TIMES> Curious Times - Ears Looking at You, Kid

  • From: Gleason Sackmann <gleason@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: K12Newsletters <k12newsletters@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Thu, 20 Nov 2003 08:48:16 -0600

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From: "Curious Times" <sodamail-gtmail@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
To: <gleason@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
Sent: 18 Nov 2003 22:05:54 -0000
Subject: Curious Times - Ears Looking at You, Kid
Curious Times
Science Thought and Exploration

Ears Looking at You, Kid

Some people see with their ears and hear with their eyes. These "crossed

wires" may expose the workings of the brain.

By Scott C. Anderson

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Have you ever had the feeling that the person you?re talking to has a loose
wire or two in their brain? Turns out, you might be right. An amazing cross-
wired brain syndrome called synesthesia (for joined sensations) may explain
a lot of weirdness and poetry in the world ? at the same time that it sheds 
on so-called normal brains. Of course, there really aren?t any wires in the
brain, but the long axons of nerve cells carry signals through the brain in a
similar fashion.

The story of synesthesia goes back hundreds of years, but there has always
been a bit of doubt involved. After all, don?t we all agree that the sky is blue
and that a lemon tastes sour? Well, yes and no. To some people the number
four is blue and some kinds of music taste sour. Are we even talking the same
language here?

Actually, it?s not as bad as all that, and in fact most synesthetes are well-
adjusted and more or less happy to munge their different senses together. But
it does challenge a fairly basic assumption that we all share the same sensory
mechanisms. For a person who sees colored numbers, trying to describe it to
normal people is like trying to explain a sunset to a blind person. If you see
colored numbers, patterns that normal people have a difficult time seeing
literally pop off the page.

Turns out, this is one of the tests that have been used to prove that
synesthetes aren?t just making up fanciful stories (known clinically as ?fibs?).
When you show normal people a bunch of similar-looking numbers, like 5's
with some 2's thrown in to make a simple pattern, they have a hard time
teasing the numbers apart. But a true synesthete immediately perceives the
pattern. It literally pops out in obvious colors.

Amazingly, here?s a case where crossed wires ? usually a very bad thing to
do in a typical circuit ? actually enhances perception. That also means that
perhaps we shouldn?t feel sorry for synesthetes either. Is it really a handicap
to be more perceptive? Maybe we could all do with a little dose of

In fact, we may all have some crossed wires. We think of metaphors as poetic
license, but perhaps they?re just an honest attempt to describe synesthetic
experiences. Think of these phrases: loud color, sour note, dark music, cold
personality, blue mood, sharp sound, bitter cold. The astute reader will notice
that I?ve included a couple of things not typically classed with the five 
a sense of temperature and temperament. So sue me. But these phrases
represent cross-talk between different senses -- they are wacky, totally mixed-
up expressions. And they all make perfect sense.

Given these metaphors, it is perhaps not surprising that authors like Nabokov,
poets like Rimbaud, artists like Kandinsky and musicians like Rimsky-
Korsakov may all have been synesthetes.

Let?s try another example. Make two scribbles, one with sharp corners and the
other with rounded, pillowy shapes. Show them to your friends and tell them
one is named Kiki, and the other is named Maumau. Ask them which is which.

As you?ve probably already figured out, almost all your friends (like 98%,
including your goofy friends) will label the sharp squiggle Kiki. That wasn?t
hard, was it? But what part of your mind correlated the ?sharp? sound of Kiki
with the angles in the picture? Perhaps we?re all wired a little funny.

There might be a good reason for that. Research is indicating that as children,
we may all be synesthetes. Only by grabbing and sucking on everything in
sight do we gradually nail down the circuits for each of the senses.
Synesthetes may just retain the ambiguity longer.

Are you green with envy that you don?t have synesthesia? Don?t be -- perhaps
we all have a few crossed wires. But don?t go into a blue funk either. Instead,
take a chill pill. That should put you back in the pink.



You can email Scott at scott@xxxxxxxxxxxx

Also check out Scott's Science for the People Site:


You can email Lauren at



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