11 March 2008

When words make a rainbow

Days and days of drizzle. The Mister's out of town. Bright spots: flea-market wanderings and Paul Klee exhibit this weekend, PSOE win in Spanish elections on Sunday, and the fact that we're flying to Boston on Friday! Haven't been to the US since October, and it's going to be great to see everyone, but especially the little squirts. Also, our concert this week at the Conservatoire, extra rehearsals, lots of singing. Looking forward to the concert high.

I finished Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia last week, which was a fascinating compendium of case-studies and research about music and the brain. I sometimes wished there had been more conclusions, more in-depth hypotheses, and fewer strings of anecdotes. But it was still a great read, and one that has gotten me thinking about the way I experience music in my own brain. The book makes the case for the many ways that music pervades our experience, inhabits our bodies, colors our perceptions, defines our very self. And I mean this rather literally, given that brain scans show just how musically involved is every last one of the mind's parts and functions--personality, memory, muscle and movement, social interaction...

A substantial chapter is dedicated to the phenomena of musical synaesthesia, introduced by a useful description of recent studies about synaesthesia in general. My husband is a synaesthete, and I'm fascinated by the topic in general, so of course this was especially interesting to me. He sees letters and numbers as colored; each letter of the alphabet has its own particular shade. He has a very good musical memory (despite having substantially less musical training than me) so I was bound to wonder if somehow this was related to his synaesthesia. Is a middle C bright green? Do certain melodic shapes have certain colors or textures? After some quizzing, this doesn't seem to be the case, but even he started to think about other synaesthetic possibilities more carefully.

The funny thing about people with any form of synaesthesia is that these sensory experiences are so "natural" and holistic that it almost is taken for granted, to the extent that many of them as children think that everybody sees/hears/tastes as they do. It's as if you suddenly realized that not everybody sees oranges as orange or apples as red. Asking a synaesthete about his or her synaesthesia is sometimes disconcerting, because he or she will seem so lackadaisical. It's no big deal, it's just the way things are. But for a non-synaesthete like me, my husband's way of seeing is utterly fascinating and akin to imagining a new dimension for every experience of letters, words, and numbers.

New research debunks the theory that synaesthesia is inherited, even suggesting that large percentages of children experience synaesthesia (perhaps we all, as fetuses and infants, lived in a synaesthetic bath of crossed sensory wires, slowly differentiating qualities of color, taste, sound, etc.), but I'd like to think that it is inherited, and that perhaps my and M's children someday will be like their father, seeing the world with an extra dimension of richness and color.


Astrid said...

I wonder if this 'dimension' is something we all could learn? I wish it was so.

There's another book touching the same subject you might be interested in - Born on a Blue Day - by Daniel Tammet. They made a documentary about him a while back too. Daniel too sees numbers as shapes and colours but is affected by Asperger's but leads a normal everyday life.

I'm reading my second Oliver Sacks book now - Awakenings - and 'An Anthropologist on Mars' is waiting in the bookshelf.

I might get amazon to ship Musicophilia to me

Robin said...

Oh I wish it was so, too. Thanks for the book recommendation! I'll look for it.

maitresse said...

synaesthesia, weird and wonderful. I can't even imagine what that must be like.

I would be interested in reading a study of us musical oddities-- how is it that we have an innate musicality that most people lack? was it enhanced by listening to a lot of musical theatre before I culd even speak or was I born with it? and why is there always a stubborn song playing in my head no matter what I'm doing? it's like a jukebox I can't shut off!