Posted by: Jessica Ruth Morris | March 31, 2011

Blog 15: Losing Your Conference Virginity


Why hello, thanks for coming back 🙂

As you may be aware, I just got back from London at the weekend, where I was giving a paper about the role and relevance of synaesthesia within Musicology at the UK Synaesthesia Association’s annual conference.

I had an absolutely awesome time, and I’m so glad I went, although to begin with I was ‘umming’ and ‘ahhing’ as to whether I should go. Although my PhD research isn’t directly related to synaesthesia, lots of people told me I’d be stupid not to submit something, or at very least, GO to the conference!

So, after submission I was both relieved and petrified to find out that my paper had been accepted. This was great, as it not only adds itself nicely as the first of (hopefully) many conference papers given in my CV,  it also gives me time and a nice context in which to meet other synaesthetes and those conducting the leading research into synaesthesia around the world. But, it also meant several other, not so positive things.

Firstly, navigating my way around London. I’m not good at this. Secondly, what was I going to wear?! Oh, and thirdly, preparation of the presentation…

The way my brain works, of the three above, it was the first one that was stressing me out the most. But choosing my outfit came a close second. It is at this point I have to thank those who follow me on Twitter and are friends with me on Facebook for their invaluable advice. You can see my dilemma – I was perhaps one of the youngest to attend the conference, let alone give a paper, so I needed to reflect my youth. But, I needed to look professional too. Smart trousers it was then. But most of all I really wanted to reflect my personality in what I wore, and be comfortable.

In the end, I scoured charity shops for a nice top, raided my 13 year old niece’s wardrobe for shoes (I have very small feet), borrowed my sister’s coat, and accessorised the outfit courtesy of the high street. The result was good.

Compared to all these things, preparing the paper was relatively easy! So, a couple of days before the conference, all the boxes were ticked. Hell, I even managed to navigate my way to the hotel correctly from the Tube. As far as I was concerned, the whole weekend was already a win.

I’ve been to a few conferences in the past, and I’m always initially very timid with meeting people. I’ve never been to a conference that has lasted two days before, and for me, that turned out to be a great thing, as I spent most of the first day being quite scared and most of the second really getting to meet everyone.

Giving a conference paper itself is a very odd situation. Its not quite like doing a presentation in school, because even there you know all your mates are watching and you’ll have a good giggle about it afterwards if you mess up. Its not really even like doing one at Uni, because there you have the comfort of a few friendly faces to settle your stomach.

Giving a paper at a conference can only really be compared to losing your virginity. If it was actually losing your virginity, I’d imagine it to be something like doing it for the first time in a room with the love of your life, while 60 professinonal and famous porn stars look on, watching and listening intently, trying to critique you and give you ‘constructive criticism’. No pressure then.

You can imagine it, having planned this moment perfectly in your head for weeks, right down to what your going to wear, you end up at the important moment stumbling over your words, whilst desperately trying to concentrate on what you’re trying to do, worrying that the kit you’ve got won’t work,  all in front of a crowd of very experienced and respected pros in your field.

By the morning of the day my paper was going to be given the butterflies in my tummy seemed to be on Speed, and this analogy was the only thing that finally made me laugh, and more importantly, remember to enjoy what I’m doing without trying too hard.

And although my hands were shaking, I really enjoyed my talk, and I hope everyone else did too. I thoroughly enjoyed the presentations that I saw, and my eyes have really been opened to a whole world of synaesthesia and synaesthesia research that I never even knew existed. Roughly half of those attended seemed to be synaesthetes, and many of the questions that I had about the quirkiness of my condition were answered by those in the know. For example, why I am so quick at doing a Sudoku (its all about Visual Image Perception – that’s for another blog entry!).

I met some incredible people, including those who have poly-modal synaesthesia (which is when all 5 sense are linked). I met musicians, artists, film makers, sonic artists, and even a Channel 4 film crew (I’ll keep you posted on that one), and I hope to keep in touch with them all. But whatever happens, I’ll definitely be seeing them at next year’s conference 🙂

 

Before I finish this post, I just want to say a huge thank you to Dr Mary Spiller, Dr Ashok Jansari, and the whole team at UEL who made my conference so enjoyable (including the incredible food!) I also want to thank all those I spoke with and exchanged contact details with – you’ll be hearing from me soon! Finally, just a huge thanks to everyone who’s input (clothing, business card related or otherwise), messages of good luck, and help really has helped me achieve something I have always wanted to do.

I couldn’t have done it without you 🙂

Posted by: Jessica Ruth Morris | February 28, 2011

UK Synaesthesia Association Conference 2011


Posted by: Jessica Ruth Morris | February 20, 2011

Blog 14: Mogwai


Last night I finally went to see Mogwai perform in the O2 Academy in Bristol – it was a much belated Christmas present, which, if I’m honest, I wasn’t too excited about. At the time of booking the tickets (back in November 2010), I thought of myself going to the gig as a sacrifice, I mean, I hadn’t really ever heard of Mogwai apart from the odd half-track that might have soaked into my subconscious during short car journeys.

I knew that they were a Scottish band, who wrote mostly instrumental music, and who gave their track’s titles like ‘I Love You, I’m Going To Blow Up Your School’. Right…

So, with this in mind, and with the agenda of trying to keep an open mind, we got to the venue. I’d read reviews about their latest tour that the entire gig was one huge nose-bleed-inducing crescendo, and so as I took prime position on the balcony I was really wondering how this gig was going to work.

Of course, the people-watching was what I thought was going to be the highlight of a gig that had the potential to be incredibly boring, what with 90 minutes of pure instrumental music, and in all fairness it was good quality people-watching.

At gigs you always manage to get one idiot in the crowd. You know what I mean. At this gig, it was a 6’4″ bloke in his early twenties, with a huge curly (and wobbly) afro, who was off his face on pills and was right on the front barrier. As a slim, short female, he would be my worst nightmare in this sort of environment, and I felt truly sorry for the poor, poor girl stood behind him who endured his 3 hour solid psychedelic dancing for the entirety of the gig, support act included.

