from Épistémocritique

Synesthete Neuro-biography: from family secret to artistic depiction and cultural activism, by Hervé Pierre Lambert

Autobiographical descriptions in the age of neurological synesthesia research: particular patterns of description in synesthetes’ autobiographies

Excerpts from “Synesthesia: views from the Inner Landscape” (originally, “La Synesthésie : Vues de l’intérieur” by Hervé Pierre Lambert


     If the recently acquired scientific knowledge on synesthesia is linked to a revolution in cognitive neuroscience, this revolution, in turn, led to a cultural revolution in the way society viewed synesthetes and synesthetes viewed themselves.

     This scientific Renaissance was accompanied by a revolution in both word and action. Synesthetes started to observe their perceptions and to claim them. A real cultural activism was born with the creation of synesthesia associations, conferences, seminars, exhibitions, blogs and chats on the Internet. Synesthetes published texts on their perceptions and  synesthetes were more frequently characterized in fiction, often by authors who were not synesthetes themselves. The revolution in the relationship between synesthesia and literature could be seen in the publications about and by synesthetes, who told their life stories through describing the “lens” of synesthetic perceptions through which they viewed the world, together with careful observation of their inner experience. This transformation marked an end to keeping the inner life of synesthetic experience “secret” and of the concomitant sense of isolation this created.

     With this Synesthetic Renaissance, at the beginning of the new millennium, two influential and pioneering works by synesthetes on synesthesia were published: “A Vision Shared: A Firsthand look into Synesthesia and Art” (Leonardo) by the artist, Carol Steen and Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens: How Synesthetes Color Their Worlds (Henry Holt & Company) by Patricia Lynne Duffy. Duffy is herself a synesthete and close friend of artist Carol Steen. Duffy’s book, Blue Cats contains a consideration of the current state of synesthesia research in the arts and sciences, along with an autobiographical description of Duffy’s own synesthesia, perhaps a model par excellence of such autobiography, which also includes a presentation of other synesthete-artists and intellectuals, among them, her friend Carol Steen.

      Duffy and Steen have played an important role in disseminating information on renewed research into synesthesia. Together, they created the American Synesthesia Association, which, since 1995, has been organizing important conferences on synesthesia. The cultural revolution in synesthesia research also led to a change in attitude among synesthetes themselves toward their unusual perceptions, which before they had often kept hidden or shared only with those closest to them.

     Carol Steen begins her autobiographical portrait in “A Vision Shared: a first hand Look into Synesthesia and Art” with:


I have been an artist since the late 1960’s. For many years, I did not disclose or recognize much about the source of the subject matter in my paintings and sculpture. When I was younger, I had reservations about letting other people know about my synesthesia because I had no information about it.


In a similar vein, Pat Duffy writes of her reluctance to share her synesthetic perceptions: "Unless people are open to hearing about synesthesia, I feel reluctant to discuss it. Embarrassment creeps over me as I describe my “strange” perceptions to people who are wondering if I’m a lunatic or a liar"(62).The scientific recognition of the phenomenon of neurological synesthesia liberated both Duffy and Steen from the secretlykeptperceptions and the isolation it had produced. The two autobiographical texts by Duffy and Steen have led to numerous articles, interviews, lectures. Their autobiographical descriptions are examples of “neuro-biography” or, more particularly, “synesthetic autobiography” to the extent that the life episodes described arise from or are framed by their synesthetic experiences. In each case, the beginning episodes depict the realization that others do not share the same synesthetic perceptions. The second episode describes keeping the perceptions secret after suffering a trauma of others mocking or doubting them.

