Addling the Brain

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A few days ago, I came across a very interesting article on lexical-gustatory synaesthesia (via Language Hat):

Lexical-gustatories involuntarily “taste” words when they hear them, or even try to recall them, she wrote in a study, “Words on the Tip of the Tongue,” published in the issue of Nature dated Thursday. She has found only 10 such people in Europe and the United States.

Magnetic-resonance imaging indicates that they are not faking, she said. The correct words light up the taste regions of their brains. Also, when given a surprise test a year later, they taste the same foods on hearing the words again.

(Synaesthetes are hardly ever described as “suffering from” the syndrome, because their doubled perceptions excite envy in many of us mere sensual Muggles.)

It can be unpleasant, however. One subject, Dr. Simner said, hates driving, because the road signs flood his mouth with everything from pistachio ice cream to ear wax.

Now Amnestic points me to a fascinating video of V.S. Ramachandran talking about the subject. Some reactions to the video:

1. So synaesthesia is was LSD users report!
2. Synaesthesia can be good for something – e.g. patterns jump out at you
3. Einstein might have had some type of synaesthesia
4. I can easily see how some kind of synaesthesia could give rise to new “modules” – e.g. a prime number identifier

One of the most interesting things about the Language Hat link was that quite a few synaesthetes, of various kinds, showed up to share their perceptions. I was wondering if any GNXP readers had something to share? In particular, I am interested in ways synaesthesia is good (or bad) for you.

UPDATE: This sounds like some kind of synaesthesia:

“Squaring numbers is a symmetrical process that I like very much,” he says. “And when I divide one number by another, say, 13 divided by 97, I see a spiral rotating downwards in larger and larger loops that seem to warp and curve. The shapes coalesce into the right number. I never write anything down.”
His mathematical abilities are so extraordinary that it took a long time for them to be recognised. Daniel struggled at school (why, he wondered, were the numbers in the textbook not printed in their true colours, nine in blue, and so on?). He got a B at Maths GCSE. He wasn’t diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome until three years ago, at 25. Sooner would have been better “both for me and my parents”; consciousness-raising is part of his motivation for writing his book. “My condition is invisible otherwise.”

Scientists at California’s Center for Brain Studies were astounded when, two years ago, they discovered his facility for discerning prime numbers. They had assumed he must have been trained to do it. But to him, it is more like an instinctive process: “Prime numbers feel smooth, like pebbles”.


  1. I wonder if these phenomena relate to aesthetics? An emotional elicitation by the gestalt properties of an image sounds like a vague analogue to the described experiences of synaesthetes, with different sensors and effectors at play. Other than being strongly aesthetic and artistic, I have no personal experience with synaesthesia.

  2. Interesting. I need to pick up a few books on this. The only full blown sort of synesthesia I’ve ever had was when I was younger and had smoked Salvia Divinorum, which is a short-acting but powerful hallucinogen. During the peak time of a about 1-5 minutes (oh, time perception was screwy as well), I sensed the sounds of a shakuhachi flute as various elements of green and orange. 
    Other than that, I’ve only had the sort of suggestive synesthesia that others in that thread have posted about, mostly dealing with periods of time and statistics and getting the mental picture of “waves”. This first happened when I was very young and reading books about dinosaurs and began getting the various overlapping time periods of certain species and the cuts between eras as ebbing and flowing waves that overlapped each other. 
    It’s not really cool, or anything like that. I actually suck at math. All I can think it’s ever really done for me is make me have an odd ability to see something like a chart of wheat exports by nation and remember it fairly quickly. Ask me to do anything mathmatical with those numbers and I’m lost.