Despite this entertainment, I still wondered how the hell this gig was going to work. I’d by now realised that Mogwai have been around for a long time and have acquired a bit of a cult following, and as the O2 filled up I couldn’t imagine how this music was meant to captivate and excite me, particularly without the use of lyrics, which is often how people feel like they can connect with songs.

Jesus, how wrong was I. I have never experienced a gig like that. I was captivated from the word ‘GO’,  and 24 hours later I am still thinking about the music, and I can’t quite put my finger on what it was that made it so very fascinating.

I couldn’t tell you what tracks they played (although I did recognise the odd track such as ‘I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead’, and ‘Cody’ from my passive in-car experiences), and I probably couldn’t sing any huge tunes back to you, but I don’t think that’s Mogwai’s style.

I can honestly say that it was the most beautifully crafted gig I have ever been to. They used visuals projected onto a white back screen for only a handful of songs, but it was really effective. Their music becomes hugely emotional when it is given a visual element, and I particularly enjoyed those tracks that included it. The lighting, too, was perfect. What I have now learnt about Mogwai is that their music has a consistent rhythmic drive about it, mostly to do with the riffs they choose to base and expand the whole song on. This rhythmic drive was brilliant to watch – at one point I looked down to the crowd on the floor and it was a throng of 400 people all nodding their head to the beat in a trance like state.

And I think that’s the thing about their music – it is hypnotic. I can now understand why a lanky hooded youth was enjoying a sneaky spliff in the middle of the crowd, as the experience of their music can transport you into your own world, and puts everyone in their own ‘zone’.

On stage, it wasn’t much to look at, as the band play in quite a reserved way and let the music speak for itself (which is something they do superbly). But, for me this was partly why the gig was so memorable. As I tuned out of watching the band, my attention was drawn to other small things going on the room, like when the bouncers caught sight of this hooded spliff-smoking youth, and the subsequent cat and mouse chase to escort him out of the building. This is something I would easily have missed if it were any other band playing.

As it happened, the only way I could describe it is that their music was the soundtrack to the gig, as if the gig itself were a film of which the music played only a small (but vital) part.

In all fairness, the gig did get louder and louder, ending on what was perhaps a dangerous volume, although I’m inclined to believe that that was probably the fault of the sound techs at the O2, rather than Mogwai (who each have pedal boards consisting of about 18 pedals per instrument, 3 Macbook Pros, and god knows how many other samplers etc. Oh, and did I mention the two sound-tech guys they have either side of the stage prepping levels for the next track…?!).

But Mogwai, if you’re reading this, you have a new fan. I adore your simple yet commanding stage presence, and the way you can control a crowd for over 5 minutes by playing a repeated phrase so quietly that you can barely hear it over the communal breathing. I loved the whole experience of the gig, and I came out of it only to find myself re-addressing popular musicological issues in a whole new light. Oh, and the synaesthetic experiences were pretty good too 🙂

Posted by: Jessica Ruth Morris | February 12, 2011

UK Synaesthesia Association Conference 2011


Hey there, sorry its been so long! This is just a bit of a quick post really, just to let you know about something you may all be interested in.

The annual UK Synaesthesia Association conference is taking place this year between March 25th-27th 2011 in the University of East London, hosted by the psychology department.

It looks like a brilliant line up, with lots of interesting talks by many of the most knowledgable academics in this field, including Dr. Ed. Hubbard (Vanderbilt University), the keynote speaker for this year.

Luckily enough, I have also been given the opportunity to present at this year’s conference, and my paper is going to be given about the place of synaesthesia within the academic field of Musicology, one which I work myself.

I’ll be taking a look at how synaesthesia can affect musicians and how this may important in our understanding of them and their creative work, and bringing up some important famous names such as Arnold Schoenberg, Olivier Messiaen, Billy Joel and even Stevie Wonder.

It would be great to see you there, and if you’d like any more information about the conference or the talks being given, don’t hesitate to contact me. Alternatively, you could have a look at the links below, which direct you to the relevant sites.

Be there or be square! 🙂 xxx

http://www.uksynaesthesia.com/registration%20final.pdf

http://www.uksynaesthesia.com/UKSA%20program%202011.pdf

UKSA Abstract JRM 2011

Posted by: Jessica Ruth Morris | November 8, 2010

Blog 13: Your Opinion Needed!


Hi there – sorry there hasn’t been a post in quite a while, I’ve been really busy finishing MA’s, finding a job, starting PhD’s, etc!

Seeing as I haven’t posted on here for such a long time, I thought in this next blog post I’d take the time out to get some feedback from you, the lovely readers, of which I would be eternally grateful.

As I commence my PhD, I would love to know whether you like the blog the way it is, or whether there are any particular areas that could be made more interesting. I will then act on this information accordingly, with the sole aim of trying to make this blog better for you 🙂

For that reason, if you could take (literally) about 1 minute to answer these 3 short questions, I would be very grateful!

Question 1: What is the most interesting feature of this blog?

Question 2: What would you prefer to read more about in this blog?

Question 3: Would you still want to read this blog if it was not focussed specifically on synaesthesia?

Many thanks!

Posted by: Jessica Ruth Morris | August 23, 2010

Blog 12: Teach Yourself Synaesthesia with Derren Brown


Derren Brown dives into the world of synaesthesia…

 

Posted by: Jessica Ruth Morris | August 20, 2010

Blog 11: Synaesthesia Emergency


Just a little something I found, enjoy!

 

Posted by: Jessica Ruth Morris | July 21, 2010

Blog 10: Shameless Plugging…


I now have a website! So, what are you waiting for? Go check it out!!!

www.jessicaruthmorris.co.uk

 

Posted by: Jessica Ruth Morris | July 16, 2010

Blog 9: QI. Possibly the best TV show. Ever.


Synaesthesia on QI. Epic.

Posted by: Jessica Ruth Morris | June 22, 2010

Blog 8: Rain Man


Hey, nice to see you again!

On scouring my computer for stuff to delete the other day, amongst all the rubbish and general crap that’s stored on it, I cam across the film Rain Man with Dustin Hoffman & Tom Cruise  (1988), which I last watched years and years ago, but is probably one of my favourite films of all time. You probably know of it/have seen it, but if you haven’t then here’s a quick digest (courtesy of Wikipedia, of course!)