     Another episodic moment in the autobiographical descriptions of synesthetes is the discovery that another member of the family shares the same condition and the same secret, as evidence points to the fact that the trait of synesthesia is passed on genetically. Carol Steen tells of realizing her father shared the same form of perception, but that this information remained between father and daughter, still secret from the rest of the family. Carol attributes her father’s reticence in sharing his synesthetic perceptions as typical of his generation. She, herself, at a certain point decides to be forthright about her experience. As she writes, “Once, when I was 20, I was back from school and having dinner with my family. I was talking to my father, and for some reason, I announced, “The number 5 is yellow.” My father said, “No it’s more like yellow-ochre.” My mother and brother looked puzzled, but I realized I wasn’t alone”. (61)

     The recognition of one’s own difference from others is the first episode in the neuro-biography, Blue Cats, which begins, “I was sixteen when I found out.” The author goes on to describe her father’s surprised reaction to her casual ‘mention-in-passing’ of her colored letter and word perceptions.  As Pat Duffy writes:


My father felt surprised at my description of these and I felt surprised at his surprises. It was one of those coming-of-age moments when I glimpsed that the world might not really be as I had grown up perceiving it.

            At a time when an adolescent discovers a sense of individuality, the synesthete also realizes others see the world in a different way, which comes as an enormous surprise. This moment of awareness can be traumatic, as the renowned neurologist, Dr. Richard Cytowic writes, “As children, synesthetes are surprised to discover that others are not like them. Often ridiculed and disbelieved, they keep their atypical perceptions private.” Such was the case of Carol Steen, who relates an incident that happened with she was seven years old:

I was walking home from school with a classmate and I said to her, "The letter ‘A’ is the prettiest pink!” But she told me, “you’re weird!” And I thought, “Well, I won’t tell you what ‘B’ looks like.’ It silenced me.

Another crucial moment in the autobiographical texts of the developing is the discovery that “synesthesia” is a known phenomenon, a fact that brings great feeling of relief to the synesthete. For Pat Lynne Duffy, as for Carol Steen, such information was come upon by accident. Pat Duffy calls this moment, “a personal epiphany”(62). It happened in Patricia Duffy’s early 20’s as she sat in the waiting room of her dentist’s office. From a collection of magazines on the table, she picked up a copy of Psychology Today, which had as its cover story, “Can you taste and hear in color? Synesthesia: the lucky people with mixed-up senses.” The article was written by long-time a synesthesia researcher, neuroscientist, Dr. Lawrence Marks, who wrote the now classic book, Synesthesia: A Unity of the Senses. Patricia Duffy describes later reading Marks’ article aloud to her father “As I read, my father and I both became more and more elated.  I felt that my perceptions were validated, and my father felt his appreciation of them was as well”. (36)


            Carol Steen also relates the circumstances of her “personal epiphany” which brought her a sense of liberation. As Steen writes, “It gave me my freedom” – hearting, just by chance a radio interview with the neurologist, Dr. Richard Cytowic, who was talking about synesthesia. As Steen points out, prior to that, she had no knowledge of her condition—only that it was a secret power she could use in her artwork. Cytowic’s interview was a revelation that was to change the course of her life: “In 1993, I heard a Washington DC neurologist, Richard E. Cytowic, interviewed on National Public Radio. This was the first time in my life that I had learned anything about synesthesia”. (63)

The discovery of information on the condition is experienced as a liberation, which leads to the final step of communicating and sharing the synesthetic perceptions with others. As Patricia Lynne Duffy writes of Carol Steen in Blue Cats:“Although she is committed to expressing them now, Carol spent most of her life keeping silent about her synesthetic perceptions, as many synesthetes do”. (60)

Living with “the secret” is one of the essential themes of the autobiographical descriptions of synesthetes.

The recognition of being “different”, usually as a consequence of a traumatic incident, is the lot of the synesthete. Even of the synesthetic perception does not present any cognitive or neurological handicap, it can cause the synesthete psychological suffering in a society that does not believe in the existence of this form of perception.

