quite clear for everyone in this type of synaesthesia. Thus, "to compare", "to note the similarity" of things is the operation of thinking. In connection with this, synaeshesia may be related to the area of non-verbal (i.e. sensuous, figurative, deep-level) thinking, side by side with visual and musical thinking. To put it more precisely, the audio-visual synaesthesia itself is a mechanism which provides the connection between visual and musical thinking! ...

Thus, being the specific form of interaction in the whole system of sensory reflection, synaesthesia is the manifestation of the essential human faculties. Therefore, it is not the epiphenomenon and, of course, not the anomaly (as it was said in the announcement of "Leonardo" Synaesthesia Project), but the norm - though, due to it's origin might be concealed in some concrete cases, it is not readily available as a subject of fast scientific analysis. Moreover, synaesthesia can be characterized as concentrated and simultaneous actualization of the "sensuous" in a wide range of its manifestation. First, in this case we have deal with, so to speak, "doubled" sensority; and second, this metaphorical doubling is implemented by means of emotions (which relate to the sensuous realm too). That is why art was always the main field of social practice, where synaesthesia was cultivated and appeared. Let's remind that the understanding of the genesis and the essence of art itself as a method of developing of the universal human "sensuality", taken in its integrity and harmony, had been affirmed throughout the history (by Baumgarten, Kant, Hegel, Feuerbach and many others).

All these conclusions are kind of final sentence on "anomalous" explanations of the nature of synaesthesia. But if to remind the history of science, we shall reveal, all of a sudden, that there is nothing strange in arising of such "anomalous" explanations. As it is known, not long ago, in 17 century, the "associations" themselves were usually apprised as "some sort of madness" (J. Locke). Beside that, at the beginning of 19 century verbal metaphor as language phenomenon was characterized by some linguists as "semantic anomaly" and "brain disease" (M. Muller). Now everything is repeated, as we may see - though in respect of non-verbal associative (synaesthetic) thinking, in respect of non-verbal intersensory metaphor which is considered, at the beginning, as psychic anomaly too.

Functions of synaesthesia in the arts

Synaesthesia, as the essential feature of art thinking, compensates, to some extent, the lack of sensuality in the monosensory arts. It is exactly the involvement of synaesthesia that explains the relative indifference of art image to the restrictions inherent to each art realm, as well as the universal phenomenon of the united "space- time" in art. Each kind of art has its own specific totality of synaesthesies or "synaesthetic fund". The specific synaesthetic fund of each art changes in the course of time. Its structure and content generally correspond to the evolution of the expressive means of these arts (so to speak, it serves as a medium, or mechanizm, which provides the interaction of different art realms). This interrelation of the development of synaesthetic abilities and the specific features of the separate art realms leads to nearly paradoxical synchronism of two parallel processes: the formation of the demands for art synthesis and, on the other hand, the appearance of internal conditions for it's realization. (In 1719 centuries this synthesis had been realized at theatre stage and in 20 century at screen.). And in each case the intensification of the synaestheticity of the monosensory arts is an indicator and accelerator of the coming synthesis!

Correspondingly, the function of synaesthesia changes considerably in the new situation, when the synthesis occurs (i.e. inside the synthetic audiovisual art work). The synaesthetic fund forms in this case the psychological aim at the most expected, trivial comparisons of the visual and audible. But in the genuine audiovisual creative art works this psychological aim has to be overcome by the aesthetic aim, determined in each case by a concrete artist's intention. And it is the audiovisual counterpoint, audiovisual polyphony that provide the image unity and organic integration of the various art means in the synthesis (whatever technical tools would be used - electronics, computers, lazers, etc.). But, as the saying goes, in order to break the rules, one should have known them. And, correspondingly, in order to develop in the synthetic art the method of audiovisual counterpoint (i.e. reject the "prompt" of synaesthesia), it is necessary to have a knowledge of it's nature and the forms of it's manifestation in common, not synthetic arts, in literature, and in common language (therefore, in the whole culture). That is why it is necessary to go on studying the psychological nature of this phenomenon too...


  1. Galeyev B. The problem of synaesthesia in the arts. Languages of Design, 1993, N1, p.201-203.
  2. Galeyev B. Synaesthesia and musical space. - Leonardo, 1993, N1, p.76-78.
  3. Galeyev B. Modern Laokoon: Aesthetic Problem of Synaesthesia. - Leonardo, 1994, N5, p.505-507.
  4. Vanechkina I. "Musical graphics" as an instrument for Musicoloqists and Educators. - Leonardo, 1994, N 5, p.437- 439.
  5. Galeyev B. Review: Sound and Sense, by A.P.Zheuravlev. - Languages of Design, 1994, N 2, p.167-168.
  6. Voronin S. Reviews: Man - Art - Technology: The problem of synaesthesia in art, by B.Galeyev; Light-music in the system of the arts, by B.Galeyev. - Leonardo, 1994, N5, p.449-450.
  7. Vaneckina I. Review: Light-music in the system of the arts, by B.Galeyev - Languages of Design, 1993, N3, p.286.
  8. Luria A. (1968). The Mind of a Mnemonist: a Little Book About a Vast Memory. - New York: Basic Book, 1976.

(Translated by V.Skorokhodov, V.Chudnovsky)

(Published in "Leonardo Electronic Almanac", v.7, 1999 , N 6)