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
Beyoncé InterludeArtist: BeyonceAlbum: Dangerously in LoveLabel: Sony
XOArtist: BeyoncéAlbum: BeyoncéLabel: Columbia Records
Ni**as In ParisArtist: Kanye West, Jay-ZAlbum: Watch the ThroneLabel: Def Jam
Right OffArtist: Miles DavisAlbum: A Tribute to Jack JohnsonLabel: Sony
Circle in the RoundArtist: Miles DavisAlbum: Circle in the RoundLabel: Sony
Two FacedArtist: Miles DavisAlbum: Water BabiesLabel: Sony
YesternowArtist: Miles DavisAlbum: A Tribute to Jack JohnsonLabel: Sony