Aggressive 7 and Blue Concertos: Exploring Synesthesia
Here's a question: What color is Mozart's Don Giovanni, and is the number 3 a boy? Most likely, you're wondering what the question is getting at. One percent of you, however, might have immediately decided red or black, yes or no.
That one percent of readers would be classified as synesthetes, or people having the condition synesthesia. Synesthesia is a neurological phenomenon where the brain makes connections between different sensory or cognitive pathways, such as numbers and personalities, or music and color. It is thought that synesthesia develops when neurological connections humans are born with remain intact, instead of "disconnecting" as a response to genetics and environment. The results are various sorts of unconventional perception.
Recently, researchers in the department of genomic medicine at the Imperial College London conducted the first genetic analysis of synesthesia. The findings will be in this week's American Journal of Human Genetics. The study analyzed the DNA of 196 people from 43 different families, since the condition has long been known to run in families. Rather than discovering that one gene is responsible for synesthesia, they found that it is linked to regions on chromosomes 2, 5, 6, and 12. This means that synesthesia is far more complex than previously thought.
One of the researches, Julian Asher, is himself a synesthete. His is an auditory-visual sort, meaning that sounds - music, alarms, and other non-verbal noises - trigger visual sensations of color. He has been aware of this difference since childhood, when he thought that the lights went down at concerts to make it easier for the audience to see the colors.
The assumption has been made that people with synesthesia, which often shows itself in childhood, grow up to be writers and artists. The creativity required for such positions might come more easily to people able to make unconventional conceptual connections.
However, a survey of almost 1,000 synesthetes did not indicate a disproportionate number of creative professionals among them. A link with more validity is autism. Genes on chromosome 2, one of the chromosomes linked to synesthesia, have also been linked to autism. This is not proof, but studies have suggested a connection.
Previously, Asher worked with a man who had a mild form of autism, and an amazing memory capacity for numbers. It is not his memory capacity, but the nature of his number recall that suggests synesthesia. The man described it like "walking along a path," as if he were visually navigating a landscape.
It is possible that almost everyone can claim a degree of synesthesia. Associations and connections are a natural part of each individual's mental process, and most people develop their own ways of remembering and characterizing. But for synesthetes, the connections between human characteristics and ideas are all-encompassing and unprompted.
Synesthesia is an incredibly fascinating phenomenon, and will hopefully enjoy increased study and awareness in the near future.