Charlie Babbitt (Cruise) is a car salesman in his mid twenties, who’s summer vacation is ruined when he hears of the death of his multi-millionaire father Sandford Babbitt. On settling the estate of his late father, it turns out that $3 million have been willed to an ‘undisclosed beneficiary’ – who turns out to be Charlie’s long-lost brother who is institutionalised, Raymond Babbitt (Hoffman).

Raymond has quite a severe form of autism, ‘with superb recall, but with little understanding of subject matter’. As the story goes on, Charlie learns a lot about his brother’s condition (which he wrongly believes to be curable), and eventually grows to love and protect him like any brother. Raymond (who doesn’t like change and social interaction) also learns to accept and love his brother. Like any Hollywood film, the moral of the story is that good overcomes evil (i.e. love before money), and although Charlie doesn’t get custody of Raymond, the story ends on a high note.

Personally, I think Dustin Hoffman is incredible in this film, and portrays Raymond fantastically (for Hollywood). However, what I’m not so sure about is the ‘savant’ stereotype that has developed out of this film and is now associated with Autism Spectrum Disorders. You’ve probably heard someone coin the phrase ‘rain man’ for someone who’s super intelligent and dedicated to their work, but for Autism, this isn’t always the case.

There’s a really famous scene from Rain Man where Charlie teaches Raymond to count cards and takes him to Las Vegas in an attempt to defy the croupiers and win millions, on the fact that he has an incredible memory for random stuff :

This is a trait that is pretty rare in Autism, but is in fact, much more common as a side effect of Synaesthesia.

‘How!?’, you say? Well, I wish I could tell you from a personal point of view, but I am nowhere near to being a savant! However, I’ve kind of been able to use my 4 different forms of synaesthesia to help me with stuff in life, so for example, I have VERY fast scan reading skills (because when I look at a page in a book, and then look away, I can ‘see’ the page of the book with every word coloured to its exact shade in my mind – its not quite photographic memory, but is probably something like it). This has proven very useful for my friends, who, when under pressure to write an essay, need to scan read a book for just one word, call on me to do it for them.

Also, (quite like Raymond) I have an awesome memory for names, dates, times, places, telephone numbers  etc. This is because of the Grapheme – Colour Synaesthesia that I have, in which every word/letter/number/name/place etc. has its own specific (and never the same) colour (and also for me, texture – but that’s another form of synaesthesia on top: Texture – Colour Synaesthesia). So, for example, I can remember every one of my home addresses, telephone numbers, and  postcodes of the places I’ve lived in, and all my 10 best girlfriends home addresses and home telephone numbers from when we were about 5 years old, area code included. In hindsight, I probably should have done a History degree or something, where that kind of memory would have actually been of some use!!!

Another sort of ‘side effect’ of the types of synaethesia I have (if you can call it that) is that I have an incredible spatial awareness, or memory for where I’ve put stuff. But not just me – oh no, I’ve done it in public too. I can be in a room full of people and if one of them loses their umbrella, I bet you I know where they put it. I don’t really understand how I manage to take everything in like that, but I do. So you might think I must have a super-organised home but really, I don’t. It can be a total dive but I still know where everything is. Strange eh?

Before you ask, I’m not autistic, its purely just a side effect of synaesthesia. So don’t ask me to compete with you in a race to finish a Sudoku – I will win.

What I find really fascinating though, is that there are a small number of people with severe autism who actually have synaesthesia. However, it is usually difficult to get to grips with exactly what type of synaesthesia they have, as with the severe form, they often find it difficult and stressful to communicate. An exception to this rule is a lovely guy called Daniel Tammet, who you have probably heard of in various guises. He’s an has high-functionign autism, and incredibly, has synaesthesia too. However, his first-rate communication skills have allowed scientists (for the first time) to quiz him about both his autism and synaesthesia, and as a result they have been able to work towards a link between the two.

Daniel has written two books, Born on a Blue Day, and Embracing the Wide Sky, both of which I would highly recommend to anyone who is interested in finding out more about this subject. He is also a savant, and is probably most famous for his documentaries with Channel Five (UK), such as The Boy With the Incredible Brain in which he learnt possibly the hardest language in the world – Icelandic – fluently, in just one week. In that documentary, he explains how his synaesthesia helps him to do that:

Oh, and before you ask me, I’m still working on counting cards (ask me again in thirty years or so…)

Posted by: Jessica Ruth Morris | June 9, 2010

Blog 7: Inspiration


Hello again! Well, this is becoming a rather regular affair!

This is just another quick post. I wanted to share a story that has really touched me over the last couple of days, which I can’t really explain other than just me being in the right place at the right time!

I attended the end of year art Foundation exhibition from Gorseinon College, Swansea on Monday, and after wondering around and viewing all the works, I took a closer look at one of the pieces of art that I really connected with. I stood back and took it all in, and then some time later I came back to it to read the small paragraph written by the artist (Jamie Hyatt) about the piece.

I saw the word ‘synaesthesia’ about half way down the first paragraph and I stopped in my tracks. Suddenly, the whole work made absolute sense. It was a figure of a woman floating in what seemed to be space, surrounded by bright waves of colour emanating from all around her, in bright neon and fluorescent shades.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing – I needed to find this guy to talk to him! When I eventually bumped into him, I talked AT him about synaesthesia until he looked pretty dumbfounded and slightly confused. Poor lad. Nevertheless, I told him that I was really interested in his own take on synaesthesia and that if he wanted to pursue this kind of topic then he’s really found himself a niche. And what a cool one too!

His work took a lot of inspiration from the New York artist Alex Grey who primarily paints, specializing in performance art, installation art and visionary art. You might have heard of him as he provided his work Muscle System as one of the works inside the liner notes of Nirvana’s In Utero album, or the album cover for Tool’s Lateralus:

Used in Nirvana's 'In Utero' album

Tool's album cover by Alex Grey

One my favourite Grey paintings is something that I can now understand as me subconsciously connecting with my synaesthesia, as for me, this painting represents the creative process:

For me, in this painting Grey really captures one part of the synaesthetic experience.

