Synesthesia and Creativity


A couple of years ago, I read an extraordinary book: Born on a Blue Day, by Daniel Tammet (link below). Daniel is a rare autistic savant who is capable of writing – and beautifully – about his experience. In a nutshell, he’s a math wizard, able to calculate the value of pi up to 22,000 digits. How he does this is interesting – he sees numbers as colors and shapes, which are also associated with feelings (certain numbers are happy, or sad, and other even more specific feeling sensations). In short, he can “see” pi numbers as a rich landscape of shapes, colors and even feelings that spread out before him as a vista. I suspect this tells us a lot about learning, and how the non-savants among us can enhance our learning experiences.

Many children, autistic savants, and some “normal” creative people experience some degree of synesthesia, or the overlap of one sense (and even feeling states) with another. Specific sounds might be linked with specific colors (or feelings); certain words might elicit a specific taste; or, as in Daniel’s case, numbers might appear as fixed shapes in a landscape. Synesthesia is involuntary. Many people who experience it only realize they have a unique ability when it occurs to them that others do not; for example, they hear the word “basketball” and taste waffles. Mention this and a blank stare follows.

Synesthesia may be linked to higher functioning mirror neurons, or to the overlap of brain functionality – the brain, as we now know, is highly plastic. A stroke victim can learn to speak again, using an undamaged part of the brain that previously served a seemingly unrelated function. Synesthetes, as they are called, may be highly creative, empathetic, or have other extraordinary abilities. But they may also feel overwhelmed.

This got me thinking that “normal” people who do things very well may use more than the usual brain function, and process, to gain skills. For instance, in drawing: if you imagine that you are actually touching the edges of something you are trying to draw (what is called a contour line drawing), the mental “noise” of what a thing is “supposed” to look like, is diminished. More accurate drawing follows (see Betty Edwards’ “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”). Similarly, perfect pitch or strong math skills may support musical ability.

I am not sure about this, but my hunch is that the more concrete these complimentary skills make the experience, the easier the task will seem. Isn’t it easier to “see” a landscape than to memorize the complex series of numbers that make up pi? Later, I’ll write a separate post on my efforts to become a musician, despite fairly clear evidence of talent or ability (see Music for Visuals post).

This leads to my final point. Synesthetes usually experience pleasure during synesthesia. Wouldn’t you like to “hear” colors, “taste” words, “touch” numbers? Don’t you think you’d be a better poet, artist, mathematician, if so? I think the key to learning is pleasure. The most important element, and one that our education methods and systems typically leave out. We teach everything as if it is certain to be drudgery – memorize lists, ugly text and bad illustration, drab content. We've often managed to remove sensory pleasure from the learning experience. People who learn well have discovered something extraordinary – it’s not boring at all to learn - it is pleasurable, and it’s fascinating.

When I was teaching art, I often ran across students whose raw, natural ability to draw was apparent – often better than mine – who didn’t derive much pleasure or excitement in exercising that function. Others I knew, who really struggled with drawing, clearly loved it, and would devote a lot of time to it. They would persist. Of the two, who do you think eventually developed a career path in the arts?

I think if we can better connect multiple senses to the effort to learn a new skill (especially a creative one), and engage our emotions, our sense of pleasure, learning will seem as natural as it is meant to be.

Born on a Blue Day