Rich chords cresendoed beneath the emerald and gold ceiling of Woolsey Hall as Jessica French MUS ’08 struck at the ivory keys of the organ during her senior recital. Immediately, the audience was swept into the notes of Charles Tournemire’s “Victimae Paschali” that sounded from the majestic pipes.
French was taken on a different musical journey, enveloped in a world of color the audience could not see. As she hunched forward over her rapidly moving fingers, the G-minor chord evoked a dark brown sensation, vivid green accompanied A minor, and dark red orange was inseparably attached to E minor.
French has synesthesia, a neurological phenomenon in which the stimulation of one sense leads to an instant and involuntary response in a second sense. Some synesthetes experience words as taste or colored shapes in their field of vision; others attribute personalities to months, numbers or days of the week.
French is tone-color synesthetic, which makes composing, playing and listening to music a visual, colorful experience. Some tone-color synesthetes claim that music or other sounds creates colors in their field of vision, whereas others say they simply “know” a key or chord is a particular color. These sensations are not imagined. They are actual neural experiences.
While her condition is rare, French is not alone among synesthetes at Yale.
Dominick DiOrio MUS ’08 listened to Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto on headphones. His eyes danced as he experienced the colors of violins, cellos and flutes.
“The music feels like it’s stretching,” he said with a smile. “The colors almost are like taffy, but a taffy that has four colors on it, so when you pull it they stretch and they change a bit because of the way the light hits them.”
Noah Lawrence ’09, a columnist for the News, experiences similar sensations with music. Lawrence described a recent experience when the choral director of the Glee Club shifted the key of a piece from F major to F sharp.
“This was wild for me, because F major is a very tan key,” he said. “So we started in F, which is tan, and then our conductor wanted to change it to F sharp, and that changes the ball game there. F sharp has an intense shade of blue.”
These color sensations have always been part of everyday life for French, DiOrio and Lawrence. While their music interests brought them to Yale, none of them expected to attend one of the few universities in the world where this rare neurological phenomenon is the subject of advanced study and research.
The Study of Synesthesia
Lawrence Marks, director of the John B. Pierce Laboratory and a professor at the School of Medicine, has researched synesthesia for more than 35 years, longer than anyone in the field. He has helped transform synesthesia from a common curiosity into a subject of serious scientific inquiry, his colleagues said.
Finding funding for synesthesia research is difficult in the United States, Marks said, because synesthesia is not considered a disease or disorder.
“If you define it in a very basic sense as something beyond the ordinary that will light you up when you feel less than lit up, then that’s what synesthesia is,” he said. “And if I were to design the world, I’d give it to everybody.”
Marks worked this summer with Catherine Mulvenna, a doctoral candidate who completed a fellowship at Yale last semester, on research focusing on synesthetes who experience words and music as taste and color. Marks and Mulvenna claim that their current research is the first comprehensive perceptual test on synesthetic taste sensations that separates pure taste from smell.
Mulvenna said she is drawn to the study of synesthetic brains because it can offer beneficial insight into the way the minds of all humans work. Her belief in the broad applications of synesthesia research stems from the studies she performed with the semi-nomadic Himba people in northwest Namibia during research for her dissertation. She used the bouba/kiki effect, a psychology test in which subjects overwhelmingly call a curvy shape “bouba” and a jagged shape “kiki” when asked to match these words with their corresponding shapes.
The responses of members of the Himba tribe — a people who have no written language — mirrored test results among English speakers. For Mulvenna, this result indicates some inherent form of mild synesthetic tendencies common to all people.
Mulvenna said she believes synesthetes are at the highest end of the spectrum of creative cognition possible among humans.
“From here, we can look at the neurological differences in synesthetes to see if variances in the same areas in the rest of the population could correlate to their position on the creative cognition spectrum,” she said.
What Makes them Different?
DiOrio’s mother taught him piano at a young age, but DiOrio soon picked up the violin instead.
“When I played the piano it always seemed dull and uninteresting,” DiOrio explained, quickly adding, “Color-wise, I should clarify.”