What I found really exciting about Hyatt’s painting though was that, even though he wasn’t a synaesthete himself, he drew the figure’s eye’s looking upwards, as if she were consumed by what was around her. What he didn’t realise is that this is exactly what synaesthetes (or me at least) do when we listen to music – our gaze goes upwards, focussing on the colours we can see in our vision.

It was a small point, but one I absolutely had to praise him for.

Anyway, all thats left to say is good luck to Jamie for the future – I’ll be looking out for him and his colourful outlook on life.

Posted by: Jessica Ruth Morris | May 27, 2010

Blog 6: Don’t Try This At Home Kids…


Hello! Long time no blog, but I’m back again, armed with tea and biscuits.

This one is going to be short and sweet – it’s about drugs and synaesthesia.

If I had been given a pound for every time a non-synaesthete asked me whether there was any way of experiencing synaesthesia by illegal means, I would be very rich indeed. And quite possibly some sort of dealer/condoner of illegal substances, which to be absolutely clear, I am not!

From the internet research I have done over the last few years, if you were to ask me that very same question, I would reply that hashish and mescaline are the only ones that I have heard of that do so effectively. However, I feel this is a good place to state that I have never dabbled/tried/taken any substance, ever (not even cannabis), so I absolutely can’t tell you with any authority a) what it might be like or b) what I can recommend.

From stories I have heard about other drugs such as LSD, I would be really surprised if hashish and mescaline were the only two that could induce a synaesthesia-type experience. But what is really interesting is that the highest usage of these drugs coincided with the period in history that ‘discovered’ synaesthesia: the Romantic period (circa 1810-1910-ish).

At this time, drug usage was a pretty socially accepted occurrence although it was one that was mostly enjoyed by the upper echelons of society. Many a famous figure were honest about their drug usage: one of the most famous examples is the poet Charles Baudelaire, who consumed a ridiculous amount of hashish on a very regular basis, and who was often thought to be a synaesthete. However, in hindsight, its pretty clear that the synaesthesia he experienced was an effect of the hashish he consumed (1).

It has been documented that mescaline can specifically induce coloured hearing in some of its users, and it is true that drug usage has the potential to enhance the sensory relations within the brain. However, I would recommend that you DIDN’T try it, as don’t forget there are plenty of other not-so-pleasant side effects that these types of drugs can induce, no matter how tempted you are.

Finally, if temptation was to get the better of you (despite my warnings) then unfortunately, in my opinion, you still wouldn’t be near to experiencing the real thing – there are two fundamental differences of drug induced synaesthesia to the neurological condition:

  1. Firstly, the synaesthesia you would experience would be a vivid hallucination, and
  2. This induced synaesthesia is only temporary.

It can be all too easy to focus on just how cool or quirky a condition synaesthesia is, and forget what it actually is that makes it a condition in the first place – it has to be an involuntary and constant experience – which, as I hope I’ve made clear, the drug induced form is not.

And for everyone who’s asked me, just for the record, you don’t get synaesthesia from long term substance abuse!

If you’re an avid follower of this blog, then I hope I haven’t put you off or dashed your hopes of ever experiencing this incredible condition, because believe me, if I could even begin to authentically share what it feels like to experience it then I would, enthusiastically! Who knows, with the advent of 3D TV and other incredible technological advancements, we’ll have another level of multi-sensory experience that everyone can experience, synaesthete or non-synaesthete…

 

(1) Barren Cohen & Harrison, Synaesthesia, pg. 74.

Posted by: Jessica Ruth Morris | May 2, 2010

Blog 5: Doe a deer, a female deer…


Hello! Sorry its been a while since I last posted, I’ve been pretty busy sorting out essays and the like, but I’m back, armed with a cup of tea and a bourbon.

Right. I think its probably about time that I gave some more info about the kind of Synaesthesia that I’m most interested in, which is most commonly known as Sound – Colour Synaesthesia. I have this kind myself (along with 3 others: if you wanted any more info then check out the previous blogs) and I think its probably my favourite (if its not weird to have a ‘favourite’ part of a medical condition…?!). Its definitely the most fun anyway!

Put simply, this variant of the condition means that when I hear a musical sound (such as a single note, a chord, a musical instrument etc.), I can literally ‘see’ colours in my field of vision. This happens totally unvoluntarily, and I have no control over what colours appear. Its also continous for as long as the sounds continue. As you can imagine, a gig or a concert is a very pleasurable experience!

No-one really knows how this particular form of synaesthesia really comes about. As I’ve said in Blog 3: Proms and Posters, personally I believe that it is something I’ve learnt to do subconsciously when I was too young to really remember it now. However, this would explain only the Grapheme – Colour synaesthesia, which would affect the way I see letters, numbers, words etc. Learning to see colours when I hear sounds though? Now thats a whole other kettle of fish that makes subconscious learning seem pretty far out…

The most popular theory for where this condition comes from is that Sound – Colour synaesthetes genetically inherit the condition from their mother,  and although research of this kind is ongoing, it is likely that there is more than one single gene involved in its manifestation (1). In my case though, I am the only synaesthete in my entire immediate family, my mother is 100% tone deaf and is far from synaesthetic, so I’m not convinced! However, what can also be suggested of this particular form of synaesthesia is that there is a distinct connection between three main areas of the brain: the temporal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for hearing), the hippocampus (the area of the brain that regulates emotion and memory), and the limbic structure (the part of the brain in control of emotional response). This might sound pretty complicated, but here’s a diagram to sort of simplify it (which is also very interesting, and demonatrates the main parts of the brain that control different areas of your perception of music):

Ultimately, what this allows an  involuntary, constant link between the acoustic and the optic, i.e. the ear and the eye.

Frustratingly for myself and other synaesthetes, more controversy surrounds this form of synaesthesia than most others, as the majority of people (both synaesthetes and non-synaesthetes) can, to an extent, appreciate the idea that instruments and pieces of music may be coloured, and so people often think that we’re lying. For example, Prince’s Purple Rain could easily be described as being purple. However, in this instance, the colour is only thought of because it has been consciously suggested. This has become known as the least severe form of the condition.

