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Interview with Oliver Sacks

Fred Child: So we're doing a program about Synesthesia. And talking to Michael Torke of course and other musicians and composers who have or claim to have the experience of synesthesia. And I just wanted to start, I think, with the most basic question: what is synesthesia?

Oliver Sacks: Synesthesia is a coupling of two sorts of sensation. So say that one may see color when one hears a sound. This occurs quite automatically and uncontrollably, and it's usually a phenomenon, if it's present, which has been life long. And it's not an association, it's not a thought. It's an immediate physiological coupling.

FC: When you say it's an immediate physiological coupling, that means that it's an immediate experience that synesthetes have, they for example see a color when they hear certain music. It's instant and automatic.

OS: Yes. One can also show if you do imagery of the brain that for the example the visual area or the color area lights up at the same moment in time as the auditory area.

FC: To someone like me who is not a synesthete, this is utterly fascinating. And I'm so curious about the actual experience. I mean, how does this color appear to people who have this experience?

OS: Well, I'm not a synesthete either. And I think it's as difficult for us to imagine synesthesia as for synesthetes to imagine its absence. But you know, I asked Michael Torke about this and I suspect you'll interview him anyhow.

He told me how at the age of 5, his parents had got him a piano and a piano teacher. He said to his teacher one day, "I love that blue piece." And his teacher said "what do you mean that blue piece." He said, the one in D Major — D Major's blue. And his piano teacher, not for me. And Michael said he was still astonished at this, because he can't hear or imagine D Major or anything in D Major — he has absolute pitch of course — without in some sense seeing blue. I said 'In what sense do you see blue,' for example. If D Major came into your mind when you were facing a wall would the blue and the yellow come together and form green? And he said, no it's not like that, it's a mental color. He said like a sort of screen.

And I think he had difficulty comparing it with any visual reality. And also when I pressed him more, for example I think, g sharp minor he said was yellow. No, not yellow — ochre. Not ochre — gambodge. You know, he was trying to get the exact tint. And I think that what comes out is that the colors which people may see are not quite like earthly colors. And one man, who was colorblind, saw colors when he was synesthetically stimulated, which he had never seen before, and he said they were like Martian colors.

FC: Do we have any sense of this neurologically? Of what's going on in the brain?

OS: Well, one can show that it is very real, neurologically. And for example, people who see colors or shapes or movements, when they hear music, show — you can demonstrate that there's activity in the visual parts of the brain at the same moment as they hear music. So this is not imagination.

It is, if you want, a sort of hallucination, although people wouldn't use that word. So it's almost as if there's some excessive connection, or abnormal connection between sensory areas which are normally separate. There's some thought that this sort of fusion of all the senses, which is literally what the word synesthesia means, may be normal and universal in the first year of life. And that in the majority of people it stops around the age of 12 months or something like that. But in about one person in 20 or so, it's retained.

FC: For those of us who, well, either never had it, or lost it somewhere in our first year of life, is synesthesia something that can be learned or acquired?

OS: I don't think it can be learned. I think one may experience something slightly akin to it, if one has a fever or one has taken some drug or another. But there's really one group who are apt to acquire it. And these are people in fact who have become blind or lost their vision. And if that happens, the brain seems to become very sensitive to visual hallucinations and all sorts of cross-connections. And one may start getting, say, musical — color synesthesia when one is blind.

There is an amazing description of this by French author — [inaudible] who described how when he lost his sight a little before he was 8 years old, he was taken to a concert that was wonderful and overwhelming for him. He said that 'music was made for the blind.' But then he started to see colors and shapes, with all the musical instruments. And finally, sort of music turned into such a visual experience that he had to give up thoughts of being a musician. So one can have too much synesthesia, especially if you never had it before.

FC: so it became a kind of visual cacophony for him, it sounds like.

OS: Well, cacophony or harmony, but whatever it was, it prevented him concentrating on the music as such.

FC: Now hearing you talk about it as something the blind sometimes acquire later, or something that maybe we all had when we were infants, makes me wonder if it's a greater sensitivity to something that's real, or is it an artifact of the brain chemistry of perception.

OS: Well the people who have this have often felt that they were perceiving some fundamental natural connection. Perhaps some correlation between the wavelength of sound and wavelength of color or whatever.

But then when two synesthetes meet, they can never agree about their experiences. I think Michael Torke describes this very nicely, how when he was 14 or 15, he met another musical synestheste and they tried to swap colors and it didn't work out. This happened also in the 19th century when Scriabin and Rimsky Korsakov both at least claimed to see colors, but they couldn't agree about the colors.

