SciAm_2003 - www.sciam.com SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN 53 DAVID...

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Unformatted text preview: www.sciam.com SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN 53 DAVID EMMITE Jones and Coleman are among a handful of otherwise normal people who have synesthesia. They experience the ordinary world in extraordinary ways and seem to inhabit a mysterious no-man’s-land between fantasy and reality. For them the sens- es—touch, taste, hearing, vision and smell—get mixed up in- stead of remaining separate. Modern scientists have known about synesthesia since 1880, when Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, pub- lished a paper in Nature on the phenomenon. But most have brushed it aside as fakery, an artifact of drug use (LSD and mescaline can produce similar effects) or a mere curiosity. About four years ago, however, we and others began to un- cover brain processes that could account for synesthesia. Along the way, we also found new clues to some of the most mysteri- ous aspects of the human mind, such as the emergence of ab- stract thought, metaphor and perhaps even language. A common explanation of synesthesia is that the affected people are simply experiencing childhood memories and asso- ciations. Maybe a person had played with refrigerator magnets as a child and the number 5 was red and 6 was green. This the- ory does not answer why only some people retain such vivid sensory memories, however. You might think of cold when you look at a picture of an ice cube, but you probably do not feel cold, no matter how many encounters you may have had with ice and snow during your youth. Another prevalent idea is that synesthetes are merely being metaphorical when they describe the note C flat as “red” or say that chicken tastes “pointy”—just as you and I might speak of a “loud” shirt or “sharp” cheddar cheese. Our ordinary lan- guage is replete with such sense-related metaphors, and perhaps synesthetes are just especially gifted in this regard. We began trying to find out whether synesthesia is a gen- uine sensory experience in 1999. This deceptively simple ques- tion had plagued researchers in this field for decades. One nat- ural approach is to start by asking the subjects outright: “Is this just a memory, or do you actually see the color as if it were right in front of you?” When we tried asking this question, we did not get very far. Some subjects did respond, “Oh, I see it per- People with synesthesia — whose senses blend together — are providing valuable clues to understanding the organization and functions of the human brain By Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Edward M. Hubbard When Matthew Blakeslee shapes hamburger patties with his hands, he experiences a vivid bitter taste in his mouth. Esmerelda Jones (a pseudonym) sees blue when she listens to the note C sharp played on the piano; other notes evoke different hues — so much so that the piano keys are actually color-coded, making it easier for her to remember and play musical scales. And when Jeff Coleman looks at printed black numbers, he sees them in color, each a different hue. Blakeslee, Hearing Colors, Tasting Shapes fectly clearly.” But a more frequent reac-fectly clearly....
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SciAm_2003 - www.sciam.com SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN 53 DAVID...

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