BRAD LEMLEY'S last piece for The Magazine was on David Stoffel, a blind software executive.
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*A social worker in Florida says when she hears music, she also sees objects -- gold balls, vertical lines -- floating six inches from her nose.
*A computer programmer in Arkansas says when he is driving his car and the Emergency Broadcast System test tone comes on the radio, "Everything turns bright orange," and he can barely see the road.
*A psychologist in North Carolina says angel food cake "tastes pink."
*A stage lighting designer in New York City says when he sucks a lemon, "I feel points pressing against my face and hands," and the taste of spearmint "feels like cool, glass columns, about two inches in diameter."
No, we are not in the Twilight Zone, nor listening to alumni of Timothy Leary's chemistry clinics. The speakers are all responsible, successful people with jobs and families, and they earnestly assert that they are not lying, drugged or crazy. Yet the incongruous adjectives and nouns keep tumbling out: green symphonies and square flavors, a voice that sounds like a zigzag line and roast beef that tastes like an archway, a piano note that is a vertical line and a pocket-pager beep that conjures "jagged red lightning bolts."
It is very weird.
The speakers have never met, but their stories are remarkably similar. All apologize frequently -- "I know this sounds crazy, but . . . " All say they have had these unusual perceptions since they were children but stopped talking about "music that goes to the left and forward" long ago because no one else understood.
Now they have a sympathetic listener in Dr. Richard Cytowic, a Washington neurologist who is studying them and who is convinced their experiences are real and vivid, not flights of imagination. Cytowic has also told them the name science has given to their way of viewing the world -- synesthesia (derived from the Greek syn, joining, and aisthesis, sensation, literally, a joining of the senses). For seven years, Cytowic has tried to unravel the mystery of these rare people, whose senses are not walled off from each other, but intermingle freely.
CYTOWIC, 32, is a romantic who says his heroes include doctor-artists such as Anton Chekhov, Somerset Maugham and William Carlos Williams. His specialty -- neuro field that traces behavior all the way down to the physical structure and workings of the brain itself. He is president of Capitol Neurology, a 10- doctor clinic with offices in Washington and Landover, and squeezes his synesthesia studies between patient consultations and hospital rounds. He has set up a private foundation to fund his research, nd says his motivation is sheer fascination. "Arcane phenomena have always intrigued me . . . I mean, you listen to someone describing the shape of the taste of maple sugar -- how can you not be fascinated?"
Cytowic says when we speak, "We all intermingle the five senses all the time. We say that red is a 'warm' color, but green is 'cool'; her voice is 'sweet' or sadness is 'blue.' To most people they are simply quaint metaphors." For example, the concept of a "black chord" makes a sort of sense to many people because black is a somber color, and certain minor chords have a somber sound -- we recognize the mutual "somberness" of the color and sound. Cytowic says synesthetes would actually see black when the chord was struck. "To a person with synesthesia, these associations are real, vivid, spontaneous and impossible to suppress."
First noted by English scientist Francis Galton in 1865, conducting case studies of the phenomenon became a minor fad in France around 1910. "It was a natural thing to occupy people's fancy at that time, because of the rise of cubism, the surrealists, particularly Baudelaire," says Cytowic. "It also fascinated the Freudians -- but as it turned out, they could not make much sense of it in strictly psychological terms."
From 1911 to 1960, researchers discovered several different forms of synesthesia, though colored hearing seemed to be the most common. Case studies turned up people with colored taste, visual pain, even one example of a strange phenomenon termed "audiomotor" synesthesia, in which a 14-year-old boy contorted his body into distinctive shapes that corresponded to the sound of certain words. When retested 14 years later, the 28-year-old man went into precisely the same contortions in response to the same set of words.