  3. 1. So synaesthesia is was LSD users report! 
    Yes, psychedelic drugs (particularly those acting on serotonin receptors) are notorious for producing synesthesia. From reports I have heard, it seems that sound-color synesthesia (seeing music, almost like having Windows Media Player’s visualizer in your brain) is the most common when using these drugs, and almost never is the letter/symbol-color pairing, common in natural synesthetes, reported.  
    I have a friend who has this letter/symbol-color pairing and have discussed it at great lengths with him, although I still don’t fully understand what’s going on. Apparently the context of a symbol, in addition to the symbol itself, can alter the shade of color or even the entire color. For instance, the symbol “X” is a different color when it means the letter as in “BOX” versus a multiplication sign. This indicates that it’s not just overlap of raw sensory processing but of meaning as well. 
    Baron-Cohen (not the Borat guy!) has the interesting theory that everyone goes through an early developmental stage of synesthesia, but that in most people the senses very quickly become differentiated. It seems though that any such early development explanation would have to explain how later learned concepts (such as multiplication) can influence the nature of the synesthesia. 
    I am not synesthetic, but I was talking to my friend not too long ago about how I sometimes can imagine visual objects that correspond to music. It’s not that I actually “see” them in the way I see the room around me, but I imagine them, essentially as I would imagine the setting of a story I was reading. For instance, I told him that a certain part in a song that we both like reminded me of a suspension bridge. The sequence of notes and the rhythm remind me of the series of arcs formed by the cables of such a bridge. Rather that being a type of synesthesia, I relate this to a general ability of mine to mentally capture the abstract time variation of certain quantities.

  4. Other than that, I’ve only had the sort of suggestive synesthesia that others in that thread have posted about, mostly dealing with periods of time and statistics and getting the mental picture of “waves”. This first happened when I was very young and reading books about dinosaurs and began getting the various overlapping time periods of certain species and the cuts between eras as ebbing and flowing waves that overlapped each other. 
    Can you maybe memorize the history of life on earth by retaining the pattern of these waves in your mind? If so, you may be able to become a natural history expert very quickly. 
    Does this imagery of waves extend to actual waves at all, for instance can you easily visualize the wavefronts of a light beam refracting in an oddly shaped piece of glass?

  5. I’ve long wondered whether people who have ”perfect pitch” – that is, they can identify the ”letter” of a musical note just by listening, somehow ”see” the note as we can see a color. Or maybe they taste the note.

  6. arosko: 
    I have applied it somewhat in my field. Ironically I’ve picked up the title as “the statistics guy” in the religion department because of my ability to just reel off vast torrents of religious statistics on hand over detailed areas and long time periods. Granted quite a bit of it is historical estimation and archeological guesswork, but it sticks all the same. It isn’t helping me much with my thesis work, as the gaps in information are too wide and my job is mostly reconstructing what fragmentary historical data I can find. 
    The reason I stated “ironically” is because crunching those numbers is something I do with great difficulty, which is something I associate with actual skill in statistics. In other words I can “see” the waves only once someone else has done the hard work of compiling. The only real plus about it is an ability to find patterns, correalates and all the like quicker than most people do (and not as helpfully, coincidences). 
    Oddly enough it doesn’t really work with actual waves. I’ve tinkered with recreational scanning when I was younger and not once did all the discussion of radio frequency really trigger the image suggestion. If I were to describe as best as possible what’s being suggested when I read a list of statistics (esp. with fluctations of any sort by date) is an image thats a cross between multiple computer-generated 3-D wave functions moving all at once and those bottles half filled with colored water and mineral oil that are used in children’s science classes. In other words, precise but organic feeling. 
    Again I must qualify that this isn’t anywhere near intense as the synesthesia described in the article. That’s why I say suggestion rather than overwhelming sensation.

  7. I can speak to the Salvia-induced synaesthesia from personal experience, though in my case it was a connection between sight and touch. Salvia divinorum gives quite a body buzz, which made everything in the room seem to be vibrating. Very weird, very cool. 
    LSD, not so much. Music does get a lot more intense, but so does everything; never gotten any powerful synaesthesia on it though. Maybe I just haven’t taken high enough doses. (Not that I plan to!)

  8. This sounds like some kind of synaesthesia… 
    Yes — the guy sees numbers in colors & prime numbers are smooth — that is definitely synaesthesia. 
    Quite a few people with Asperger’s/Autism have synaesthesia — I have no idea what proportion, though. 
    Sounds cool. Wish I saw numbers in color — or could smell sounds…. :p

  9. So I can sort of see how synesthesia that’s not functional could happen as a side-effect of brain development and such. And once it’s there, I can see how it might be seized upon as a mnemonic device, the way otherwise irrelevent stuff like rhymes in your own language can help you commit stuff to memory.  
    But what process builds a prime-number-determining module? I mean, I can see how selection might do that, given enough generations, and I can see how you might train yourself to develop one using language or visualization modules (can I put this many dots into a rectangle?), and I can write you a program to do this. But how the heck does it just spontaneously show up?

  10. I can write you a program to do this 
    You can’t write a program to determine primes, except very inefficiently by brute force. Yet, the twins in the prime-number link can just “see” 12-digit primes!

