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Friday, April 11, 2008

Synethesia: Strange Confluence of Sight, Sound, and Mind

This is just so freaky and amazing, I have to share it.

After reading a few lines in a book about something called synethesia, I got interested. Apparently, quite a few people have an odd brain wiring such that letters, numbers, and/or musical notes are linked with colors. When they see a letter or number, and/or hear a musical note, they "see" a particular color in their minds.

Apparently, this odd quality is particularly common among people with autism.

On a whim, I asked Tom if he sees colors when he plays notes on the piano. Oh, yes, he said, he does!


I drew a series of dots in the colors he gave me, and aked him to play them on the piano. He played Frere Jacques flawlessly.

I looked up synethesia, and found that there's a close link between synesthesia relative to music - and perfect pitch.

It wasn't until today that I realized something else: the series of colors Tommy gave me is consistent with the achronym ROY G BIV. For anyone who's studied optics or astronomy, that acronym will be familiar: it's the colors of the optical spectrum, the order they appear in a prism, or in a rainbow. The only "off" color was pink - and that's because the correct color is "indigo."

Tommy has never heard the word "indigo."

Does anyone know anything more about this amazing collection of coincidences? I've emailed a couple of researchers in the field of synesthesia, but nothing so far!


AnnMarie said...

Wow thats awesome. My son doesnt play music. Does it extend into other areas?

The Glasers said...

That is amazing. Pamela does not play music, so I will start thinking about how to figure this out. How does he see the colors? A certain spot, an overall glow?

I sing and read music and have never seen colors! LOL!! I always figured I was a garden variety NT!

Lisa Jo Rudy said...

I don't THINK the synesthesia extends to letters or numbers; I asked, and he said "they're just letters!"

I also asked about HOW he sees the colors, but he really couldn't explain... so can only make a guess that the colors simply appear.

I wrote about this on the blog, and one music therapist wrote about a nearly non-verbal man who does just the same thing with hand bells: calls out the notes as colors in the order of the color spectrum!

I keep thinking there has to be SOME way to use this ability to educate - but can't think what it might be!


Anonymous said...


My son has gotten some awards for musical composition but isn't really interested in playing any instruments; tried piano, recorder, drums (hurt his ears), etc. So I thought I'd try this out on him.

Lo and behold...he did the same thing. I tested him again several times by humming a little tune and he got it with the right colors every time. A was purple and B was black for him.

I'm simply amazed. My son is into astronomy so maybe that is where it came from...I don't know.

I'm not a musician but I do remember seeing some colors related to notes in books when learning to play, could it be from that?

It is very cool so PLEASE share if you hear from the experts on this.


Anonymous said...

As to using it for education, what about relating it to math and numbers, up the scale, down the scale, or using steps organizing the notes with numbers and stanzas with mutliplication and division pulling in geometry and colors for relationships between them.

Lisa Jo Rudy said...

whoa, this IS freaky! I was recommended to a book called "Born on a Blue
Day," which is about an autistic savant with synesthesia... and there are a
number of researchers who have noted that this happens, but so far none have
written back to me (sigh). Evidently it's not as unusual as we would imagine ...

Annmarie, it doesn't seem to extend to other areas with Tom (so far as I can tell), but some people seem to associate number and letters with with colors - and evidently it's a wonderful memory aid, among other things.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, I'll check that book out too.

innate tech said...

Hello. Stumbled across your post, and found it fascinating.

As someone with very pronounced ADD and some other symptoms from along the autism spectrum, and in comparing notes w/other people in a similar situation, I've found a strong linkage between visual and auditory perceptions to be common. I don't think I've ever experienced full on synesthesia, but I do recall having very strong associations of colors and sound patterns with particular emotional states when I was young--to the point that those patterns would serve as an index of the emotion as well or better than the actual word for it.

I grew curious about this later on as I still experience it to some degree, and one thing to consider (although I have no idea what to make of it) is that light and sound are not so very different in terms of physics: both are radiated energy at various wavelengths.

It may be that the autistic mind is more resistant to linguistic social conditioning that demands we separate 'light' and 'sound' into concrete, discrete categories at an early age and is able to connect those phenomena long before a physics teacher shows up to explain their relationship.

As to how to utilize it, I don't have much to offer there except to point out that it's incredibly cheap to set up a computer to make music these days. I didn't catch your son's age, but when the time is right you might consider buying a small MIDI keyboard and something like GarageBand for him to experiment with, and on the art side a tablet and an image editing program.

There are also ways to use visual information (i.e. art) to generate music on a computer--some synthesizers will map images to tones, which might be a very powerful creative tool for someone with strong synethesia.

Anyway, thanks for the fascinating post, and all the best to you and your family!

Anonymous said...

My son (ASD and 9) has perfect pitch too. I recently discovered this when I went to an autism related fund-raiser and met an autistic kid, extremely similar to my son, who was very proud of his perfect pitch. I had to go home to see if my son had it too. Voila! Indeed he did. He also has what I would call "perfect calculation", instantly calculates anything. Large number multiplication, large prime numbers, factorizations, division, percentages, etc: all instantly and flawlessly. He seems to sing numbers constantly, associating numbers with sounds. There's a famous "sort of autistic" mega-savante, Daniel Tammet who says he does this too. Wow! Who knows? Maybe that bodes well for a career in piano tuning.

What I really would like is a school that actually fosters talent... instead of squashing it.