Perhaps the most famous account of a synesthetic experience is the one published in 1968 by A.R. Luria, a Soviet psychologist. Unlike most synesthetes, who say thei conditon does not interfere with day-to-day life, the man quoted by Luria was continually distracted by a jumble of intense visions:
"I walked over to the ice cream vendor and asked her what flavor she had. 'Tutti Frutti,' she said, but she answered in such a tone that a whole pile of coals, of black cinders, came bursting out of her mouth, and I couldn't bring myself to buy any ice cream after she had answered that way. Some people's voices are a bouquet, and I get so interested in their voice, I can't follow what's being said. Other times, smoke or fog appears, and the more people talk, the harder it gets, until I reach a point where I can't make anything out."
Cytowic began looking into synesthesia in 1978, while he was a resident in neuropsychology at the Bowman-Gray School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C. "I had read a little about it, and then through pure luck, I happened to find two subjects. Since no one had ever tried to determine what actually happened in the brain during synesthesia, I decided to look into it."
He began by running a series of association tests on Michael Watson, the man whose "geometric taste" causes him to feel various shapes pressing against his face and hands whenever he tastes or smells food. He also tested the Bowman- Gray psychologist who said angel food cake tasted pink, and loud notes in a symphony made "silver sparkles."
For both, he made elaborate charts, illustrating the subtly shifting geometries of different tastes and the colors of various sounds. He also had Watson inhale radioactive Xenon gas, which is absorbed into the bloodstream and permits monitoring of the blood flow through the brain. As a neuropsychologist, Cytowic was convinced that the cause of synesthesia would be found in abnormalities of brain structure and function -- that it was a physical condition, "brain-based" instead of "mind-based."
The results confirmed his hypothesis and shocked him as well. As Watson smeed various odors, the blood flow through much of his cortex -- the part of the brain that handles language and abstract thought -- very nearly shut down. "It was so low that we really panicked," recalls Cytowic. "We have never, never seen anything like it." Although Watson has an IQ of 130 and is perfectly healthy, "he had the kind of cortical flow you see in people with severe strokes, where the brain tissue is just plain dead," Cytowic said.
It was the first concrete evidence Cytowic had for his "brain-based" hypothesis. Further, the near shutdown of the cortex indicated that the source of the synesthesia lay deep within the brain, in the limbic system. Some scientists have labeled this the primitive, emotional part of the brain, an inheritance from our early mammalian ancestors.
PERHAPS THE TOUGHEST aspect of studying people who have synesthesia is finding them. Those who have it are rare -- Cytowic says he cannot guess at numbers, but incidence is "certainly less than 1 percent of the populaion" -- and even those few tend to be secretive about it for fear of ridicule. Cytowic discovered Watson's synesthesia through chance: the two had been personal friends for four years, when one night in the spring of 1979, while they ate dinner together, Watson happened to comment that "the curlicues in this chicken need to be unwound," which Cytowic immediately recognized as a classic synesthetic sentiment.
Cytowic found more potential subjects after a one-page item summarizing his investigation of Watson was published in the June 1984 issue of Psychology Today. Later that month, Cytowic and Watson were interviewed on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" program. By the end of July, Cytowic had received 40 letters.
"I feel for the first time I am not nuts!" wrote
an exultant Mike Morrow, the Arkansas computer programmer whose vision goes bright orange when he hears the Emergency Broadcast System test tone.
"It was just great to learn I wasn't the only weird person in the world," he says in a telephone interview. Now 37, he says he learned as a child that when he pointed out that he "hears in color," people looked at him "as if I needed to be committed. I stopped talking about it a long time ago."
Morrow says orchestras, with their thick, lush sound, make him see "a gray mush, like oatmeal." He prefers the sharp, clean tones of electronic music, "because the shapes and colors are so distinct and intense -- bars rising, lovely green pyramids floating."
He says that except in the rare case of a single, clear, loud tone, such as the Emergency Broadcast System tone, the shapes and colors he sees do not interfere with his normal vision. "It's sort of like a transparent plastic overlay. It's there, but I can see through it. Of course, if I close my eyes, then the shapes are all there are.
"I love it," he says. Losing it would be "like losing one of my senses, my sight."
Gregory Hachigian, 33, a computer programmer from Redondo Beach, Calif., contacted Cytowic after hearing the radio show. "Often the geometric shapes go with the sound," he says. "A short, sharp sound usually produces a short, sharp image. But a soft sound, like the spinning of a fan, makes a soft, cloudy image."