In the past, synesthetes experiences have been documented by others, usually non-synesthetes in the medical field Psychiatrist Alexander Luria documented the case of extreme synesthesia experienced by Solomon Shereshefsky (who claimed every word and every other sound had not only a color, but also a taste and a weight).Similiarly, in Dr. Richard Cytowic’s book on synesthete Michael Watson, the voice of the synesthete appears in the form of quotations. In works by synesthetes Carol Steen and Patricia Lynne Duffy, the voice of the synesthete gives us a direct, inside view of the experience.

An earlier direct “inside view” of synesthesia can be found in the second chapter of Speak, Memory, (date) the autobiography of Vladimir Nabokov, great twentieth century fiction writer. Nabokov includes a “confession” of his synesthetic perception:


I present a fine case of colored hearing. Perhaps “hearing” is not quite accurate, since the color sensation seems to be produced by the very act of my orally forming a given letter while I imagine its outline…The confessions of a synesthete must sound pretentious to those who are protected from such leakings and drafts by more solid walls than mine are. (Nabokov 1963/1991,p. 53)


This “confession”, in Nabokov’s own words, contains the classic description of a grapheme-color synesthete. An alphabet letter can provoke a color perception, which in Nabokov’s case could vary with the different alphabets he had mastered:  English and French, along with his native Russian.

Nabokov’s autobiographical description includes the identified pattern of synesthetes’ life episodes; in the author’s case, two of the most important episodes were experienced on the same day, his seventh birthday: Nabokov discovered the atypical nature of his perception and that of his mother, Vera—also a synesthete, possessing “audition colorée” or colored hearing. Nabokov made use of his personal experience of synesthesia in his novel, The Gift, where the main character, Fyodor, a poet,offers a beautiful description of his colored-word synesthesia.


The various numerous “a’s” of the four languages I speak differ for me in tinge, going from lacquered black to splintery-gray like different sorts of wood. I recommend to you my pink flannel “m”…if I had some paints handy I would mix burnt sienna and sepia for you as to match the color of a…”ch” sound…and you would appreciate my radiant “s” if I could pour into your cupped hands some of those luminous sapphires that I touched as a child. (Nabokov p. 75)


            It is interesting to note that fictional works with synesthete-characters also follow the same sequence of episodes as synesthetes’ neuro-biographies. Such traumatic incidents are commonly found in fictional stories of synesthetes. In the ‘neuro-novel, A Mango-Shaped Space begins with its main character, an eight-year-old girl, being ridiculed in front of her classmates. Called up to the blackboard to write the figures of an equation, Mimi naturally uses the chalk colors that correspond to the colors she perceives in each number—to the irritation of her teacher and the confusion of her classmates.  As the character describes, “I stood with my arms at my sides, sleeves hanging halfway to my knees. Was I the only one who lived in a world full of color?” Mimi’s writing of her colored numbers aroused the general mockery of her classmates, along with a punishment from her teacher. Called before the school principal and her parents to explain the reason for her behavior in class, Mimi decides to tell a believable lie rather than reveal the truth about her form of perception:

Even at eight years old, I was smart enough to realize that something was very wrong and that, until I figured out what it was, I’d better not get myself in deeper trouble…I learned to guard my secret well.

            In the neuro-novel, A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass, the main character learns about her synesthesia in the course of a medical exam her parents make her undergo—worried that her colored number perceptions result from a cancerous brain tumour!As Mimi’s doctor tells her, “You don’t have a disease. You don’t even have a problem, exactly. What you have is a condition that is harmless. It’s called ’synesthesia’.” (64)


Diverse worlds of synesthetes


            Another typical episode in the life of a synesthete, is the discovery that other synesthetes don’t make the same color or other synesthetic associations. Comparing synesthetic percepts and types of synesthesia is a main topic of discussion among synesthetes. Patricia Lynne Duffy summarizes the “happy sense of relief that emerges” from such discussions with fellow-synesthetes: “Yes, you see what I see even if you see it in the wrong color.”(65)

