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The colorful world of sound


April 2013

Imagine experiencing the world of sound through more than your ears. What if you could "see" sound?

Music legend Billy Joel has said he is hit with a kaleidoscope of colors when he hears music. Blues and greens wash his mind when he hears a soothing ballad. He envisions rhythmically stronger songs in fiery red, orange and gold. Joel has said he considers this cross-sensory perception a gift that helps inspire his creativity.

The name for this experience is "synesthesia," founded in the Greek words for "together" and "senses." Jazz great Duke Ellington would sense the musical note "D" as dark blue burlap and the bright "G" as light blue satin. The names of musicians Tori Amos, Sting and Itzhak Perlman, and actress Marilyn Monroe and actor Geoffrey Rush are noted as possible synesthetes. Someone who experiences synesthesia may also associate letters or numbers with certain colors as well.

"I would imagine that having a dual sensory experience would expand the boundaries of creativity," says Dr. Joav Kofman, a neurologist with Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare. But he also notes that random studies into this little-known phenomenon suggest you donít have to be creative or famous to experience synesthesia, with as many as 1 in 20 people associating numbers, letters, words or sounds with colors.

Kofman explains how it works: "When we are born our brains are still getting wired. There is a lot of cross talking between brain cells. As we get older our focus becomes more directed. But for some people that cross talk continues."

Consider the thalamus in your brain the filter for that cross talk. When chemical and electrical impulses are sent to the brain, the thalamus decides which impulses get sent where. For instance, a letter, number or sound will either go to the left or right side of the brain. If you have synesthesia, the information will also wind up in the back of your brain where you interpret colors. This liberal filtering of neurological information is probably genetic. You are simply hard-wired that way.


This story ran in the April 2013 issue of: