Richard Cytowic's dinner host apologized, "There aren't enough points on the chicken!" He felt flavor also as a physical shape in his hands, and the chicken had come out "too round." This offbeat comment in 1980 launched Cytowic's exploration into the oddity called synesthesia. He is one of the few world authorities on the subject. Sharing a root with anesthesia ("no sensation"), synesthesia means "joined sensation," whereby a voice, for example, is not only heard but also seen, felt, or tasted. The trait is involuntary, hereditary, and fairly common. It stayed a scientific mystery for two centuries until Cytowic's original experiments led to a neurological explanation—and to a new concept of brain organization that accentuates emotion over reason. That chicken dinner two decades ago led Cytowic to explore a deeper reality that, he argues, exists in everyone but is often just below the surface of awareness (which is why finding meaning in our lives can be elusive). In this medical detective adventure, Cytowic shows how synesthesia, far from being a mere curiosity, illuminates a wide swath of mental life and leads to a new view of what is means to be human—a view that turns upside down conventional ideas about reason, emotional knowledge, and self-understanding. This 2003 edition features a new afterword.
Synesthesia: A Union of the Senses, The Man Who Tasted Shapes, The Neurological Side of Neuropsychology and (with David M. Eagleman) the Montaigne Medal–winner Wednesday Is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia, all published by the MIT Press.
Jonathan Cole, D.M., F.R.C.P., is Consultant in Clinical Neurophysiology, Poole Hospital, and at Salisbury Hospital (with its Spinal Centre), a Professor at Bournemouth University and a visiting Senior Lecturer, Southampton University.
A person with synesthesia might feel the flavor of food on her fingertips, sense the letter “J” as shimmering magenta or the number “5” as emerald green, hear and taste her husband's voice as buttery golden brown. Synesthetes rarely talk about their peculiar sensory gift—believing either that everyone else senses the world exactly as they do, or that no one else does. Yet synesthesia occurs in one in twenty people, and is even more common among artists. One famous synesthete was novelist Vladimir Nabokov, who insisted as a toddler that the colors on his wooden alphabet blocks were “all wrong.” His mother understood exactly what he meant because she, too, had synesthesia. Nabokov's son Dmitri, who recounts this tale in the afterword to this book, is also a synesthete—further illustrating how synesthesia runs in families.
In Wednesday Is Indigo Blue, pioneering researcher Richard Cytowic and distinguished neuroscientist David Eagleman explain the neuroscience and genetics behind synesthesia's multisensory experiences. Because synesthesia contradicted existing theory, Cytowic spent twenty years persuading colleagues that it was a real—and important—brain phenomenon rather than a mere curiosity. Today scientists in fifteen countries are exploring synesthesia and how it is changing the traditional view of how the brain works. Cytowic and Eagleman argue that perception is already multisensory, though for most of us its multiple dimensions exist beyond the reach of consciousness. Reality, they point out, is more subjective than most people realize. No mere curiosity, synesthesia is a window on the mind and brain, highlighting the amazing differences in the way people see the world.
Sometimes described as a blending of perceptions, synesthesia occurs when only one of the fives senses is aroused but two respond. Journalist Patricia Lynne Duffy draws from her own struggles and breakthroughs with synesthesia to help us better understand the condition, while describing some of the major theories surrounding it.
An illuminating examination of the world of synesthetes, Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens is a must-read for science and health buffs, as well as for artists, writers, and creative thinkers-or anyone generally intrigued by the brain, the senses, and perception.