Can you hear this painting?

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Yellow, Red, Blue, by Wassily Kandinsky (1925).

According to new research by Jamie Ward, presented today at the BA Festival of Science, vision and hearing are very closely linked in everyone, but only synaesthetes are conscious of that link.

Ward carried out an experiment on 6 synaesthetes and 6 control subjects without the condition. Both groups were asked to draw and describe their visual experiences of music played by an orchestra. The images produced were then combined with music in an animated film, which was shown to 200 visitors to the Science Museum in London. 

The people who had viewed the animation were then asked to choose the image that fit best with the music they heard. It was found that the images drawn by the synaesthetes were consistently chosen over those drawn by the controls, suggesting that there is an unconscious link between vision and hearing in non-synaesthetes that is similar to that experienced by synaesthetes.

“While some synaesthetes can actually hear a Kandinsky in a very real way, the rest of us don’t have such a pronounced crossover of senses,” says Ward. “But, this research shows that all of us have links between our hearing and vision – even if we don’t really realise it. We hope that understanding synaesthesia will enable us to understand more about how our senses are linked in our brains, and how this may help us create and appreciate works of art that combine music and sound.”

Ward now aims to perform neuroimaging studies to determine the neural activity evoked in synaesthetes by Kandinsky’s paintings, or by sounds which give them visual experiences.

“I saw all my colours in spirit, before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me.” This was Kandinsky’s reaction to a performance of Richard Wagner’s opera Lohengrin in St. Petersburg. The Russian-born painter tried to evoke the visual equivalent of a symphony in his work, and may himself have been a synaesthete.

The word synaesthesia comes from the Greek roots syn, meaning ‘together,’  and aesthesis, meaning ‘sensation.’ The condition, which affects 1 in 2,000 people, was first described in 1690 by the philosopher John Locke, after encountering a blind man who claimed to experience the colour scarlet whenever he heard the sound of a trumpet.

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