Category Archives: musings

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Trying out new outfits on WordPress.

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what am I doing again?


My goal is to help explain the experience of synaesthesia
by creating a web ressource
that encompasses a variety of media,
and that is structure like the mind of a synesthete.
emphasis on connections and serendipidous discovery
and creating a personal, intimate experience for the viewer
will help drive my project.

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meeting with brozef.

I met my ultra analytical, logically-minded friend jozef for sushi the other day with the intention of having him tear my grad project to shreads. This guy is one of the most strictly atheist, quantifiable, borderline cynic I have the pleasure of being friends with. In some respects he did not disappoint. But I was amazed how clearly he was able to visualize synesthesia.

Maybe the next step is to talk to an accountant?

First, I asked jozef to tell me all he knew about synesthesia:

– neurological condition
– in which the 5 senses are porous, and mix
– some people eat wierd food combinations that produce for them beautiful colours.
– some people taste the sound they hear
– one person feels like gagging when the french horn is played
– synesthesia is impossible for regular people to experience (x)
– synesthesia is easy to dismiss and impossible to prove (x)

Jozef, what happens when you imagine things?

– there is a screen on the inside of my forehead when I imagine all my visualizations occur.
– sometimes when I daydream what I am imagining overshadows what I see my eyes. When I wake up from a daydream I realize that I took no notice of the things around me during that time.

We had a conversation about people > colour synesthesia.

– when I first meet someone I form a split-second opinion about them.
– I often associate the people I meet with a scene in a movie, or quote.
– Whenever I see after the first initial meeting, I think the same lines over again.
– I can’t understand why some people would related individuals to colour.

The day I first met her, Jessica told me that short people live longer, because they weren’t always hitting their head on things. She said she’d read it in a book. My friend ingrid leaned over and said, “yeah… she read that in NOTHING!” Those lines play in my head every time someone mentions Jessica.

Please describe to me what you imagine a synesthetes experience of sound / colour might be like:

– colours are vague, not solid
– looks like light and smoke
– sort of like blobs
– the colours have no defined borders
– the colours appear on a flat screen with no depth
– the colours influence each other.
– It’s like when I see someone injuring themselves in a video and I momentarily feel the pain myself.

how does the colour you imagine differ from the colour you see with your eyes?

– when I first recreate a colour in my mind, it is pretty well matched to the colour I saw with my eyes. Then I attach a descriptor word to it (rust red) and later, all I can imagine is the standard shade of the descriptor word and not what I saw with my eyes. (colour changes with time).
– I tend to fill in the blanks with my mind when I can’t accurately recall something.

How do you imagine that someone with synesthesia experiences letter / word > colour synesthesia?

– I imagine that the content of the sentence determines its colour (x)
– the sentence is mostly one colour, (x) but can be changed / influenced by a particularily impactful word.
– neutral words are probably grey (x)
– I like certain words based on what they sound like / signify
– I imagine that certain words change depending on their environment (example: stop sign)

Note: each letter and word is coloured. Not whole sentences. Each letter has a distinct colour that blends together in words. Vowels tend to be more brightly coloured and have more say in colouring the word then other letters. colour tends to be clustered by syllables.

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a handful of interesting points gleaned

The article I just posted previously resonated with me on a lot of levels.

“what is auditory, what is image, what is language, what is intellectual, what is emotional — they are all fused together and imbued with our own individual perspectives and values

Truly, every synesthetic experience is heavily influenced by the emotion felt from a particular song or person. I’ve never seen a ugly colour or shape when a beautiful song is playing. Their is a direct correlation between emotional response and synesthetic perception.

“…sees metaphor as the core to art and the artistic experience

Sometimes I feel that all successful artistic expression – a perfect synthesis of form, emotion and message – seeks to unite all our senses, or perceptions; thus transcending the simple ways in which we think we understand the world and alluding to something greater… a universal truth. Think of when a perfectly crafted sentence evokes vivid images, chilling senses, and in the well-voiced turn of a sentence – a musical rythm. Think of the power a sentence like this has.

“Imagine sunlight shining through a gemstone … that’s the type of colour I see

“The colours I see are the colours of light, not the colours of pigment”

In my first attempts to create visual representations of synesthesia, I became frustrated with the lack of life the colours I created with paint or pens. The shapes I made in photoshop where closer to the truth because, on screen, they seemed to be lit up. I imagined then that the colours I saw were closer to the colours of light then the colours reflected off objects. It made so much sense to me that white was the combined colour of the entire colour spectrum, while black was the absence of colour. The colours I see are best observed in darkness. On youtube, most the synesthetic depictions I see are on black backgrounds. This is clearly a conscious decision, as most templates for expression (including canvases) begin as white.