Scientists have described 3 different forms of Sound – Colour synaesthesia, varying from ‘not severe’ through to ‘very severe’. The least severe form is known as a ‘mental chromatism’: so, by having the colour purple consciously suggested and someone imagining, say violet, to this song, this would be a ‘mental chromatism’.

The next level up is what is known as a ‘conceptual chromatism’: in other words, this means that the colours are involuntarily imagined, and that people see the colours in their mind’s eye.

However, the form that I have (which also happens to be the most severe) is known as a ‘perceptual chromatism’. This means that the colours are involuntarily seen and experienced as if they were part of the room, part of real life.

No two synaesthetes’ experiences are ever the same, but if there are any Sound – Colour synaesthetes out there that would like to compare with me, then please get in touch! However, there has been extensive research that shows that there are some underlying similarities between large groups of Sound – Colour synaesthetes. For example, most experience higher tones as lighter colours, and lower tones as darker colours (2).

Let me give you a real example of what I mean. For example, when I hear a harp being played, I see the colour gold in the upper portion of my field of vision. If I was looking directly at you into your eyes, the colours would be sort of projected, floating and changing just above your head.  If the sound of the harp is followed by the sound of a trumpet, the colour gold melts away into a very bright green.

Alternatively, some synaesthetes have considered a piece of music as being ‘dipped’ into a specific colour, so that the shades change from light to dark with the music. Other synaesthetes find that they have a specific colour for each note of the scale on a keyboard (including enharmonic differences), each key, general pitch, the sounds of every instrument and even the tone of a human voice (3). For some synaesthetes, other unconventional musical sounds (e.g. animal calls, doorbells, car horns) also evoke colours.

And, just like any other form of Colour Synaesthesia, every single sound has its own unique shade of a certain colour. For me, each sound also has a texture too. For each note of the Western scale, (so, from C to C on a piano), this is what I see (although describing it in words really doesn’t do it justice):

C – A mid-purple, which is very shiny and reflective.

C sharp – The same sort of mid-purple as C but a shade brighter and far more shiny.

D flat – A really beautiful dark blue, much darker than navy but not quite black. It’s like satin.

D – Much like D flat, but not so dark – a bit brighter. Also satin-like.

D sharp – This is dark blue too, but with a reflective tinge of metallic grey. It’s also really shiny but is sort of like corrugated steel.

E flat – This is my favourite note. It is the most beautiful evergreen shade of green and looks like cashmere.

E – Bright mid-green. It reminds me of citrus, which is quite sharp as this note is tinged with a yellow hue. Its a very flat colour with not much texture.

F – Black. The darkest matt black you can imagine.

F sharp – Dark black too, but this time with a grey sort of tinge. Its not a very nice colour, and is kind of fluffy.

G – The most unenjoyable colour in my spectrum. Its the colour of a digestive biscuit, but like really smooth acrylic plastic.

G sharp – Another horrible shade of brown. Its very similar to G but a bit lighter in shade.

A flat – This is quite a bright red, almost tinged with orange, and has the texture of a coarse woollen jumper.

A – Bright red, nearly like the red you get on road signs but a lot lot shinier. Also like smooth acrylic plastic.

A sharp – An orangey-red, much brighter than A flat, and more orange. Its also like a coarse woollen jumper.

B flat – A gorgeous mellow yellow, with the texture of honey.

B – A bright yellow, much like what you’d imagine if I said ‘think of the primary colour yellow’. It’s quite shiny and smooth.

B sharp – Much like a lemon, so bright its quite horrible to look at. Its quite a thin fluid sound, very similar to lemon juice…!

There are so many questions that I want answered about my synaesthesia, probably like the ones rattling around your head at the moment, but its going to take time and I know that I might not get them all answered in my lifetime. So for now, we’ll just have to wait.

However, if you wanted to experience a little bit of what a Sound – Colour synaesthete experiences, then the closest thing we have at the moment is Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940). The scene in question is the one where the silhouettes of the orchestra plays J.S. Bach’s Toccata & Fugue in D minor, accompanied by a multi-coloured background. From my perspective, the most realistic part is when the background changes into an animation, e.g. clouds, where the picture changes to the music:

Enjoy 🙂

 

(1) J. E. Asher, ‘First genetic clues to synaesthesia revealed’, Insciences Organization (February 2009), <http://www.insciences.org/article.php?article_id=2420> [accessed 24 February 2009].

(2) Ward, Huckstep, & Tsakanikos, ‘Sound-colour synaesthesia: to what extent does it use cross-modal mechanisms common to us all?’ PubMed Online Journal (February 2006),  <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16683501&gt; [accessed 26 January 2009].

(3) Révèsz, Psychology of Music, pp. 123-127.

Posted by: Jessica Ruth Morris | April 10, 2010

Blog 4: What came first, Music or Colour?


When you think about it, the relationship between music and colour has been around for centuries in one way or another, but mostly in metaphor. I suppose it has been rather taken for granted too. Take for example, musical terminology. A lot of it is associated with the idea of colour, which is particularly true for Latin and Greek: for example, the word ‘chromatic’ is one of the most basic yet fundamental terms used in Western musicology, and derives from the Greek, chromatikos, meaning ‘coloured’ (1).

The Italian term coloratura (‘colouring’) is an example of the application of the word ‘colour’ as a musical device: in vocal music, it often denotes improvised, elaborate ornamentation around a melodic line, which is most commonly used with reference to sopranos (2). During the early fourteenth century, another musical device known as ‘coloration’ was used in manuscript to create a specific rhythmic effect. The consequences of ‘colouring’ particular note-heads on the page (usually in red) meant that the normal value of the note was reduced by a third, creating what could be described today as a sort of hemiola effect when performed (i.e. the impression of two beats in a bar when actually being in three, etc) (3).