FC: So D Major being blue to Michael Torke, the very same thing might be pink to a different synesthete, or green or purple or anything else.

OS: Absolutely, yeah. It's not just colors. There was a recent paper about a young musicians who had tastes with various musical intervals. I think a fourth — tastes and smells. A fourth for her was like mown grass and a minor third was like garlic or something like that. Absolutely consistent. And synesthetes can't usually say, or bring up any particular reasons or associations why they have the smell or the color. Or the feel that they do.

FC: So it's not because she was hearing something, she was hearing a particular interval, the first time her father was mowing the lawn, that she smells mown grass.

OS: Apparently not. I think all synesthetes try and find memories or associations like this. Mostly they're unsuccessful.

FC: For somebody like me, who does not have this experience, or doesn't remember it from my first year of life, I'm a little bit skeptical about it. And earlier this summer I met a pianist summer at the Aspen Festival, in Colorado, wonderful young pianist named Joyce Yang, and she was describing this to me, and she was describing seeing colors when she hears music and how different pieces of music inspire different colors for her. And I wanted to press her on this a little bit. And I wonder if I could play a clip or two from my conversation with you and get your reaction to this. The first thing I did, she had just played a set of Robert Schumann pieces called Carnival, and I asked her what color this is at the very beginning of the music:

Joyce Yang: bright turquoise. I mean it's a very rich color, very bright, you know it's like trumpets starting Carnival. For me, it's kind of a shocking color of some sort. And I say it's a cooler color, because there really isn't any warmth in the beginning of the piece, its just bright trumpets and trombones kind of, doing introduction to this wonderful adventure.

FC: Now we don't have Joyce here, we can't talk to her here together about this, but does this sound like what a synesthete describes when they hear music?

OS: The fact that she adds so many other words like shocking and cool and no warmth makes me wonder whether this is all part of some emotional association. Or some association of thoughts. And I would have to quiz her. Or presumably you quizzed her more closely.

FC: Well actually I did: I asked her about another piece. I asked her about a movement from the d minor Mendelssohn Trio. And she gave she gave a somewhat different answer. Here's what she said about that piece.

FC: How about the Scherzo in the d minor Trio by Mendelssohn, what color is that?

JY: Well it's quite playful, very light. And I would say it's probably a yellow of some sort. Something bright. But I also see, very small shapes, and there are thousands of them. And they're identical, they're all moving, they all have life of their own and it's kind of citrusy. It's kind of bouncing around.

FC: Now that almost sounds more like a metaphorical way of describing music instead of a true synesthetic experience.

OS: Yeah, I think I agree with you. Although it may have elements of synesthesia in it. But synesthesia is not playful. It's rather literal. And there are various feelings. Some of my colleagues compare synesthesia to metaphor. I feel they’re rather different. Because I think of synesthesia as fixed, and automatic, and rigid, and inflexible. And metaphor as rich and creative, and as something which is developed as a result of experience, and which may reflect ones culture. And it's not a raw neurological coupling.

FC: In your book Musicophilia, there's a chapter about music and synesthesia. And you make a distinction between synesthesia and pseudo-synesthesia.

OS: Yes indeed. And I mean if a color or shapes is an association or a symbol rather than an automatic sensory experience, then — as may be the case with this young lady, I don't know, and as may have been the case with Scriabin, and Rimsky Korsakov and maybe Messiaen. You know Messiaen himself is particularly sort of elusive and rather, I think, sort of ambiguous about his own experiences, or for example when Rimbaud decides to ascribe colors to each vowel — a for example is going to be orange, e, and so forth.

So I think that sometimes there can be a conscious or unconscious symbolism or association. And that I will call a poetic synesthesia or a pseudo-synesthesia. And it may be very important in poetry. And it may be very important for the individual to think in these terms. But for better or worse it's somewhat different from the real, neurological article.

FC: And yet — yeah, as you say different from the real neurological article, and talking with someone like Joyce Yang, wonderful young pianist, but hearing her talk about her experience sort of fires my skepticism about it, and yet you say we can actually measure brain activity among people who claim this, and yes, the visual cortex is firing at the same time the auditory area is firing. So in fact, among some people we know for sure — it's real.

OS: Yeah. And the question of value is different from the nature of the thing. I mean a symbolic, associative, pseudo-synesthesia may be highly stimulating to the person, and an integral part of their creativity. I think this certainly the case with Messiaen. Whether he is actually, in fact, you know has the neurological article, I'm not quite sure.

