Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sense (for example, hearing) leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sense (such as sight). People with synesthesia often report seeing colors when they hear certain sounds or tasting shapes when they see specific colors.
While the condition is relatively rare, it is more common in people who are creative and have jobs in the arts. This has led some researchers to believe synesthesia may be linked to creativity and visual artistry.
Sensory experiences through synesthesia in art
Dr. Richard Cytowic is a world-renowned neurologist and author who has been studying synesthesia for over 30 years. In his groundbreaking book, The Man Who Tasted Shapes, he first proposed the theory that synesthesia is a neurological condition where the brain cross-wires the senses, resulting in extraordinary experiences like tasting shapes or hearing colors.
Since then, Dr. Cytowic has continued to be at the forefront of synesthesia research, working to unlock the mysteries of this fascinating condition. Recently, he has turned his attention to exploring the potential links between synesthesia and creativity.
In a 2014 interview with Big Think, Dr. Cytowic discussed some of his latest findings on synesthesia and creativity. He explained that while there is no definitive proof that synesthesia leads to greater creativity, there is evidence that people with synesthesia are more likely to excel in fields that require creative thinking.
For example, many famous artists and musicians have been found to have synesthesia, and it is not coincidental that these are two fields where creativity is highly valued. It is also worth noting that people with synesthesia often report vivid dreams, which could be another manifestation of their heightened creativity.
Art and science are broadening our horizons of perception, allowing us to see things we never could before.
Artist synesthetes embrace the neurological condition
Synesthesia is not rare as people think; studies indicate that 4% of the population has some form of synesthesia. Several visual artists, musicians, and writers acknowledged having synesthetic experiences throughout history.
Vincent Van Gogh, an acclaimed artist known for his paintings of flowers, was born with synesthesia. As a child, he would experience intense emotions whenever he heard music.
For Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, music and color were inextricably bound together. The abstract painter and musician created an iconic collection of paintings that expressed his associations between each musical note and its exact color.
“The sound of colors is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would express bright yellow with bass notes or dark lake with treble.”Wassily Knadinsky
Carol Steen has experienced multiple forms of synesthesia throughout her life, including grapheme-to-color synesthesia, music-to-color synesthesias, and touch-to-color synesthesia. Many involve trying to capture, select, or transmit her synesthetic experiences onto her paintings.
Synesthesia as a window into, but not a roadmap for artistry
Some researchers have suggested that people who experience synaesthesia may be more creative because they can form meaningful associations between disparate objects.
One study found a significant tendency for synesthetes to spend more time engaging in the visual arts. At least in part, this was due to the type of synaesthetic experiences they had.
For example, people who experience visual sensations from music are likelier to play an instrumental instrument than others.
However, the same researchers found no relationship between this tendency and the psychometric measures of creativity, but synaesthetes outperformed controls on remote association testing.
So synesthesia in the arts may have better bottom-up associative access but not necessarily a better ability to use them flexibly.