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We asked high profile Australian violinist and artistic director of the Canberra International Music Festival, Chris Latham to answer the following question...

Chris Latham

July 2009

The Question:
Does experiencing music involve more senses than just hearing?

Editor's note: Chris Latham inherited his mother's great sensitivity of perception as well as synaesthesia, and through his father, who was a gifted doctor, he inherited a talent for healing. Although these qualities may be considered gifts they left him wishing to remain private and silent on these matters so as not to be rejected for being different.

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I am not sure any more what I am experiencing (in terms of synaesthesia) but I know it is not something that most people can relate to and while it is of huge importance and interest to me, it is too difficult to describe it to someone who has no sense of it and it just doesn't seem to translate well so I don't seem to try anymore but this piece written for the Four Winds Festival by Deputy Chairperson of the festival, Terry Irwin, may suffice to answer the question...

Erica Goode wrote in the New York Times in September 1999, "Most people experience the sensory world as a place of orderly segregation. Sight, sound, smell, taste and touch are distinct and separate: A Beethoven symphony is not pink and azure; the name Angela does not taste like creamed spinach. Yet there are those for whom these basic rules of the senses do not seem to apply. They have a rare condition called Synaesthesia, in which the customary boundaries between the senses appear to break down, sight mingling with sound, or taste with touch."

Synaesthesia was once thought to be quite rare, and although known for the past 300 years, it has only really been studied seriously for the past 20 years or so. The advent of MRI scans to study brain activity and the Internet to link those interested in the subject however has greatly increased the awareness of synaesthesia if not the exact understanding of it.

If you want a more academic description of synaesthesia: Synaesthesia, a neurological condition affecting between 0.05 and 3% of the population, is characterised by anomalous sensory perception: a stimulus in one sensory modality triggers an automatic, instantaneous, consistent response in another modality (e.g. sound evokes colour) or in a different aspect of the same modality (e.g. black text evokes colour).

The ABC television programme, Catylst, interviewed twins, Jennifer and Catherine Strutt, who talked about synaesthesia where sounds, sights and odours are mixed. Jennifer reported seeing a light blue when hearing wind instruments, and Catherine conjured a darker green coming into purple when listening to a double bass or a cello.

Others on the program spoke of how a piece in a major key showed colours brighter and a minor key darker. Scientists are now taking the reports of synaesthetes very seriously and Melbourne University has set up a research program to investigate this further.

The Catylst presenter ended by saying, "It's early days yet but already the researchers have found that people with synaesthesia do seem to use their brains differently and this can actually help them in certain tasks. For example, it seems a surprisingly large number of synaesthetes are artists… and a tantalising theory is… the reason for that is that synaesthetes have extra brain regions devoted to colour imagery."

Chris Latham believes that most people actually have synaesthetic reactions - the classic pairing of a smell and the triggering of an old memory would be a familiar experience to everyone. Certainly he believes it is far higher than the usual quoted estimates of 5% of the population being synaesthetes, but that simply most of us do not recognise the blurring and crossover between our senses as being unusual – it is just part and parcel of our daily experience.

While the combination of sound and colour is the classic synaesthetic pairing, a more common link is between sight and smell, where the viewing of an object produces a sense of its smell – for example even when the viewed object is behind glass. Often people will not even realise that the smell they perceive is not an actual sensation but a suggested one. Chris has an unusual form of sensory blending where he feels physical sensations within his body and on his skin (similar to being touched) when music is played, which is probably both a reaction to the sound waves hitting his skin, as well as a co-mingled sensory response to what he hears and sees. The sensation has grown in intensity over the years as he has begun to incorporate it in his artistic work, suggesting that like all brain activity, it can be trained and enhanced through practice. He feels that it seems to be an interesting avenue to explore in a time when the boundaries between the dominant ‘single sense' art forms (music – hearing, visual arts – seeing etc) are dissolving.

The one constant that seems to run through all synaesthetic reaction is the completely individualized responses that people have to the same stimuli. In other words, middle C on a piano might be red for one person, smell like lemons to another and taste salty to the third. Contrary to that anecdotal evidence however, there has been a strong metaphysical movement over the last 250 years to connect colour and sound though a unifying theory which usually runs like this; C = Red, D = Orange, E = Yellow, F= Green, G= Turquoise, A = Blue, B = Purple. Chris feels that while there is seems to be a very general correspondence in terms of music in those keys relating to those colours, it is not constant and the great risk is that through suggestion, one's senses can begin to align with the belief structure itself and distort the actual experience.

Instinctively he feels the phenomenon is related to the subtle electrical fields of the body, where at the periphery of perception, the body's senses somehow co-mingle in sharing and interpreting that same barely perceived information. Essentially he believes it is likely to be a by-product of people's perceiving the atomic or energetic structures of matter and that the Hindu system of chakras will likely be an useful area to explore in regards to synaesthesia, once Western science and the mystical tradition can find a shared vocabulary to describe the underlying dynamics. But until science is able to accurately measure such subtle phenomena. we may have to simply enjoy the variety in human experiences, rather than try to develop an underlying shared theory of synaesthesia. However in the meantime, if it helps, he is very willing to put his head in someone's MRI imaging device to see if someone else can see what is going on in there.

Terry Irwin for the Four Winds Festival

Best wishes,
Chris Latham

© 2009 Terry Irwin and Chris Latham

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