And how would he feel about losing it? The predictable answer: "It would be terrible. It would be like losing a sense."
Like other synesthetes, Hachigian asserts that the perceptions are absolutely real and natural -- that the colored shapes are not distinct from hearing, they are part of what hearing is. He says to assert that the sounds he hears are real but the colored shapes are hallucinations is, from his point of view, as nonsensical as contending that low notes in a symphony are real, but high notes are hallucinations.
"It's just the way things are," he says. "The way I see it, my audio spectrum is simply wider than most people's -- broader, fuller, more texture."
The life of Deni Simon, 34, national coordinator for social worker training at Nova University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., provides a dramatic example of how the synesthetes' unique visions can be misunderstood.
"When I listen to music, I see the shapes of a sort of screen about six inches in front of my head. The vibraphone, you know, the musical instrument, makes a round shape, each note is like a little gold ball falling. Some sounds are like oscilloscope lines -- moving, in color, with height, width and, most mportantly, depth." She says her favorite music has lines that extend horizontally beyond the "screen area."
"I also experience pain and pleasure visually." Pain, she says, is "a thin, metallic, vertical line."
Simon says from the time she was a small child, her descriptions have been viewed with suspicion. "My parents thought I was very strange. They thought I was making it up to get attention. Everyone was always jumping in with psychological explanations: I had an overactive imagination, I wanted attention, a whole slew of things."
Simon says it was her account of a pleasurable experience that got her into the most serious trouble. "In my senior year of high school, my boyfriend and I were out in the hall and he gave me a kiss, and I saw orange sherbet foam. When I told the assistant principal about it, he put me into this group for drug abusers at the school. I was completely straight, and it really upset me, it traumatized me. I kept telling them I don't use drugs, I don't even smoke, but they said, 'Anybody who sees orange sherbet foam in the middle of school must be doing something.'
She kept insisting that she did not use drugs and was finally released from the program. "After that, I stopped talking about it.
"In college, I took some psychology courses, because I really wanted to find out what was going on. But I was subtle about asking questions. I would say, 'I have this friend who sees things . . . ' But nobody knew anything about it. Even in my psychology courses in grad school, nobody knew a thing about it."
Last July, she happened upon the Psychology Today article. "I yelled, 'That's me!' I ran up to my husband and said, 'See? I'm not nuts! It's real!'
Considering all the trials her synesthesia has put her through, would she rather not have it? She answers instantly, "I wouldn't give it up for anything in the world."
IT SEEMS UNLIKELY that these people could independently invent such similar stories. Still, the "normal" mind, with its senses carefully segregated from one another, might ask if it is possible that these are nothing more than "artsy" people, waxing poetic.
No, says Cytowic. He points out that "the stimulating perception repeatedly evokes a specific perception." In other words, a true synesthete will repeatedly affirm that b-flat is yellow, spearmint is a glass column, and will make hundreds of other consistent associations, even if the testing sessions are held years apart. As Deni Simon puts it, "A vibraphone's sound could not be anything but gold balls. That's what it is." If synesthesia were nothing more than abstract creativity, Cytowic reasons, the associations would vary over time.
Moreover, says Cytowic, there is a logic to synesthesia. In a paper published in 1982 in the journal Brain and Cognition, he cites the "greatly restricted response repertoire" of synesthetes. While the non-synesthetic "control" subjects in his tests picked a wide, illogical range of shapes as corresponding to flavors, Michael Watson always matched sour tastes with conical shapes, and sweet tastes with round shapes. And a sour taste with a hint of sweetness, logically enough, was a rounded conical shape.
Cytowic's conclusion: "The synesthete's vision is truly different from our own. He perceives a different universe."
Dr. Harry Whitaker, research director at the Neuropsy N.D., says, "Synesthesia is accepted as an absolutely real phenomenon by the neurological community, simply because it has been independently noted by so many investigators who have examined their patients thoroughly. I have never heard anyone in the field express a hint of doubt about its reality." He adds that Cytowic's experimental method is "excellent -- right down mainstream methodology.