In her autobiographical essay in Leonardo, Carol Steen brilliantly describes this universe of hidden synesthetic perceptions. She enumerates the diverse forms of synesthesia that she experiences and analyses how they are incorporated into her paintings and sculptures, as she has developed a form of art inspired by her synesthesia. The opening of her essay has a solemn tone, as the artist realizes the therapeutic aspect of confessing her synesthesia, which also has the pioneering aspect of exploring an as yet under-explored phenomenon. In the passage below, Steen is aware of speaking for others, who are still hiding their condition:

In writing this paper now, I seek personal liberation. I no longer wish to conceal my abilities, my areas of experience, my vocabulary of colors and shapes and what I have observed to be their triggers. Even though a tremendous amount of scientific knowledge remains to be obtained, I hope what I share here will be of use to those synesthetes who have remained silent, unaware that others share their perceptions, and to those who are studying synesthesia as a perceptual phenomenon.”(66)

            The work of the contemporary synesthete artist is accompanied by a commentary that describes the circumstances in which the work was created and how the vision was triggered. This is the case of the synesthete artist, Carol Steen and similarly, the case of the synesthete photographer, Marcia Smilack, who possesses a rare form of bi-directional synesthesia. Smilack transforms sounds into images, but discovered later that she could also transform images into sound. “I hear with my eyes” and see with my ears” as she describes.

            On her web site, Smilack also presents an autobiographical context, where we can find the same set of major episodes we can find described by Duffy and Steen, but with a difference. While Steen, for example credits Cytowic with playing a major revelatory role in her understanding of her synesthesia, Smilack recalls how her revelation began with the piano: the first note that she played on it was green! She kept this secret, commented later that her experience of sounds triggering of  colors had not yet reached full consciousness. Only as an adult did she realize that she could experience color with two senses, a rare case of bi-directional synesthesia. As Smilack describes, “I was twenty-five years old before I heard that word or understood that not everyone perceives the world as I do” (68) At about the same age, by chance, Smilack met a psychology student who told her that she might be a synesthete, but her interest in this would be short-lived. She looked up this word, “synesthesia”, which she had never heard before in a medical dictionary and found it, as she describes “between the words “seizure” and “syphilis” -- which squelched her curiosity and put her in a state of denial about her own possible link to it. But at a later moment in her life, she would become aware -- but this time, not through the words of a scientist or doctor—but of another synesthete! It was only in 1999, when she read a New York Times article which quoted Carol Steen that she gained full awareness:

Then, in 1999, I picked up a New York Times and read an interview with Carol Steen, a synesthete and artist living in New York City. She put into words what I had known but had never said to anyone, not even to myself. The article included her email address. I sent her a message with the header, “I hear with my eyes”. She answered right away. “Welcome to the club, you’re in good company.


A Cultural Revolution


Similarly, other authors, such as Daniel Tammet, who experiences both autism (Asperger’s syndrome) and synesthesia, writes of his inner experience in his autobiography, Born on a Blue Day, the title making reference to his synesthetic colors for days of the week. Tammet’s synesthetic perceptions also extend to numbers, which for him, also have form, texture and movement in space. In his book, Tammet takes part in the trend of artists and others with neurological anomalies to describe their unusual perceptions from the inside out.

            In much the same way, in 1992, Jennifer Hall, an American artist who is epileptic, grouped together painters with epilepsy, showing the effects of their epilepsy on themselves and the works they produced. Artists who experience a range of pathological or anomalous neurological conditions from epilepsy to autism to Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia have presented artistic works linked to their conditions, often with the collaboration of scientists who study them.

            The development of the autobiographical descriptions of the inner landscape of synesthesia have been spread through the Internet, helping to transform the synesthetic experience from “family secret” to subject of laboratory study and artistic depiction. All this has led to the networking of synesthetes and those who study them, both creating and enhancing this community of explorers, and completely revising the way synesthetes see themselves and others see them: a total revolution.

--excerpts translated and edited by Patricia Lynne Duffy


Hervé_Pierre Lambert,

"La synesthésie: Vues de l'intérieur".

N° 8, 2015.