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Why do some people perceive words and numbers as colours?

Tuesdays 12 & 19 November 2002, 9.00-9.30pm

As many as one in 2000 people has an extraordinary condition in which the five senses intermingle. This major two part series reveals how synaesthesia is changing our understanding of the world of neuroscience.

How one synaesthete sees 'Saturday'

We all wonder at some point whether other people experience their surroundings in the same way we do. Do they hear the same things and see the same colours? People with synaesthesia really do experience the world differently. New scientific research shows that the condition can take a variety of forms. Some see colours and patterns when they hear music or words. Others 'taste' words. People with the most common form of synaesthesia - or 'syn' as they sometimes refer to it - perceive words, letters and numbers as distinct colours. Most synaesthetes find their condition enriching. But for others, it can be unsettling - sounds produce uncomfortable colours, words provoke odd tastes. For neuroscientists, modern technology is at last making it possible to study synaesthesia, and revealing in the process a great deal about how the brain processes sensory information in all of us.

In a two part series, writer and broadcaster Georgina Ferry explores the condition of synaesthesia, and the impact it is having on the way in which scientists understand perception. Each programme features people who live with this fascinating condition, as well as psychologists and neuroscientists conducting groundbreaking research.

1. Pale yellow Cs, turquoise Thursdays
    and wine-flavoured Vs

The programme explores the astonishing range of synaesthetic characteristics revealed by current case studies of people with the condition. It looks at the different forms which synaesthesia takes and examines the wealth of sensory data now accessible to scientists. Examples of these case studies include James Wannerton who tastes spoken words - the flavours of words are very specific: mince, apricots, tomato soup, even earwax; and Jane Mackay who sees shapes and and colours when she hears music and then paints what she sees.

Studies now reveal that there is a high ratio of women to men with synaesthesia and that the condition may be inherited - one famous instance of this was the writer Vladimir Nabokov. He married a fellow synaesthete and their son Dimitri also has synaesthesia. He's one artist who is now thought to have been a genuine synaesthete, but there are many who deliberately cultivated a heightened perception for extra artistic effect: our culture is littered with poets, artists and musicians, including Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Kandinsky, Messaien and Scriabin who have claimed to have synaesthesia. Today, thanks to fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging), neuroscientists are able to prove that synaesthetic experience is a genuine phenomenon. What's more, this new evidence is allowing the scientific community to explore the implications for the way all of our brains work.
Listen again available after the broadcast

Listen again to Programme 1 Listen again to Programme 1

2. Mixed Feelings

This second programme examines the mounting evidence that we all start life with the potential for synaesthesia. The sensory pathways are ill-defined in infants, and it is only later in a child's development that the senses are parcelled out. Scientists are coming to the realisation that we may all have the capacity for vestigial synaesthesia, even if our sensory pathways have been separated out as normal. They are finding evidence for this through the experiences of synaesthetes such as teacher and translator Patricia Duffy who sees coloured letters and numbers and believes that synaesthesia can be harnessed as a memory aid. Results from drug tests show that a synaesthetic experience can actually be manufactured with the help of artificial stimulants. In some of us, head trauma or blindness can trigger synaesthetic experiences. Certainly, there is now evidence that in all of us, the same parts of the brain are stimulated by seeing something and by thinking about it. The study of synaesthesia is providing a combination of results that is pushing the boundaries of neuroscience. Evidence from the most recent research is being used to illuminate the acquisition and processing of language, and may also give answers to one of the biggest questions of all - the nature of meaning as it is represented in the human brain.

Listen again to Programme 2 Listen again to Programme 2

Find more information, contacts, links and a quick
do-it-yourself synaesthesia test on Page 2 >>>

Presenter: Georgina Ferry, writer and broadcaster.

Key contributors include: brain scientist Richard Cytowic, neuroscientist and Psychologist V.S. Ramachandra, Psychologist Jeffrey Gray, synaesthetes include the pianist Joseph Long, artist Jane Mackay and translator Patricia Duffy; the series consultant is neuropsychologist John Harrison

The readers are Hilary Neville and Crawford Logan.

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