FC: Is there a correlation between synesthesia and creativity?

OS: A lot of synesthetes like to think so. As people with Tourette's like to think there's a correlation between Tourette's and creativity, and autistic people between autism and creativity. I don't think so. But it's sort of difficult to get figures. And I know some of my colleagues, Ramachandran, who is a neurobiologist on the west coast — he feels that synesthesia is akin to metaphor, and that there's something essentially creative or proto-creative about synesthesia. And that it's common among creative people. I'm not persuaded of this myself.

FC: As someone who dearly loves music and artistic experience in general, I just find this entire subject utterly fascinating. And in a way, I find myself envious of people who say, I have these experiences where music triggers color for me. When I was a boy, I loved going to the planetarium in Portland Oregon, when they would do visual shows to go along with music that I loved. And the fact that I don't see colors or images or shapes when I hear music almost makes me feel a little bit deprived.

OS: Yeah, I know that feeling and I share it to some extent. but I'm also quite glad — incidentally, I mention in my book, some synesthestes who get tired of their synesthesia, and wish they could, say, just hear music as music. Without a light and color show, thrown in.

An objective example of synesthesia is I suppose something like Fantasia. Where one has all sorts of complex scenarios going with the music. But personally — and this may be sour grapes -mixing metaphors — I think I like my music straight. I'm glad it doesn't have color with it or taste or smell. I can find music wholly satisfying as such. But I also have to say that I prefer pure music, that is to say, instrumental music, to opera or song. Or rather, they're different experiences. But I rather like pure music with no accompaniments.

And yet having said that. I would like to be able to enter the mind and the consciousness and the experiences of some of the synesthetes I've spoken to. Because I don't really know what it's like. Some of them say its wonderful, one or two have — are sick of it. And most of them, as far as I can judge — including now Michael Torke — just sort of live with it and don't think much about it.

FC: For people who do have the experience of seeing colors when they hear music. Is it something that is only stimulated by music? Or are there other sounds, just the sounds of every day life, can that stimulate a visual experience too?

OS: Oh absolutely, and for example and other visual experience. A very common form of synesthesia is to see letters, printed letters as being different colors. In fact that's probably the commonest form of synesthesia. Letters and numerals.

FC: That must be utterly confusing for a synesthete, if for example the letter b strikes you as blue, but then what if you see a letter b printed as orange?

OS: Yes. Well, there's a test called the Stroop test, which has to do with such contradictions, and yes, it can be particularly muddling. Incidentally, one way, without doing brain imaging to sort of confirm synesthesia, is to perhaps to show people sort of a mass say of 5's and S's. 5's and S's look pretty similar, but if you seem them as different synesthetically, then you might be able to make an instant division between the 5s and the Ss which a nonsynesthete couldn't do. So something like that can be a little test for letter-numeral synesthesia.

FC: So you have a way of detecting synesthetic malingerers?

OS: I mean, in a way it's a little bit like the test for color blindness. It would be difficult to fake a test like that.

FC: I just want to follow up a little bit on something we were talking about earlier, too, you were saying that synesthetes in general enjoy it, but a few find it a little bit overwhelming. You're perfectly happy enjoying music as music, so those of us who are not synesthetic shouldn't necessarily feel inferior.

OS: Right, no. And those with synesthesia shouldn't necessarily feel superior. But still it would be interesting if both of us could cross over — if they could share our experiences and we theirs.

FC: are there any simulations of synesthesia that you've seen that even come close or have any value.

OS: Well I think fantasia was an early example in some ways. A sort of simulation. I'm sure there are such simulations I haven't been into too much.

I'm sorry, let me come back to the question of simulations. A lot of synesthetic composers have wanted their audiences to share their experiences. And Scriabin, for example developed a color organ, which would emit various colors along with notes or harmonies or chords. And in fact there were color harpsichords, going back to the 18th century. Because synesthetic composers and performers might feel that they had something very important going on in them that they wanted to externalize and share. However, in general, the audiences are not as turned on by these color organs and things as the composers themselves.

FC: Are there any other case studies that you want to be sure to mention, fascinating insights or particular, singular experiences with synesthesia.

OS: Well, getting away for a moment from music. Two things stand out in Nabokov's autobiography. First of all, he discovered his own synesthesia he was quite young and playing with children’s letters and things. And he remarked on the colors of the letters to his mother. And his mother in fact agreed with him that these colorless letters had colors. Although she disagreed with her young son about what colors.