Within the Western study of music, there is one really famous example of this, but it’s going to need quite a bit of explaining! Lets think of your average piano. It has around 72 keys, over about 6 or 7 octaves, depending on your make. Nowadays, we take it for granted that your piano is in tune; every note on the piano being perfectly in tune with every other note over the length of the piano. However, believe it or not, this is actually not the case. In fact, every note on the piano is probably only perfectly in tune with one or two other notes out of the 70+ keys. Because we’ve been exposed to this for years and years, we’ve become ignorant to it. But if you’ve ever heard a REAL perfect fifth (for example), it’s a totally different creature, and quite beautiful.

So, why is this relevant? Well, back in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, the note A in one country would be a totally different note in another country, e.g. an A in France would be the equivalent of say, a B in Germany. With the slow advancement in technology and transport (amongst other things), things like concert tours and travelling musicians found it increasingly frustrating that they wouldn’t be able to play the music they knew in other countries for fear of it being out of tune, and after lots and lots of experimentation, it was decided that something called ‘Equal Temperament’ would be used within Western music as a starting point for pitch. It was decided that the note A would = 440 hertz, which is the average A you would hear on your modern pianos today.

Just to note, this is a massively simplified version of the whole story, as it requires days to explain in full. However, why this is relevant is because during these periods of experimentation, between around 1700-1780 there was one called ‘unequal temperament’. Without going into too much detail (I mean, theses have been written on this topic!), the trial-and-error like system of unequal temperament commonly meant that compromises in pitch had to be made. The most common compromise was to narrow the fifth of the scale in order to produce the most in-tune third possible (4). As a result of this, each key had its own unique character or ‘colour’. For example, the key of F major was described in the 1800 publication of the Encyclopaedia Britannica as ‘remarkably simple’ (5). The advantage of key-colour was that it gave seemingly simple music a new and interesting dimension, and one that is now lost due to the acceptance of equal temperament within Western music.

Moving on from complicated issues of tuning to the more simple concepts of metaphor, musicians often refer to colour within music as timbre, or tone-colour. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians describes tone-colour as ‘that which distinguishes the quality of the tone […] of one instrument […] to another’ (6). The use of ‘colour’ as an adjective in musical terminology is now commonplace, and is often used to describe the instrumental combinations and textures found in works by ‘the master’ composers like Hector Berlioz or Richard Wagner. These two examples are famous for their innovative orchestration techniques, which has partly led to new and intriguing advances in tone-colour, especially within the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Now this one, well, you’ll kick yourself that you didn’t think of it first. One of the most obvious derivatives of the word ‘colour’ has become so inherently associated with music that it is often taken for granted, and has now become the title of an entire genre of music: the Blues. Within Western slang, the term ‘blue’ denotes the emotion of sadness, which derives from the use of the term during the late nineteenth century by African-American slaves. During the growth of jazz from this period onwards, the term ‘blue’ became not only an emotional depiction, but a musical one too, as it has also been used to describe a specific musical device known as ‘blue notes’. ‘Blue notes’ are the flattened third, fifth and seventh of a scale, which gives it a minor tonality, commonly associated with unhappiness and melancholy. Kicking yourself? Thought so.

Reference to colour in music reached its climax during the Romantic period in music (1815-1910).  The condition synaesthesia at this time was at its most fashionable and popular, and gained a hold within the minds of artists and scientists alike. Synaesthesia proved so popular because it wasn’t just fascinating: it fitted with Romantic ideals too, which explored the notion of heightened emotions, feelings and intuitions, including much study into the subconscious mind. Within the arts, this encouraged creating multi-sensory experiences for the audience, which simultaneously aimed to unite music, art, and literature. The composer Alexander Scriabin, the painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) and the poet Arthur Rimbaud (1845-1891) are all famous Romantic examples of those who have attempted to unite the arts through multi-sensory stimulation for the audience, although it has now been learnt that they were all, in fact, synaesthetes.

So, this must beg the question that ‘are synaesthetes more creative than non-synaesthetes’? You could debate this until the sun goes down, but personally I don’t think so. For example, it would be positively ridiculous to argue that Scriabin was more creative than say, Beethoven as creativity is not something that can realistically be measured. However, the unique characteristics of the condition act as a tool for synaesthetes to express themselves, perhaps better or worse than non-synaesthetes. Argue that instead. But its this expressive, creative side of synaesthesia that I believe is really important, and doesn’t have to be just for study. Its principles can be implemented (and sometimes, have already been) within society too.

I hope this whets your appetite, as I’m leaving it there for now. I’ll explain it in good time 🙂 Thanks again for reading, it’s greatly appreciated.

 

References:

(1) New Grove II s.v. ‘Chromatic’, pp. 815-816.

(2) Oxford Concise Dictionary of Music IV, s.v. ‘Coloratura’.

(3) New Grove II s.v. ‘Coloration’, pp. 155-156.

(4) A.C.N. Mackenzie of Ord, The Temperament of Keyboard Music (Bristol: Mackenzie of Ord Publishing, 2007), pp. 114-132.

(5) Quoted in Mackenzie of Ord, Temperament of Keyboard Music, p. 127.

(6) New Grove II, s.v. ‘Timbre’, p. 478.

Posted by: Jessica Ruth Morris | April 1, 2010

Blog 3: Proms and Posters


One of the questions that bothers me the most about this condition is whether or not it was something I was born with. As it stands, I don’t think there have been any scientific discoveries to clear this up, but its something I think about quite a lot. I don’t think it would make much difference to me if I knew whether my synaesthesia was something I was born with, but I have this one vivid memory in my head that seems to be, in hindsight, the first real time that I started to think about it.

I remember when I was 16, and it was the last day of term – our Yr 11 leavers day actually. Me and my friends were dressed to the nines in cocktail (and even a couple of people, ballroom) dresses, parading around school thinking we were the bees knees. We’d had the whole writing on t-shirts thing the day before, which was a really fun but looking back, a pretty normal day apart from that. Because we’d got all of that out of ours systems the day before, our dress day was a much more refined affair (or so we thought). Anyway, at the end of the day, we were all going to my friends house, who lived just down the hill from my school (as was pretty customary). On the way back, we thought it’d be a pretty cool idea to go and visit our primary school and our old teachers, who would surely appreciate seeing us all grown up and in our expensive dresses. So, off we went.

