Does Synesthesia Make You More Creative?

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<em>Clouds Rise Up</em> by Carol Steen, a painter and synesthete
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Pharrell, Kanye West, and Billy Joel have it. Beyoncé and Mary J. Blige say they do too. In recent years synesthesia — a condition that causes the senses to blend together — has become a high-prestige neurological namedrop for creative people.

First recognized by scientists in the 1880s, synesthesia causes people to see sounds, taste shapes, and hear colors. “The received wisdom is that the senses travel along five channels, and that there’s no intercommunication among them,” says Richard Cytowic, a leading researcher. “That turns out not to be the case.”

V.S. Ramachandran, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at UC San Diego, used imaging scans to see where the brain lights up when synesthetes look at letters and numbers. He found activity in two small areas below the ear, regions responsible for the visual representations of numbers and colors. “These areas are almost touching each other in the same part of the brain,” Ramachandran says. He suggests a sort of “cross-wiring” allows people “to link seemingly unrelated ideas and concepts, which is the basis for metaphor.” That might explain why synesthesia is eight times more common in artists, writers, and musicians.

But if this brain anomaly is so useful, why doesn’t everyone have it? “You don’t want everybody to be creative,” says Ramachandran. “If there’s a neurosurgeon operating on your brain, you don’t want him getting creative on you.”

(Originally aired: February 1, 2008)


Slideshow: Synesthetic Art

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Vision, 1996

This painting was inspired by Carol Steen's visions during an acupuncture treatment. It is the first painting she created using only what she saw synesthetically.

( Carol Steen )

Blue Streak, 2005

Blue Streak was inspired by the brief sensation of getting a flu shot.

( Carol Steen )

Runs Off in Front, Gold, 2003

Steen explains, “This painting is based on an especially colorful photism that occurred while I listened to Santana's version of a song called “Adouma,” written by Angélique Kidjo. I played this song over and over again as I painted the moving colors.”

( Carol Steen )

Red Comma on Blue, 2004

Inspired by the song “Show Me” by Megastore, Steen describes the voice in this song as transparent blue with swift rotating movements, and the drums as red arcs.

( Carol Steen )

Clouds Rise Up, 2004

Steen created this painting after hearing a musician play the Shakuhachi flute. She explains, “Each note he played had two sounds and two colors: red and orange, which is why the two colors you see move together as one shape on the slightly metallic green surface.”

( Carol Steen )

Gold Swirl and Violet, 2001

This painting was inspired by Steen's chance encounter with an R&B band performing on the streets of Midtown Manhattan.

( Carol Steen )