But Nabokov himself was intensely synesthetic, as were his parents, as is his son. As was his wife. Nabokov also said, Music I regret to say is only an arbitrary succession of more or less unpleasant sounds. Now Nabokov was an extraordinary synesthete on the one hand, an extraordinary verbal artist. But he also had the rare condition of complete amusia on the other hand. He couldn't recognize any music, he couldn't tell if one note was higher or lower than another, or if there was a discord. But I think that his writing, whether it's about insects or in his novels, is in fact enriched by his synesthesia. He is sort of a genius of language and imagination any how, and I think he was able to use his synesthesia very beautifully. And so that comes to my mind.

FC: That's just remarkable that somebody who was a genius of language, a genius with words, would in a sense be so deaf to the language of music.

OS: Well, yes, but that can happen. And although there's a lot of overlap in the way that the brain deals with language and music, there are also profound differences. And the opposite can be the case. So say someone who loses the capacity for language as the result of a stroke or head injury becomes aphasic, but for them music is usually retained. And that may be very important.

And in fact there was a Russian composer called Chebalian, whom Shostakovich thought very highly of, and he lost all language as the result of a stroke, but he continued at sort of a near genius level with musical composition.

FC: I've been such a fan of your writings over the years and when the book Musicophilia I rushed right out and got a copy — what was it about music and the brain that made you think — here's a topic for an entire book.

OS: Well it was a topic which I'd sort of kept impinging on in different ways. I grew up in a fairly musical house and household, although I think I was one of the less musical members of it. But music has always been personally important for me. But then it became professionally important. Back in the 60's when I encountered the patients whom I later wrote about in Awakenings, these deeply Parkinsonian people who by themselves were unable often to take a step, to utter a syllable, to make any movement, but who would be released by music, who then could dance, could talk, could sing. And music was quite crucial for them, is quite crucial for people with Parkinson's.

And then I saw the power of music for people with dementia, for people who lost memories of their lives, and who were confused and disoriented, but who could always recognize familiar music, music that they'd heard. And would suddenly become active and sing along, and the music would act as a vehicle, could carry along memories and emotions, which otherwise they had no access to. So the therapeutic power of music excited me, and still excites me.

And then on the other hand I would encounter people who came to me as a neurologist because they had musical problems, say, of one sort or another. Perhaps they had a head injury and found that they stopped responding emotionally to music. Or they couldn't recognize it. So there were 40 years of varied experience on the one hand, and on the other, there's been a huge burgeoning of neuroscience, of music on the other. With our ability to visualize the brain and different parts of the brain as people are listing to music, or imagining music, or composing music. Interestingly. All the neuroscientists of music, are themselves, practicing musicians. Which is an extraordinary situation, so really they can experience from within, what they investigate from without.

FC: You talked about that professional connection with music, but that personal connection, too, because you said you love listening to music and instrumental music in particular.

OS: And I love playing it, poor as I am, and in fact just in the last few months, I have restarted piano lessons after an interval of 62 years. My former piano teacher actually died when I was 12, but I have a new piano teacher, and I'm in love with the piano again. And clumsy though I am, to work on a Bach Prelude of Fugue teaches you so much I think you can't hear by listening. I think it's an entirely different experience, performing, however badly.

FC: Does the experience of playing music change the way you listen to music?

OS: Very much so. I think one listens much more attentively. And also partly, wondering if one could do it oneself, at least if it's the right instrument.

FC: Any particular music you're aspiring to play on the piano?

OS: Well for some reason, for some months I've been in an exclusively Bach mood. And my teacher has tried to get me to the other b's, to Beethoven, and Brahms and Bartok, but as if attached by an elastic band, I have to come back to Bach.

No, the 48 preludes and fugues is more than enough ambition for me or anyone. I can play half a dozen of them now, but I want to know them all. There's lovely story. When Casals was — I'm sorry when Casals, who was a good pianist, as well as a wonderful cellist, was asked in an interview — he was over 90 — he mentioned to his interviewer he started every morning by playing a Bach prelude or fugue. And that he'd done so for 85 years. And the interviewer said, but don't you get bored with them? And he said, no, every time it was a fresh experience, he'd discover something new in it. And there is this about music, and maybe especially about the Bach preludes and fugues. So at the moment I don't aspire anything higher, and I will consider myself very lucky if I can handle some of the more difficult ones.

FC: I think we're on to a topic for another show or two here, and the next time I get together with you, I'd love to have a piano in front of us, so we could take turns pecking a few things out on the piano and talk about it in that context too.

Author and neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks thank you so much for speaking with me.

OS: I've enjoyed it very much.