To be honest, it was a bit weird. The last time we’d been in that school, we’d been about 11 and felt either pretty scared or pretty confident about leaving it. If you’re wondering, I think I was a bit of both. Anyway, after we’d seen most of the junior teachers, we headed downstairs to see the infants. Now that really was weird – I hadn’t been in the reception class for 7 years, and after having some polite conversation with a teacher I hadn’t spoken to properly for about 13 years (which was understandably a little tedious), I found myself looking around the room and taking in the surroundings: it hadn’t really changed in all that time. What I noticed about that room was really weird at the time, but was strangely satisfying.

You know those really long alphabet posters they have along the walls in primary schools to try and help you learn the alphabet? Well, I took another look at the one in my old reception class, and I just felt really satisfied. I couldn’t really explain it, because I’ve never really felt anything like it, but it was really good. Obviously, I can’t remember learning the alphabet (my memory is shocking at the best of times), but I asked my old teacher whether that was the same poster on the wall as when I was a child and she said that yeah, it probably was (and it looked pretty shoddy too, so I figured it may well have been).

What really struck me about this poster, a lot later when I got home, was that the colour of each letter on it was exactly the same colour as the colours I ascribe to each letter of the alphabet. I’ve done this since as long as I can remember, and to me it seems pretty natural. So, A is red, B is yellow, C is blue, D is black, E is green etc, I could go on. But what was really striking to me is that I’ve never seen anything represent the colours so exactly as to how I see them, so for example A is a blood red, a really beautiful colour red actually. It has a sort of shiny appearance/texture and is really bold. I quite like the letter A because of it. And it could have been any kind of red on the poster, but it wasn’t – it was exactly like how I know the letter A. And the letter B, and C, and D… it went on. And just by seeing it, I gave me a really good feeling.

Its strange really, because this never happens. EVER. I can understand it better now, knowing that I’m not the only one who sees colours when they read, do maths, listen to music etc. Imagine, assigning a specific shade of a colour to every single number, letter, word, name, etc, and each one of those has its own texture, appearance, and gives you a particular feeling. Its no mean feat. And to actually find a total and complete match for at least one of them? Incredible. And for 26? Nothing short of a miracle. Welcome to the fascinating and interesting, but sometimes strangely complex world of synaesthesia.

So for me, I can’t think of another way of how this condition manifested itself than as some sort of learned thing. No-one else in my close family has synaesthesia, so it can’t be genetic. And if it isn’t something I’ve learnt subconsciously, then I don’t really know how it came to be. Its a bit of a mystery, but if anyone can clear it up for me I’d be really grateful!

 

Posted by: Jessica Ruth Morris | March 27, 2010

Blog 2: Synaesthesia Explained; Medical and Psychological Contexts


In this blog, I thought it might be useful to write a relatively short introduction to the nature of synaesthesia (in general). If you wanted a bit more of a detailed account, you should probably go straight to the footnotes at the end of this blog (I really reccommend the Baron-Cohen book for anyone who’s seriously interested!).

Synaesthesia has always been a controversial topic. But, it’s a subject of growing investigation amongst the scientific community, and is also slowly gaining interest in the minds of both the media and the general public, with many television documentaries and books having highlighted its ‘quirky’ nature. Recent scientific investigations have not only proven synaesthesia to be a legitimate medical condition, but have also brought to light the potential psychological and anatomical reasons for its genesis. It has also, more importantly, shed some light on the many forms of synaesthesia, the number of sufferers, and how synaesthetes learn to manage their condition on a day-to-day basis.

The word synaesthesia derives from the Greek; syn meaning ‘together’ and aisthesis meaning ‘sensation’, and is the name given to the neurological condition in which ‘stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway’ (1). In other words, when synaesthetes are stimulated in one sense, they constantly and involuntarily experience a sensation in another. It is a distinct perceptual trait that remains innate throughout one’s life, and as it affects each individual’s way of thinking, there is no evidence to suggest that it deteriorates with age (2). The earliest known reference to synaesthesia was in 1690 by John Locke;(3) it became a topic of rigorous scientific investigation during the nineteenth century, although it was abandoned during the mid-twentieth century in favour of research into the psychology of behaviour (4). Having been rediscovered in the 1980s, it remains a mysterious and fascinating topic.

The correct way to identify synaesthesia is as a condition, as it has been proven that there is a physical difference between synaesthetes and non-synaesthetes: those with synaesthesia have an increased volume of grey matter within the brain (5). It can materialize between any two of the five senses, but can also include other non-sensory triggers and responses, which largely accounts for the near sixty forms of synaesthesia currently known to the scientific community. These can even include personifications and emotions. For example, Ordinal Linguistic Personification, where the synaesthete associates ordered sequences (e.g. days or letters) with personalities, and Tactile – Emotion synaesthesia, whereby when the synaesthete feels a texture, they experience an acute emotion such as rage (6). Due to the large number of forms of the condition, scientists have developed a convention of denoting the type of synaesthesia as x – y, whereby x is the ‘trigger’ experience, and y is the ‘concurrent’ experience (7).

Synaesthesia is not easily diagnosed, which may be why it largely remains a controversial topic to those outside of the scientific community. It is commonplace for most synaesthetes not to know that they have any abnormality until they are in conversation with non-synaesthetes.  For example, you will often hear a synaesthete say nonsensical phrases, e.g. ‘the chair smelt very purple’, but to most synaesthetes, this is a completely normal occurrence. This is how I discovered my own forms of synaesthesia. I suffer from four different types, including Tactile – Emotion, Grapheme – Colour, Tactile – Colour, and Sound – Colour synaesthesia, and like many other synaesthetes, I would not consider it a disadvantage. Therefore,  I prefer to refer to them as synaesthetes, not sufferers.

