Point of View
We asked high profile Australian
violinist and artistic director of the Canberra International
Chris Latham to answer the following 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.
Response by Chris Latham
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
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
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
© 2009 Terry Irwin and Chris Latham
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