Synesthesia is a neurological trait in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. A cerebral bonus, of sorts. One hundred years ago, synesthesia was not only known, it was in vogue. French Symbolist poets Rimbaud and Baudelaire wrote poetry in its honor; lighted color organs with notes coordinated to hue played in salons and concert halls.

Synesthesia fell to the wayside during the rise of Behaviorism in psychology and wasn’t “real” again until neuroscientists like Dr. Richard Cytowic and Dr. Larry Marks bucked trends and reinvestigated it in the 1980s. Now it’s fashionable again, with contemporary artists admitting their cross-sensory impressions. The Dutch designer Iris van Herpen told me the reason behind her “Synesthesia” couture is her own experience: “I see colored music!”; Tilda Swinton told The London Times she tastes words: “The word ‘word’ is a sort of gravy. Table is a slightly dry cake. Tomato is not actually tomato, it’s lemony.” Lady Gaga told TV interviewers in Singapore, “When I compose music, I see a wall of color…”

With cultural icons like these women expressing their inner spectrums, I daresay the Synesthesia Renaissance we’re now experiencing might be the most enlightened yet.

-Maureen Seaberg

Maureen Seaberg is an author (Tasting the Universe) as well as a synesthete and synesthesia expert for Psychology Today. 

September 2012