  11. There is a lot about synaesthesia in Francis Galton’s ‘Inquiries into Human Faculty’, published around 1880. He included a special study of ‘number forms’ – the special shapes and colours some people associate with numbers.

  12. David, 
    It’s easy to check numbers for primality in a probabilistic way that’s reasonably efficient, and you can get the probability of a false prime way, way down (like 2^{-100}). Google for Miller-Rabin (Wikipedia has an entry that looks reasonable). This winds up being used in crypto implementations all the time, since generating some random big primes is a somewhat common thing to need to do. There are a bunch of optimizations, like sieving to remove small factors first. But I’m pretty sure the human brain is ill-suited to doing Miller-Rabin or the related tests. 
    There’s also a relatively recent algorithm that deterministically tests big primes–it’s way less efficient than the probabilistic tests for big integers, but you never have a false positive. Google for the AKS algorithm.  
    For 12-digit primes, you need to check them against 6-digit prime factors. You can exclude various factors in simple ways. I wonder if they’re doing some variant of sieving in their heads. (Google for Sieve of Erasthones, which is one of those cutting-edge computer algorithms invented 2200 or so years ago. The Wikipedia entry has a cool illustration of it.)

  13. “Other than that, I’ve only had the sort of suggestive synesthesia that others in that thread have posted about, mostly dealing with periods of time and statistics and getting the mental picture of “waves”. This first happened when I was very young and reading books about dinosaurs and began getting the various overlapping time periods of certain species and the cuts between eras as ebbing and flowing waves that overlapped each other.” 
    LOL picturing something in your head is NOT synaesthesia. Everybody does that sort thing. Synaesthesia is the actual combining of the senses, i.e. you would literally have to “see” the visual representation of sounds right before your eyes. 
    Yeah, taking LSD can produce synaesthesia (or at least something like it) , but under most circumstances you have to get fucked up in extremis.

  14. I can confirm that LSD induces sound-color synesthesia. I haven’t touched the stuff since high school but I did a lot back then and synesthesia was a big part of the experience for me.

  15. Spastic: 
    Maybe it isn’t synesthesia, but it sure ain’t the regular sort of mental picture that’s conjured up by ideas. I defer to those that know better on the subject than I.

  16. Spike Gomes, 
    If you watch the video (I know it’s pretty long), there’s one point where Rama talks about how some people visualize number lines. Your case sounds something like that to me. 
    And, by the way, he doesn’t make a clear distinction between synaesthesia and the way most people think. He explicitly asks questions like “why do we call the taste of some cheese ‘sharp’?”.

  17. FWIW, I’ll confirm what others have said about synaesthesia and LSD: You bet! And how! Etc. 
    Back when I was more, er, experimental than I am now, I had the strong impression — or maybe delusion — that LSD returned the experience of the brain and nervous sytem to something close to what it’s like when you’re a very young kid. Input that comes in through the eyes, for instance, doesn’t run along just-visual lines — it spreads out. Same with all the other senses. Loud music might exist just as vividly in your experience as a red explosion, for instance. An odor might just as well be a story.  
    It’s great, but it’s also, practically speaking, kind of debilitating. It’s just too much to contend with. Contending with your iridiscing mind becomes all-consuming, which I imagine/remember is kind of what it’s like being a very young kid. How to get anything done when your inner experience is all a multicolored, multidimensional, kaleidoscopic, ever-morphing mass? 
    Made a lot of sense to me years later when I read about how the brain and nervous sytem kind of prune themselves down with time. Do I remember right, especially in mid-childhood and adolescence? Anyway, the system seems to be making itself more efficient and usable, but at the cost of a direct experience of wonder and interconnectedness.  
    And — I’m just guessing of course — but I’d happily venture that aesthetic experience and metaphor-making (and metaphor-experiencing) are related to synaesthtesia. Some musically-gifted people really seem to “see” music, for instance. Fiction writers might “build” narratives in ways that are invisible to the rest of us. But that’s no surprise, right? I mean, you’d expect a good cook to experience food more vividly than the rest of us, and maybe even to be able to occasionally put that experience into vivid words, no?

  18. Does anyone else, when deeply pondering a subject, have a sort of tactile sensation of movinf or feeling their way thru a sort of space?

