During an impromptu Q&A on her Tumblr, teenage pop superstar Lorde revealed that when she first wrote her 2013 super-smash ‘Tennis Court’, it was so boringly tan it made her feel sick. Then they worked out a pre-chorus and it turned green, which was loads better. Dr Jules Montague, a consultant neurologist at the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust, tells us more about synaesthesia, a condition that can make you see sounds as colours.
Synaesthesia sounds pretty intense. What, exactly, is it?
Dr Jules: “It is a brain-processing condition. I think of it in terms of your senses being tangled or joined-up, it’s kind of a sensory cross-wiring, and because of that you get your senses mixed up.”
Trippy. Can you give an example?
Dr Jules: “Vision and taste can get confused. You could see, maybe, the number three. And if you have synaesthesia you don’t just see it, you also taste it. It might taste of coconut, egg yolk or Brussels sprouts – I kid you not. Another type is mirror-touch synaesthesia, and that’s where you get the same sensation that someone else is experiencing. If they’re whacked in the face, you feel pain in your own face, or if someone is stabbed, you feel the knife plunge in.”
Why do you think so many musicians have it?
Dr Jules: “It’s very contentious whether or not it gives people more talent, but I personally think it does. Studies have shown there is cross-wiring in the brain – so if you do scans on synaesthetes and stimulate the auditory parts of their brains, other parts of their brains light up as well. Where you and I just hear a note, some musical synaesthetes can taste it, smell it and see it. They’ve got this multimodal experience, so when they choose the choruses and bridges, they’re based on all of those connections we can’t see. It’s like a creative passport that perhaps other people don’t have.”
Sounds good. Where can I get some?
Dr Jules: “They say that hallucinogenics simulate the condition. If you take LSD you do get this multimodal sensation, I’m guessing, where all your senses are stimulated to a degree that you might never have experienced before. So you could argue that synaesthetes are in a permanent hallucinogenic state.”
So I can’t learn it then?
Dr Jules: “There’s quite a bit of research that has tried to instigate it. We know of a gene that’s potentially connected with synaesthesia, but there are identical twins where only one of the twins have it. The genetic contribution is probably around 40 per cent, but we know there must be other factors as well as just the genes.”
Is it ever a problem?
Dr Jules: “The disadvantage if you’re a musician could be that it’s very overwhelming. If you’re in a group or a choir or whatever and everyone is singing together, I would imagine that you’re not just hearing one colour but there’s a whole rainbow of colours coming into your head and competing – it’s basically just sensory overload.”
Have you got synaesthesia?
The five most common forms are:
You see colours in letters and numbers.
You see colours in the sound of, for example, music playing, doors opening or even cars honking.
When you hear words, you taste them. Subject of the documentary Derek Tastes Of Earwax.
Spatial sequence synaesthesia
You visualise numerical sequences, like dates and times, as points in space.
Ordinal linguistic personification
You see distinct personalities in ordered sequences like days and months.
If you think you’re a synaesthete, don’t worry! As Dr Jules says, “It’s more of a difference than a disorder.”