DiOrio has filled his life with music ever since, and he said he revels in the color sensations that come with each note, chord and song. But it was not until DiOrio arrived at college that he realized the sensations he experienced were abnormal.
“It is so foreign for me to consider the idea of divorcing the two — color and sound — because they are the same in my mind,” he said.
He has now learned to incorporate synesthesia into his music conducting, composing and performance. He said he uses certain colors to express warmth, and other colors — like white and red — to express aggression.
In addition to musical tones and everyday sounds, DiOrio said he also attributes colors to numbers, letters and words. A few years ago, he read online that if he attributed colors to letters, it might stem from a subconscious memory of the colors of letter magnets on his home refrigerator as a child. So he traveled to his New Hampshire home and pulled his mother’s refrigerator magnets from the cabinet.
“I checked the magnets, and they were all the wrong colors!” he said.
Synesthesia also contributes to DiOrio’s memorization skills. When describing the inspiration he has found in the music of Olivier Messiaen, DiOrio tried to remember the French composer’s lifespan. He looked up, then said, “zero is yellow, one is blue, nines are red, twos are orange — 1908 to 1992!”
Like DiOrio, French said she also discovered her synesthesia at an early age. Sitting before the organ for a final rehearsal before her senior recital, French said she was drawn to the instrument because of the wide range of color possibilities it offers.
But DiOrio said the involuntary associations do sometimes change the way synesthetes function in everyday activities. DiOrio, for example, cannot sleep, study or drive with music. Anything that requires his full attention must be performed in relative silence so that the colors do not distract him, he said.
Do the Colors Bring Creativity?
One benefit Lawrence attributes to his synesthesia is his “perfect pitch,” which French and DiOrio also have. People with perfect pitch can identify or recreate musical notes without any points of reference. Lawrence said that, for him, naming a note is like looking at a box of crayons and being able to identify a particular color.
David Ross MED ’05, now a resident at Yale’s Clinical and Basic Neuroscience Research Training Program in Psychiatry, said he is interested in the relationship between synesthesia and perfect pitch and conducted research on the subject under the guidance of Lawrence Marks.
Based on his studies, Ross said he estimates that up to 20 percent of people with perfect pitch may have synesthesia.
“But many of them don’t admit it,” he said. “A lot of them described the color sensations when they were young and then were ridiculed for years and years.”
Just as Ross is interested in the relationship between perfect pitch and synesthesia, Mulvenna said she is examining the relationship between creativity in the normal human brain and creativity in the synesthetic human brain.
Mulvenna distinguishes creative cognition — the ability to create concepts through idea generation and problem solving — from creative output and expression through artistic mediums.
“I’d like to separate that out for all these people and see what is the thing we are defining as creativity,” she explained. “Instead of thinking of it as some magical insight people have, I want to look at what brain areas are part of that.”
She is convinced more synesthetes would naturally exist among creative artists and performers because of their greater sensory and visual inspiration. But it is the neurological bases of creativity, not the effects, that most interest her.
But Ross said studying creativity in the synesthetic brain will not necessarily lead to wider conclusions about human creativity, just as looking at people with perfect pitch will not necessarily help explain how other people experience music. Synesthetes are in an entirely different perceptual universe, he said.
Still, Mulvenna defended her position on creativity by describing an experiment in which she randomly selected 445 people who were screened and blindly tested for synesthesia. Test subjects were presented with a simple line drawing and then given five minutes to generate possibilities for what the drawing might represent.
“Non-synesthetes would run out of things to say,” Mulvenna said. “But synesthetes would be laughing away and coming up with all kinds of different things.”
Next, Mulvenna gave the subjects a standardized stuffed elephant toy and asked them to think of creative ways to change it if they were giving it to a child. She said many non-synesthetes gave answers relating to packaging, while synesthetes often resorted to “magic or witchcraft.”
Her face lit up as she described one of the responses: “You press a button and its ear would disappear and then it would reappear on a Tuesday upside down on its head,” Mulvenna laughed.