This is the first in a series on unique and zany neuroscience topics. Enjoy Brain Oddities!
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart began playing the piano at the age of three. By age five he was composing short songs that he would play for his father. At eight, he composed his first symphony, and at 14 he was commissioned to write his first serious opera. What a know-it-all, right?
By the age at which Mozart had composed his first symphony, I had begun struggling with classical guitar, awkwardly picking out “Hot Cross Buns” on nylon strings. Curiously, I took up guitar by choice, unlike a friend of mine who was forced into piano lessons and would cry under the piano bench until her teacher left in frustration. Despite my willing foray into the world of classical music (“Hot Cross Buns” notwithstanding), I composed no symphonies or operas. I advanced along in a slow and steady manner until I abandoned classical music altogether for the easy strum of acoustic guitar. Perhaps, if while hearing “Hot Cross Buns,” I saw the colors red, green, and blue, I would not have so easily relinquished my classical music education.
A couple of years ago I learned of an unusual, although not particularly rare, condition called synesthesia. Clinically defined, synesthesia is an involuntary experience wherein stimulation of one sensory modality causes activation in a second, unstimulated modality. In other words, the brain confuses the senses. Mozart, and a handful of other famous composers, was said to have chromethesia, a specific form of synesthesia in which one “sees” musical notes and chords as colors or shapes. To what extent chromethesia aided Mozart in his composition is unknown, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel a twinge of jealousy when I learned of his alleged condition. Forget owning a TV!
But chromethesia, as I mentioned, is a very specific form of synesthesia and does not represent the condition as a whole. I recently read a paper about two case studies by V.S. Ramachandran and his colleague David Brang of two young women who experience tactile-emotion synesthesia—that’s right, certain textures give them feelings.
Each time these women touch a particular texture, they involuntarily experience a particular emotion. Some textures evoke very primal emotions, such as disgust or joy. Others elicit more subtle feelings, such as guilt. For example, one subject (referred to as “AW” in the paper) experiences strong feelings of depression and worthlessness at the texture of denim. How awful is that! I practically live in jeans. She recalled that she would throw tantrums when her parents forced her to wear jeans to school. As a compromise, she wore black jeans, because something about the color of blue jeans heightened her emotional experience.
I know what you’re thinking—they’re faking. I thought so too, but repeated tests of more than 20 textures (including three different grades of sandpaper, which evoked in AW the emotions guilt, telling a white lie, and relief from most coarse to least coarse) showed the emotional responses to be constant. Furthermore, Ramchandran and Brang measured the women’s skin conductance response (SCR), which can’t be faked. Basically, the SCP is a measure of how sweaty your hands get, an indication of a negative reaction such as stress or fear. The SCR reflected perfectly the women’s reported emotional reactions. And the blue versus black jeans thing? Well, the emotional response was elicited even when the women couldn't see the material, but being able to see it affected the emotional reaction. Even more interesting, there were some textures that did not evoke any emotional response, such as human skin or plastic paper clips.
The exact cause of synesthesia is not yet known. However, imaging studies have shown that, in word-color synesthetes for example, hearing a word leads to abnormally high activation in the region of the brain associated with color processing. Ramchandran and Brang have suggested that this may be caused by a cross-activation of early sensory areas (the parts of the brain that initially process sensory input, like smell, before you even become conscious of it), thus the involuntary aspect of synesthesia. How and why this happens is yet to be discovered.
Despite reading about the horrific induction of feelings of worthlessness by denim (my suggestion for tactile-emotion synesthetes: a full-body suit…made entirely of plastic paper clips), I still kind of wish I had synesthesia. When I said this to a friend of mine, she responded, “Yeah, me too. But what if you, like, fell in love with someone whose name tasted like a food you hated? Or WORSE,” she exclaimed, getting excited now, “what if you fell in love with someone whose name tasted like your favorite food, and then they broke up with you??”
Just some food for thought. Or sight.
Eagleman, D.M. and Goodale, M.A. (2009). Why color synesthesia involves more than color. Cell Press, 288-293.
Ramachandran, V.S. and Brang, D. (2008). Tactile-emotion synesthesia. Neurocase, 14(5): 390-399.