"But it does strain the imagination," Whitaker adds. "How in the heck can somebody hear colors and taste with shapes?"
IN SEARCH of the answers to that question, Michael Watson spent a day in May lying on a table, with his head inside the hole of a nine-foot-high-doughnut-sha ped apparatus called the Magnetic Resonance Imaging Machine, in Clinton, Md. The MRI is a computerized device that uses a combination of magnetism and radio waves to make sharp pictures of internal organs. "Look at that," said Cytowic, indicating a cutaway view of Watson's head. "Just as clear as if you cut him in half."
A true good sport, Watson has allowed his friend Cytowic to look under his skull over the past seven years with every conceivable means offered by modern medical science. Watson has also gone through a gamut of laboratory tests, including taking the powerful stimulant amyl nitrate so Cytowic could judge if it increased the synesthetic perceptions. (It did.) Cytowic is ending his study of Watson now, not because his curiosity is satisified, but because every test has been run, short of dissection -- and even that is planned. "Oh, yes, I get his brain when he dies," says Cytowic enthusiastically. "He carries a card in his wallet, and it says I get his brain."
Cytowic says each of these tests has served to nail down the idea that the cortex is "put on the back burner" during synesthesia, and the limbic system takes over. "It is remarkable," he says. "Michael's brain is simply wired differently from yours or mine."
Paul MacLean, former chief of The Laboratory of Brain Evolution and Behavior at the National Institute of Mental Health and a recognized, if controversial, authority on the evolutionarily older structures of the brain, agrees that Cytowic's theory makes sense. He says, "In this primitive part of the brain, that reflects our inheritance from lower mammals, there does seem to be the opportunity for this blending of information from the various internal and external senses."
Because the limbic system is evolutionarily an earlier brain form, Cytowic concludes that synesthetes are representatives of "what it means not only to be human, but mammalian as well." He has called synesthetes, "cognitive fossils."
Many scientists have debated whether the limbic system really is best described as our inheritance from primitive mammals. Joseph Moskal, a neurobiologist with the National Institute of Mental Health, says that idea is "difficult to get to experimentally." He says brain science is shifting its focus to microscopic cell structure and function, and the only certain statement that can be made now about whole-brain function is "Holy mackerel, it sure is complicated."
PERHAPS the most startling revelation provided by synesthesia is what it says about the rest of us. "When I learned that other people could not see music," says Hachigian, "it was as if you suddenly discovered that everyone else could only see in black and white, while you could see color."
And it can be useful. Cytowic believes Gallic composer Olivier Messiaen is synesthetic. In a 1978 interview in The Post, Messiaen said: "Colors are very important to me, because I have a gift -- it's not my fault, it's just how I am -- whenever I hear music, or even if I read music, I see colors." Messiaen has often said most of his symphonic works are based on colors, for example, "The piece I composed about Bryce Canyon is red and orange, the color of the cliffs."
Cytowic spent a weekend running tests on British paint concluded that he is also a synesthete. Hockney claims his sensations are essential to his work.
FOR WATSON, there is some irony in all of this. After a lifetime of enjoying a uniquely rich sensory world, and after seven years of tests, he is beginning to lose it. Now 43, a gentle man with a quick smile, he says, "It's a matter of intensity. I've only noticed it in the last three or four months -- the shapes aren't as distinct as they used to be."
It does not especially surprise Cytowic. "As we age, we lose nerve cells. It begins even before birth, but speeds up as we enter our thirties and forties. So Michael is having this cell dropout, and my speculation is that it is weakening and suppressing some of these connections that create his synesthesia."
Which is all quite logical, but small comfort to Watson, who faces what synesthetes view as a sad, even dreadful fate -- to become just like the rest of us. "Put me in a French restaurant, and I am in heaven," he says. "If it goes away completely, the tastes would still be pleasant -- but without the shapes . . . " His voice trails off as he reminisces about his favorite flavors: mint like glass columns, roast beef like marble archways.