Monday, September 04, 2006

Synesthesia's back in the news again

Paintings can be heard as well as seen

Well, DUH. Can't you hear The Scream when you look at it? Anyway, neuroscience is beginning to scratch the surface of this phenomenon called synesthesia, where sensory experiences "cross over" ... where people assign a particular color to a particular musical pitch, for example.

NORWICH (Reuters) - Artists such as Wassily Kandinsky appeal to more than just the visual sense because their work can also be heard -- at least by some people, a British neuroscientist said on Monday.

Synesthetes are individuals in whom one sense triggers another. Their senses are connected, so as well as seeing a painting such as "Composition VIII, 1923" by the Russian painter, the work also triggers sounds.

"What Kandinsky wanted to do was for it to appeal to hearing as well," Dr Jamie Ward, a neuroscientist at University College London (UCL), told a British science conference.

Whether or not Kandinsky was a synesthete is not known but Ward said the artist certainly knew about the sensory phenomenon.

Synesthetes make up only about one to two percent of the population but Ward believes everyone links music and art unconsciously.

To test the theory, in a series of experiments he asked synesthetes to draw and describe their vision of music played by the New London Orchestra.


Other people without synesthesia, who acted as a control group, did the same and a professional artist created animations of the images related to the music.

"We played them musical notes and got them to draw and describe what they see," Ward said.

When more than 200 people were shown 100 images and asked to choose the animations that best suited the music, they consistently selected the images from the synesthetes.

"It's almost as if everybody can appreciate these synesthetic images even if they don't have synesthesia," he added.

People are born with synesthesia, which runs in families. Ward and other scientists believe that by studying the phenomenon they can learn more about how the senses and thoughts are linked in the brain.

"Kandinsky wanted to make visual art more like music -- more abstract. He also hoped that his paintings would be heard by his audiences," Ward added.


I've always liked Kandinsky's work. I wonder if it's because it can be experienced on more than one level?

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