  19. I’ve long thought that all those “witches and warlocks” of bygone times were simply folks who had slightly different perceptory/cognitive apparati.  
    Instead of banishing them to heath and vale as in the old days, society now lets them wander the streets or locks them in padded cells.  
    The clever (or lucky) ones like Einstein (who said he used “muscular thinking” to help find his theorems) conform their activities to the scientific method. But I wonder how many discoveries resulted from “good hunches” that were really more like visions (what we’d now label as pathological hallucinations). 
    It’s not that mainstream psychiatry is wrong – it’s that it’s vulgar, like everything else in mass society.

  20. Well, my buddies make fun of me for my synesthesia all the time (“Was it 4 or 6? I knew it was yellow.” “Are you on crack?”). Mine’s the letter-number-color kind. Interesting that the morphology doesn’t really affect the letter; when I see a katakana or Greek letter or Cyrillic letter that has a cognate in the Latin alphabet, it’s just about the same color as the Latin letter for me. Rho is the same color as R, not P. And mathematical operations have their own color independently from the shape of the sign. 
    I too am the statistics / numbers / weird random facts geek of the bunch, to the point of where they call something especially off the wall a “Reicher Assisted Fact” or “RAF”. I remember things by remembering their first letter and the associated color. Algebra’s a breeze for me because I know I’m missing something if the colors don’t line up right; there’s a double-entry color bookkeeping system I use. But, the sure way to make me stumble is to print up a sign in a jumble of colors. Google’s logo, for instance, drives me completely nuts. 
    With numbers themselves, I see sort of a 3-d colored number line (the 17th c, for instance, is nice and bright yellow lined with white, the 18th forest green), and the days of the week are each their own color in a nice 3-d calendar view like in some office utility. Really helps me with dates and times; I don’t have to keep a datebook. 
    Up until a couple of years ago, I had thought that everyone saw colors when reading!

  21. Does anyone else, when deeply pondering a subject, have a sort of tactile sensation of movinf or feeling their way thru a sort of space? 
    Not quite. But, if I’m pondering an abstract subject, I have a “sort of tactile sensation” of a blobby [

  22. (Oops…) 
    …blobby sort-of shape that I have to “grasp” before I can find words to describe it. This is opposed to a more concrete concept — like a cat — which I just see a picture of in my mind’s eye (a split second before I have the word for it). 
    I’m a visual thinker, like the autist, Temple Grandin — only I don’t see in “videos” the way she does — my experience is more like a sporadic slide show. 

  23. I am definitely a very visual thinker also, except that the things I tend to visualize are more abstract than the cattle slaughtering equipment under different weather conditions (protein and protein complex structures, shape and electrostatic similarity of small molecules, diffusion of solutes in a cell). I definitely can visualize less abstract things though. For instance, I can visualize the general layout of hiking trails in segments of the open space of my home county from almost any vantage point, even one that is inaccessible or hundreds of feet up in the air (such that I couldn’t possibly recall the view from memory). I can’t remember where specific trees are and whether they would be in the way, but I can pretty much say where you would see trails or roads if the view were not blocked. 
    I have wondered before (in connection with the male-female brain idea) how much more visuospatial the average male’s thought process is compared to the average woman’s. I say “visuospatial” rather than “visual” because I believe there are two quite different types of visual thinking. One is the ability to think in photograph-like scenes and remember them, which is the sort of visual imagery used in poetry and which I don’t associate with either gender (it may actually be slightly more developed in females), and then there is the much more active process of being able to mentally construct 3-D representations out of 2-D views and rotate or project them, which strikes me as distinctly “male” even though some females can be proficient as well (and testing seems to support my “gut” association). Obviously Grandin is a far outlier in the female population, as is reinforced by the fact that all the other visual thinkers she mentions having talked to are men.  
    Maybe some of you people on GNXP can shed some light on this.

  24. I am also a very visual thinker. I have no problem visualizing the layout of a house, walking through it, seeing where the roof might be too low, or where there might not be enough room for the staircase. But I wouldn’t say that “words are like a second language to me”. I sometimes recognize voices better than faces. 
    I don’t think this has anything to do with syaesthesia, though… or does it? Maybe mapping the output of one area of the brain on another is what we’re talking about?

  25. Jamie — Yes.

  26. I don’t think this has anything to do with syaesthesia, though… or does it? Maybe mapping the output of one area of the brain on another is what we’re talking about? 
    No it doesn’t. It has to do with different types of intelligence and modes of understanding. Synesthesia is a perceptual phenomenon that is distinct from, though can influence, modes of thinking.