“I watched the soft, undulating, black background I always see when I shut my eyes.”

I couldn’t have described it better.

“When I need to recall on which day a particular event happened, the first thing that pops up on my inner screen is the day’s colour.”

Interesting that there is a mention of an ‘inner screen’. When attempting to describe where in space these synesthetic visions occur, I find it tempting to describe it in that way. Where do visualizations occur? I found, in asking friends, that we agree that there is an imagined plane somewhere close to one’s face – mine I imagine to be on the inside of my forehead.

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Carol Steen, painter of sounds


I found this article on Carol Steen and her artwork, based off of her synesthetic perceptions.

“…How do artists perceive their worlds then snap-freeze those perceptions into an artwork? Ramachandran suspects van Gogh’s epileptic seizures contributed to his empathy for colour through a process called ‘kindling’, where the sensory input and its links to the emotional limbic core of the brain are heightened. He sees metaphor as the core to art and the artistic experience. We’ve been interested in metaphor because of a condition called synesthesia, where people get their senses muddled up. For example, every time they hear the tone C sharp…it’s red. Synesthesia, defined by neurologist Richard Cytowic as an involuntary joining in which the real information received by one sense is accompanied by a perception in another sense, is thought to be eight times more common among artists, poets and novelists. A synesthete might taste certain words, see pictures during pain, or breathe in the colour of a smell.

The work of New York painter and sculptor, Carol Steen, often springs from her synesthetic visions. “Imagine sunlight shining through a gemstone … that’s the type of colour I see,” she says. Touch, for Steen, is a powerful synesthetic trigger, though as she explains in her paper, Visions Shared: A Firsthand Look into Synesthesia and Art, smell, sound, taste and pain affect her perceptions as well. “I use the various visual perceptions from each in creating my art,” she says. Previously, she worked with the images that acupuncture triggered in her mind – vibrant, swirling abstracts, beckoning to be recorded, but so speedy they eluded capture. “It was like watching an amazing movie, but you can’t remember everything.” Now, she likes her studio drenched in loud electronic music. “Because I’m working with sound, if I forget what it is I just saw, I just play that section over again.” Steen’s creative stimulation is in-built. Her work, she says, is only possible because of her synesthesia. “It is important for others to know that some people experience the world in ways which are contrary to commonly held assumptions about perception.”

Well-known neurologist, Oliver Sacks, had some of his own assumptions about visual perception broadened by discovering a surprising variety in the ways people, deprived of sight later in life, experienced their worlds. He asks in a New Yorker article, “To what extent are we the authors, the creators, of our own experiences?” John Hull became completely blind at 48. Gradually his facility and his desire for visual imagery and memory faded. The idea of ‘seeing’ lost all meaning for him — he stored no images of even common things, discarded any concept of ‘here’ and ‘there’, had no use for a sense of tangible shapes. His non-visual senses heightened and assumed a new richness and power — discerning sound differences in the rain pattering on the path, beating on the grass, slapping on the driveway. “Rain,” Hull wrote in his autobiography, “has a way of bringing out the contours of everything.” He accepted his world of “deep” blindness as “an authentic and autonomous world, a place of its own”. Moved by Hull’s eloquent description of the realignment a mind makes after losing such a signifi cant perceptive sense, Sacks believed this story to be typical, until he encountered intriguingly different experiences of blindness, where visualization and imagery flourish.

In some cases this was maintained with considerable conscious effort, but not for traveler and synesthete, Sabriye Tenberken, whose style of perception Sacks described as “impulsive, almost novelistic” in its visual freedom. Tenberken’s sensibility is strongly visual and pictorial. “When I need to recall on which day a particular event happened, the first thing that pops up on my inner screen is the day’s colour.” Blindness has intensified, rather than dulled, her enjoyment of visual imagery. Sacks concludes that it’s not possible to know what is visual in our mental landscape and “what is auditory, what is image, what is language, what is intellectual, what is emotional — they are all fused together and imbued with our own individual perspectives and values”. UK artist Luke Jerram’s colour blindness motivates him to probe the blurred inter-connections of our perceptive facilities. Sometimes, as with Retinal Memory Volume, sculpting a three-dimensional, retinal after-image in a viewer’s mind. At other times he creatively, subliminally, intrudes on the subconscious of people sleeping under his Sky Orchestra’s flight path, a drifting metaphor for ways of perceiving — a vast spectacular performance and an intimate, personal experience.


