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Silence is golden, and BBQ chicken-flavoured

Listening to the cinnamon-flavoured tones of a newsreader, seeing a giant rainbow when confronted with the alphabet or listening to Beethoven’s magenta and turquoise Symphony No. 9; it all sounds like a psychedelic trip you might hear about from someone in a drug-induced haze. Yet these strange sensory experiences are an everyday occurrence for one in every 2,000 people. The phenomenon of more than one cognitive pathway being activated following stimulation of a single sensory pathway is known as synaesthesia.

Increased stimulation of the human sensory system has always been appealing and as of late, there seem to be increased efforts to surround us in a bubble of constantly heightened sensory experience. Whether it be the slick 3-dimensional effects employed by Hollywood, which cause audiences to cover their eyes in fear or the clever marketing campaigns for items such as chocolate, which leave viewers salivating and reaching for their purses, synaesthetic phenomena play a huge role in our lives. Yet for those with the condition, increased stimuli are not required to trigger an all-encompassing sensory response. The simple sound of a printer whirring can cause flashes of intense colour and leave tastebuds tingling.

Synaesthesia affects people in different ways. The condition is involuntary and demonstrates heritability, although the precise genetic origins are as of yet unknown. Recent studies involving brain imaging have demonstrated that there is 'crosstalk' involved between parts of the brain that do not usually communicate, confirming that synaesthesia is a 'real' condition and not just a subjective concoction. It has been defined as a brain impairment in some studies and whilst the condition may result in a greatly altered perception of the world, for the majority of individuals, being a synaesthete does not impair their quality of life. Indeed, those with synaesthesia often display enhanced creativity as they form meaningful associations between distinct stimuli.

Synaesthesia has been embodied in art before it was even acknowledged as a condition. Some artists have explored the concept despite not having the condition themselves, whilst others with synaesthesia have used their own unique sensory experiences to create art that may seem unusual and unfamiliar to the majority of people. The most well-known synaesthete artist is Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), a Russian man credited with having created the world’s first truly abstract paintings. Kandinsky is reputed to have heard certain musical notes when greeted with particular colours and vice versa, although there is no medical proof regarding his synaesthesia. The connection between music and colours almost became an obsession for the artist. He once said, “I saw all my colours in spirit, before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me.” The colour blue is prevalent in many of his works and he is said to have learnt to play the cello as it resulted in him being surrounded by the deepest of blues: "The deeper the blue becomes, the more strongly it calls man towards the infinite, awakening in him a desire for the pure and, finally, for the supernatural. The brighter it becomes, the more it loses its sound, until it turns into silent stillness and becomes white."

Kandinsky wanted those viewing his art to undergo an emotional experience that reflected the combined input of colour and music into his work. Although the majority of people will not experience a secondary cognitive response, his pictures do have a certain harmonious quality to them, creating 'visual music'. His art captures this crossover between sounds and colours. His wild and untamed paintings embody his unique take on the world. Churning yellows of warmth and piercing sound are accompanied by black swathes of silence and rich blues of thundering noise. Using his unique perception of the world, he achieved complete abstraction, creating paintings unlike any others before them. His impression of the world was translated onto the canvas and cannot be recreated.

Synaesthesia is a condition which defines a person’s perception of the world around them, so it is unsurprising that it manifests itself in the artist’s creative expression.  'Synaesthesia-based' art may be an unconventional form for the general public to appreciate, but it is valuable nonetheless for the journey it can take the public on and the insight it can bring into the vast network of possibilities of the human creative mind.

So the next time you visit a gallery to appreciate some art, maybe you should stop by a painting and listen to it. It’s probably best not to try and taste it though.

Gráinne Regan is an undergraduate student in Biological Sciences


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