It is a neurological condition that affects four per cent of the population, yet much remains to be discovered about the mysterious world of synaesthesia. Katie Strick meets those who have lost their synaesthesia, and explores how such cases are allowing scientists to uncover new ways of using the condition.
AT 1:47am on the morning of 21 September 1999, an earthquake of 7.3 magnitude hit southeastern Taiwan, killing 2,415 people and leaving thousands homeless. Professor Sean Day and his wife Helen were inside their seventeenth-floor apartment at the time. Sitting petrified on their dining room floor, the pair watched as the building rocked around them and cracks stretched out across the wall.
Professor Day, who had been teaching English at the National Central University in Chungli, struggled with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of the disaster and the subsequent cholera and typhoid epidemics. But there was an added and unusual dimension to his experience. In the immediate aftermath of the quake, the professor noticed that his synaesthesia – the brain condition he had had all his life – had disappeared.
“I’d always had three types of synesthesia,” says Day, describing his form of the condition that causes different senses to become linked. “I see colour shapes when I hear musical timbres. Likewise, I see colored shapes when I taste almost all food flavours, and for many odors.”
The trauma of the events, it turns out, had caused Day’s synaesthetic visions to disappear completely. “For the first two months, I was far too stressed out to care much at all about such things,” he painfully recalls. “By the third month, I did care more that my synesthesias were gone. I tried to induce things with music, but I was still too stressed to want to listen to any music. All foods tasted bland and flavourless.”
“It’s plain and simple: we simply don’t know why this has happened”
Professor Day was without his synaesthesia for four months, and it was not until the fifth or sixth month that it returned to its former intensity. “It was slow and very gradual,” he explains. “It only started to return once the stress from the other traumatic experiences started to dissipate a little.”
Now working at Trident Technical College in South Carolina, Day is also President of the American Synaesthesia Association. Since 1992 he has run an international e-forum called the Synesthesia List, which connects over 850 synaesthetes and researchers in 52 countries across the world.
The professor’s experience in Taiwan, he says, sparked his interest in determining the cause of how synaesthesia can be lost. “It’s plain and simple: we simply don’t know why this has happened,” Day explains. “I was just at a conference in Spain, and a major part of my talk was about this topic, and trying to push other researchers to take a look at it. Here’s something that we’ve got cases of, we know it happens, and we simply do not know why emotional trauma like this would have such an effect on synaesthesia.”
Day is not the only synaesthete to have lost his condition through trauma. The professor says that between five and ten others have reported similar cases to him, after traumas such as violent rape and torture.
He suggests that the link between trauma and loss of synaesthesia might be to do with hormones. “We know that trauma changes hormones, and we now know that changes in hormonal levels have an impact on synaesthesia,” explains the professor. “So I would guess that if your hormone level is changed because of stress, it will effect synaesthesia until that hormone level gets back to where it was beforehand.” So far, however, no research has been carried out into this suggestion, and Day has only received nods in agreement that his assumptions might be correct.
“I think that just about any synaesthete that I’ve ever encountered would probably be upset if they lost their synaesthesia,” he adds. Indeed, the vast majority of synaesthetes agree that it is a fundamental part of their identity.
“It was like everything was shutting down”
16-year-old Kellie Smith lost her synaesthesia during a month of heightened anxiety. “The weeks before I lost it were very stressful for me and I was barely sleeping,” she says, recalling how she suffered from intense headaches and dizziness whilst her synaesthesia was gone. “I researched reasons why it might have gone and apparently stress, depression and insomnia can have an effect. Thankfully my synaesthesia came back after a month.”
45-year-old April Johnson from New Jersey recalls the “terrifying” few months when her colour and pattern images disappeared as a result of medications she was taking. “It was like everything was shutting down,” she says. “It was more than I could take.”
Although her visions have returned over time, April, an artist, says her synaesthesia is not as strong as it once was. “It takes a while to get the colours now,” she describes. “I do not see colours each time the music is on anymore, and sometimes they are faint.”
She says the experience has made her more grateful for her synaesthesia. “Losing my colours made me appreciate them so much more. It was my tremendously beautiful friend for most of my life,” explains the 45-year-old.
It is such advantages reported by synaesthetes that have led scientists to explore whether the condition can be acquired or learnt. “That’s the major question in synaesthesia research at the moment,” explains Dr Clare Jonas from the University of East London. “Can synaesthesia be acquired?”
“I believe everybody has got it – it just needs a trigger”
In several cases, this has happened by accident. One of the most notable examples is that of former Young Ones comedian Rik Mayall, who acquired synaesthesia after suffering head injuries in a quad bike crash. “I would experience colour when I heard a certain word, for instance, and objects looked as if they were moving around,” he once reported. “It was much what I imagine being high on LSD is like.”
President of the UK Synaesthesia Association James Wannerton says he received a number of emails from Mayall about his experiences after the accident. “He acquired it by getting a head trauma, because it activates those extra neural connections,” explains James. “Which is another reason for me to believe everybody has got it – it just needs a trigger.”
Indeed, many scientists now believe that everyone has the potential to experience synaesthesia. “One view is that it’s possible we are all essentially born synaesthetes, except some of us have the genetic predisposition to keep those unexpected connections between the senses,” explains Dr Michael Proulx from the University of Bath. “Most of us lose that sense because we’re not actually experiencing those connections between, say, music and things we might see.”
Such suggestions have lead researchers to explore whether synaesthesia can therefore be learnt through experience and artificially acquired. For the last ten years, Dr Proulx has been exploring ways of using technology to ‘trigger’ synaesthesia in those who do not normally experience the condition. The technique, known as sensory substitution, is being used to help blind people to acquire visual information via their in tact senses.
“It’s exposing things about how the brain is organised and how the brain can constantly change”
Working with Jamie Ward at the University of Sussex, the pair have successfully enabled a number of visually impaired participants to “see sound”. Within an hour or so, Dr Proulx says visually impaired participants have been able to find things on a table, and avoid large obstacles. Within four or five hours, he says, participants have been able to recognise a mug versus a glass, a plate versus a ball, and start to develop basic object properties.
“Eventually these people build up such strong association that it seems to look like synaesthesia,” says Dr Proulx. “Instead of having a genetic origin, it’s through repeated experience.”
Synaesthesia research is therefore about much more than simply studying an oddity, he explains. “It’s exposing things about how the brain is organised and how the brain can constantly change, in ways that nicely link synaesthesia to the normal human condition,” says Dr Proulx. “It can also be used to test for better things for those who might have some sort of sensory deprivation.”
Professor Day describes how he has tried some of these sensory substitution devices himself. “The experience is different,” he says, explaining how the technology simulated types of synaesthesia that he does not have. “But it’s definitely not be discounted. These devices have all kinds of good uses. In that way, it’s fascinating.”