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Synesthesia: Window to the Brain

Is it useful?

Technically speaking, synesthesia is not completely useless; some of those who have had synesthesia have done great things in this world. However, it is true that synesthesia does not provide any essential services to the survival of mankind, which is why most deem synesthesia a somewhat vestigial trait if any.

It is notable that synesthesia appears to be at least eight times more prevalent among writers, artists, and musicians than in normal people. This may go to say that synesthetes in fact have some creative advantages over non-synesthetes.

William Shakespeare, master of metaphors

Writing abilities

One very special quality about synesthesia is that it is highly metaphorical. That is, it constantly involves one making associations (which are normally unusual) between different sensory mediums. Because of this, writers who exhibit synesthesia seem to have much better metaphorical ability than do normal people. William Shakespeare is widely revered for his writing and particularly for his creative use of metaphors in his stories and plays. Whether or not Shakespeare was actually a synesthete is unknown, but his mastery over metaphors has led people to believe that he may have had synesthesia.

There are other writers who are under speculation. One of them is Nathaniel Hawthorne, the American novelist most famous for his novel, The Scarlet Letter. In one of his short stories called "Rappacini's Daughter", Hawthorne's protagonist allegedly sees colors as he hears a woman singing, clearly exhibiting a form of sound-color synesthesia. Because of Hawthorne's apparent understanding of how this works, it is possible that Hawthorne himself had synesthesia.

Other writers who, possibly, were also synesthetes include Victor Hugo, author of Les MisÚrables, Anthony Powell, author of A Dance to the Music of Time, and Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita. Some philosophers include Ludwig Wittgenstein and Friedrich Nietzsche.

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Musical Abilities

Comparatively speaking, there seem to be many more prominent musicians that exhibit synesthesia than are writers and artists. The reason for this is still unknown.

Synesthesia, partcular sound-color synesthesia, seems to have several advantages in composing. Some of the greatest musicians and composers have shown this ability to compose in unusual, yet electrifying tonalities. This is especially true for Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korskov, a Romantic composer most famous for his work Scheherazade. Unlike many others, Korsakov is known to have had sound-color synesthesia. When composing, he, allegedly, expressed certain musical keys as colors. For example, Korsakov always saw the key of C major in the color white while the key of B major showed itself in a dark blue manner.

Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder has sound-color synesthesia and can in fact perceive color.

Another well-known composer who is believed to have had synesthesia is Jean Sibelius. In multiple interviews, he claimed to see strange, yet permanent colors when listening to certain notes, yet another form of sound-color synesthesia. However, unlike Korsakov, he did not directly exploit this ability. Instead, he preferred to be silent about it, fearing that his faculty members might mock him about it.

Joachim Raff is another composer who may have had sound-color synesthesia, though his was a slightly different variation. Raff claimed to see colors not to different musical notes or keys, but timbres. In other words, Raff had slightly lower bandwidth synesthesia, for he could associate colors with the particular sound of an instrument. For him, the sound of a flute evoked a very bright azure blue color, while the brassy sound of the trumpet gave off a scarlet tone. This ability may have allowed Raff to compose very prolific, varied music, though his works gave off a sense of unfamiliarity with his style.

There are many modern day musicians and composers, such as Tori Amos, Michael Torke, Pharrell Williams, John Hay, and Stevie Wonder, who exhibit sound-color synesthesia. However, Stevie Wonder is a special case because he turned blind shortly after birth. His ability to still perceive colors may be explained neurologically. (See Neurological Basis)

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Artistic/Spatial Abilities

A notable number of artists and architects are synesthetes. Apart from their abilites to bring out certain colors and tones, many of them seem to exhibit spatial talents as well. In addition, these artists seem to have the widest variety of synesthesia types.

What is strange, however, is that many artists seem to have music-color synesthesia. David Hockney, an artist and photographer, claimed to arrange his lighting and background set according to the musical piece he was listening to at the time. Another painter who exhibits music-color synesthesia is Kilford, the prominent British painter known for painting alongside musicians during their performances.

For Frank Lloyd Wright, it seemed to be the opposite effect. He claimed to hear music whenever he was designing a structure, which may contribute to some of his unique spatial qualities. Aside from artists and architects, there are others who exhibit these spatial abilities. For example, Antoine d'Abbadie, the French explorer and geographer known for his travels through Ethiopia, displayed number-form synesthesia, as did the Russian entomologist Karl Robert Osten-Sacken. This might indicate that spatial talents may actually present itself in more naturalized professions.

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