Carol Steen, Clouds Rise Up, 2004-05, oil on canvas-covered masonite, 62.5 x 51cm.


I made this painting last winter after I heard a musician play an untitled piece on his Shakuhachi flute. Unlike the fast-tempo songs I usually work to because I like to watch the colours change quickly, the song he played had a very slow tempo. I call this Clouds Rise Up because this is exactly what I saw as I listened to him play his flute. Each note he played had two sounds and two colours: red and orange, which is why the two colours you see move together as one shape on the slightly metallic green surface.

Carol Steen, Runs Off in Front, Gold, 2003, oil on paper, 105 x 70cm.

Picture 1

This is based on an especially colourful photism that occurred while I listened to Santana’s version of a song called Adouma. The colours I see are the colours of light, not the colours of pigment, and I played this song over and over again as I painted the moving colours. The advantage of sound visions, or photisms as the researchers call what we synesthetes see, is that I don’t have to rely on my memory. I can replay the song as often as I want to watch the colours. These moving colours will swirl around, one seemingly chasing the others and any previously seen blackness will be pushed all the way to the edge until the colours just explode in their brilliance like fireworks. The colours, for me, are triggered by the sounds of the instruments, including voices, not the sound of individual notes, with the exception of the Shakuhachi flute I heard that winter day. (I am hoping that one day I will know what notes are what colour, and if that ever happens then I will have perfect pitch, something I’d love to have.)

This painting was used for the cover of Dr Jeffrey Gray’s book Consciousness, Creeping Up on the Hard Problem, published by Oxford University Press. You’ll notice I use many of the same things that I often see in a photism: comma-like shapes, brilliant colour fields, and the layered swirling bursts of colour that appear very briefl y before they vanish or change into other forms.

Carol Steen, Vision, 1996, oil on paper, 39 x 31cm.


One day, many years ago, I was having an acupuncture treatment and was lying fl at on my back, on a futon, stuck full of needles. My eyes were shut and I watched intently, as I always do, hoping to see something magical, which does not always occur. Sometimes what I see is just not interesting or beautiful. Lying there, I watched the soft, undulating, black background I always see when I shut my eyes become pierced by a bright red colour that began to form in the middle of the rich velvet blackness. The red began as a small dot of intense colour and grew quite large rather quickly, chasing much of the blackness away. I saw green shapes appear in the midst of the red colour and move around the red and black fields. This is the first vision that I painted exactly as I saw it.

Carol Steen, Red Commas on Blue, 2004, oil on paper, 16 x 16cm.

Picture 2

This painting was created when I listened to the song Show Me, played by Megastore. I loved watching the electronically altered, transparent blue voice in this song with its swift rotating movements. The red arcs were the drums.

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presentation categories (as said by jacob)

3. directions

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Since I haven’t posted on here for a week or so, I figured I could do with an update. Right now my thinking is a little scattered, as it is divided between furthering my project and preparing for my presentation.

Oh presentations. One of those things you can’t finished at 3 the night before or you won’t be able to deliver it the next day. Here are some of the categories our class was told to focus on:

> What is your “question”; your thesis statement; what you’re looking for?
> What have you learned since starting work; what has changed about your question?
> What research have you done (not a list, please, make it interesting)
> Who are you aiming this at?
> What are you considering doing for the end project, show examples of similar if possible.

Here I’d like to add a few more questions:

What would you like your project to do in 3 years?
What categories do you hope to cover?
What final forms have you explored?
Show a moodboard

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sound > colour / shape

This is someone’s animated interpretation of their synaesthesia. Odd that all the representations I’ve seen have been on black! :) there seems to be something universal about this theme. Also, I like how he attempted to arrange the coloured shapes in space. This to me is very characteristic of sound > colour synesthesia.


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Synesthesia – by Terri Timely

I can’t say I can relate to this short film. I even have trouble understanding the different kinds of synesthesia all the family members have. Tasting words? Hearing tastes? Smelling music? Seeing sound? Sound turning into different objects, which can include cats and pigeons?

Beautiful and interesting none the less. An artistic interpretation.

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Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks, neurologist extrordinaire, is known for his explorations of neurological anomalies. In his latest book, “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain” this included synaesthesia.

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