Contributing to the growing buzz around synesthesia, the third episode of HBO’s new series True Detective revealed that Matthew Mcconaughey’s character is a synesthete. Bloomberg Businessweek joined the ranks last month as well publishing an article titled The Mind’s Eye: Synesthesia Has Business Benefits by Caroline Winter, discussing how synesthesia can be an asset in the workplace as a tool for cross-sensory design and creativity. As someone with synesthesia I applaud the positive public reception of it as legitimate and not only “non-harmful” but potentially beneficial for those who experience it as fellow synesthete Maureen Seaberg does. Unfortunately, however, the article overgeneralizes findings in research in relation to creativity and the universality of synesthetic experiences.

Due to the higher prevalence of synesthesia amongst people working in the arts (Vladimir Nabokov, David Hockney and Pharrell Williams, to name a few), the question as to whether synaesthesia may predispose individuals to be creative has been raised by synesthetes and researchers alike. Winter highlights “enhancing creativity and innovation” as a “professionally beneficial side effect” of some types of synesthesia, citing a 2004 study from the University of California at San Diego in which synesthetes scored twice as high as controls on Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking.

However, a 2008 study conducted by Jamie Ward et al. at the University of Sussex that explicitly examined links between synesthesia, art and creativity concluded that while synesthetes outperformed controls on some measures of creativity these findings do not translate into the cognitive flexibility necessary for creativity per se. “The cardinal feature of creativity is to think beyond the boundaries of existing associative knowledge” and “there is no convincing evidence that synaesthetes are more capable of doing this than other individuals.”

Ward et al. suggest that the atypical experience of synaesthesia may bias synesthetes  “towards the creative arts” and that this “artistic bias” is confused with creativity. They note that past investigations of factors associated with artistic creativity show a positive correlation with “unusual experience” and “openness to new experience.” Similar to schizotypy, synesthetes’ unusual experiences may encourage artistic inclinations, serving as inspiration for creativity. As Christopher Lovelace summarizes in the new Oxford Handbook of Synesthesia “while synesthetes might be more creative than non-synesthetes, the reason for this difference – whether related to synesthesia or something else – has yet to be determined.”

Synesthetes did report spending more time engaging in creative activities than controls (i.e. producing art, playing music and looking at visual art) in the 2008 study, and their creative activities tended to be related to the type/s of synesthesia they had. For example, the likelihood that a synesthete played an instrument could almost entirely be predicted by whether the individual had auditory synaesthetic experiences. This suggests a link between the type of creative production an individual engages in and the nature of their synaesthetic experiences. It is possible that this is also true for workplace related tasks – as in the case of Michael Haverkamp’s cross-sensory design approach that incorporates haptic (touch), auditory and visual components that are sensory domains engaged in his synesthetic experiences or sisters Dawn and Samantha Goldworm, founders of the olfactive branding company 12.29, who have smell-color synesthesia.

It is also worth noting that these types of activities involve complex skills that are acquired through practice. For synesthetes their synesthetic experiences contribute to this process, hence Pharrell Williams’s statement that synesthesia is his “only reference for understanding” cited by Winter. Cytowic and Eagleman give a good summary of how synesthesia fits into the process of binding sensory experience to semantic meaning that is a normal part of development; “As color becomes a synonym for, say, a piano key, a grapheme [letters or numbers], or a taste, cross-sensory translations inwardly couple the features of each as a feeling of sameness.” These “feelings of sameness” would then be incorporated into thought and decision-making processes. While we tend to think of thought and decision-making as different from intuition, researcher Mary Helen Immordino-Yang argues that we cannot have rational thought without skilled intuitions that act as a “rudder” to guide it. These skilled intuitions are developed through “the incorporation of the nonconscious emotional signals into knowledge acquisition.” which for synesthetes would include synesthetic experiences. So synesthesia is not necessarily a reason for good design, but adds another inseparable dimension to the design process for skilled designers who have it.

Winter quotes Dawn Goldworm who asserts that, “Synesthesia is not a subjective, personal interpretation.” This speaks to a larger confusion over what in synesthesia is universal and what is not. When sound-color pairings created by synesthetes resonate with the public (another study conducted by Ward that is referenced by Winter) it is because most likely they are tapping into cross-modal correspondences that are common to synesthetes and non-synesthetes alike (higher sounds-lighter colors vs. lower sounds-darker colors). Ward et al. suggest that this is because sound-color synesthesia may make use of some of the same pathways in the brain that are used for normal cross-modal perception. What is shared are the ways of mapping, not necessarily the map. For grapheme-color synesthetes that means what is shared is that there is form to color mapping, not the colors themselves.

In my own experience of grapheme-color synesthesia, there are very clear patterns of color-form mappings based on whether letters and numbers are angular, curvilinear, elongated, etc. Angular shapes tend to be reds, oranges, yellows and warm browns, whereas curvilinear shapes are blues, greens, purples and cooler browns. While these patterns are strong for some grapheme-color synesthetes they are not for others. There is such a great deal of variation within synesthesia and competing influences that determine synesthetic colors that it is unlikely that all synesthetic experiences could be generalized for the public in a way that would be meaningful. Synesthetes are not privy to some sort of “universals” that are invisible to other people, but rather have highly individualized mappings through which the world is understood, potentially informing decision-making processes in a way that is beneficial to creative pursuits.

Over many years working in the arts I have learned to see a great deal of minute variation in color, lighting, and form, as many non-synesthetes do. Whether my synesthesia predisposed me to seeing more detail or learning those skills is unclear. I don’t expect the fact that I see “J” as lime-green to mean anything to anyone except me. It does however help me to quickly recognize a “J” when I see one, which is particularly helpful in visual search tasks like scanning text for a specific word. I have used that skill in workplace settings before, but not for anything that involved much creativity.

Originally published on 3 Quarks Daily.

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