Interestingly, for the majority of synaesthetes there are many small advantages and disadvantages to possessing the condition. Some synaesthetes (such as myself) have distinct mathematical deficiencies (8): take my own personal experience as an example. If the number two is red and the number three is yellow, then when adding these figures together, the number five should be orange: an amalgamation of the colours red and yellow. However, in reality, the colour I experience for the number five is blue. Evidently, this is hugely problematic, even on a day-to-day basis. Other disadvantages that synaesthetes may experience as a result of having the condition are subtle right-left confusion, and a poor sense of direction.  However, synaesthetes often excel in clinical tests for memory capacity, often citing that their memory is aided by their synaesthetic responses. They also possess outstanding memory for the spatial location of objects, particularly of text on a page, and generally have a higher IQ than non-synaesthetes (9).

In 2007, statistics showed that synaesthesia occurs in less than 1% of the British population, however, there may be many more individuals who do not realise that they have the condition. The main form of synaesthesia that seems to affect the largest number of people (and is consequently the most researched area of synaesthesia at this moment in time) is Sound – Colour synaesthesia: when synaesthetes hear a particular sound, a note and/or piece of music, they experience a colour. For non-synaesthetes, this can be very difficult to comprehend.

This is the kind of synaesthesia that I am particularly interested in, especially as I am currently researching the relationship between Music and Art, and where they interlink. This is the one type of synaesthesia that affects me greater than the others, and is also the one that baffles me the most! Hopefully on the next blog post, I can dive a little bit deeper into Sound – Colour Synaesthesia, and give you a little insight as to what its like.

Thanks for reading!

 

(1) Simon Baron-Cohen and John Harrison (ed.), Synesthesia: A Union of the Senses (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002), p. 3.

(2) ibid.

(3) ibid., p. 4.

(4) Geza Révèsz, Introduction to the Psychology of Music (Oklahoma: Dover, 2001), p. 123.

(5) Ward and Fink, ‘Grapheme-colour synaesthetes show increased grey matter volumes of parietal and fusiform cortex’, PubMed Online Journal (November 2008), <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19028762?ordinalpos=1&itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_DefaultReportPanel.Pubmed_RVDocSum&gt; [accessed 2009].

(6) Sean Day, ‘Synaesthesia Resource Homepage’, <http://home.comcast.net/~sean.day/index.html&gt; [accessed 2009].

(7) Baron-Cohen and Harrison, Synaesthesia, p. 3.

(8) ibid.

(9) ibid.

Posted by: Jessica Ruth Morris | March 27, 2010

Blog 1: A Colourful Start


Well hello… and thank you for looking at my very first blog!

I’ve finally joined the mass-bandwagon and phenomenon that is internet blogging. When I initially signed up to do this, I never intended for it to be one of these ‘oh yeah, and he said, and then I was like…’ kind of blogs, because I find them incredibly boring and a little bit pointless. I figured that if I was going to join the blogging community, then my contribution should be something pretty substantial, worthwhile, and (hopefully) relatively interesting for the people who choose to read it.

For that reason (amongst others), I figured that the time and effort I was going to give to a blog would be something that would not only be of interest to others, but of use to me too. I’m currently studying for an MA in Musicology at Cardiff University (Wales, UK), and most of the research I’ve been doing is on the subject of the medical phenomenon of Synaesthesia, in which two or more of the senses are linked – and I’m especially interested in the relationship between the aural and the visual (hearing and sight: clinically known as Sound – Colour Synaesthesia). This is of particular interest to me because I have this condition myself, and have had for as long as I can remember. I’m only one of a handful of synaesthetes that I have ever met, and so I thought that an online blog might be a way of finding fellow sufferers, exchanging information, and sharing research.

Before I go on, I should probably elaborate on this a bit, just to give you a good idea of where I’m coming from. You’ve probably heard turns of phrase like ‘ooh that Cheddar tasted really sharp’, or ‘that colour pink is really loud’, but to synaesthetes, this is a literal explanation. It might be really difficult to get your head around, but around 1% of the British population experience this condition. Any two of the five senses can be linked, and research has shown that it can also affect other aspects of the human condition, such as emotion and personality. I have four different types of synaesthesia, with Sound – Colour being just one of those. I also experience Tactile – Emotion Synaesthesia (where I experience extreme reactions to touching particular materials. This isn’t just a case of ‘I don’t like the feeling of cotton wool’, rather, when I touch a material such as pink plaster, it actually makes me feel physically sick), Tactile – Colour Synaesthesia (along the same lines, whereby on touching that material, I also experience a colour in the upper portion of my field of vision), and Grapheme – Colour Synaesthesia (where letters, numbers, words, etc. set off a colour experience in the upper portion of my field of vision). With Sound – Colour Synaesthesia, when I hear a musical sound or note, I again experience a colour sensation. You could say that my world is a particularly colourful one!

From the research I have already conducted, I am aware that experiencing this many forms of synaesthesia is a pretty rare thing, although I am certain that I can’t be alone in this.

In this blog, I hope to do a few things:

Firstly, I would like to share the synaesthetic experiences I have with both synaesthetes and non-synaesthetes, so that hopefully, there will be a greater understanding and awareness of this condition within the public sphere. Hopefully this will in turn generate a whole lot of interest into this field, which will help research into understanding how and why this condition happens.

I would like to share some of the pretty amusing anecdotes I have experienced as a synaesthete, which will hopefully give you an insight into how this condition manifests itself in daily life!

I want to give a sort of comprehensive introduction to the condition, being as accurate and faithful to the research data and information already out there. Although I wouldn’t necessarily suggest copying and pasting any of the interesting information you might find about synaesthesia on here into your next dissertation or essay (because blogs aren’t necessarily the most reliable source for research!), I will however, try my hardest to present everything as honestly as possible, with bibliographical references whenever needed, for you to be able to go away and check the sources yourself, after all, I am a Masters student aspiring to be a scholar. This is ultimately your own responsibility.

And, finally, this kind of global facility might prove really useful for synaesthetes and non-synaesthetes alike, so if anyone is interested in this condition, then don’t hesitate to get in touch or post comments or polls. I’d really appreciate feedback too, as it might help me produce something that is a little bit better to read 🙂

Anyway, thanks so much taking the time out to read this – I’ll hopefully be posting some short fact-file type info on synaesthesia, followed by whatever takes my fancy!

 

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