NABOKV-L post 0000406, Tue, 13 Dec 1994 11:18:16 -0800

VN & Synaesthesia - The Horizon Documentary (fwd)

EDITOR'S NOTE: NABOKV-L would like to thank Jerry Goodenough for this
excellent account of the recent BBC science program on synaesthesia.
Nabokov and his son Dmitri were featured as "synaesthetes." DBJ

Orange Sherbet Kisses - A 'Horizon' Documentary on Synaesthesia
=============================================================== A
fascinating TV documentary on this little studied neurological phenomenon
was broadcast by the BBC last night (12 Dec 94). The programme interviewed
a number of British and American synaesthetes and, as they explained the
sensory experiences they had, sometimes attempted to reproduce the
phenomenon on screen.The most common form of synaesthesia produces
brilliant coloured visual experiences in response to auditory input but
there are other forms. The programme interviewed an American chef who
experiences visual and tactile sensations in response to various tastes.
There was also an American woman who discovered that certain tactile
experiences like kissing could produce strange visual and gustatory
experiences - hence the programme's title!

While neurologists agree that synaesthesia is brought about by the
existence in the brain of neuronal links between the different sensory
cortexes, links that do not exist in most human beings, there remains some
disagreement concerning how and why this comes about. The programme
interviewed an American scientist, Richard Cytowic, who believes that the
various parts of the cortex involved in processing sensory input are
somehow linked in synaesthetes via the limbic system, a sub-cortical
structure known sometimes as the emotional brain. Some support for this
position came from film of an American woman who seems to undergo an
almost ecstatic experience while listening to music and watching the
brilliant multi-coloured patterns that the music generates before her

A British team led by Simon Baron-Cohen in London believe that the links
betweenthe various sensory cortexes in synaesthetes are more direct and do
not normallyinvolve the limbic system. Proof of the essentially
neurological character of synaesthesia was provided by the London team who
subjected a volunteer to an NMR brain-scan. Although she was blindfolded,
when music was played to her via headphones the scan clearly showed not
only increased activity in the auditory cortex of the hemisphere involved
but also even greater activity in the visual cortex.

Both teams theorise that the infant brain is over-provided with neuronal links
at birth, including synaesthetic links. In the period of great cerebral growth
and change that occurs in the years immediately after birth the synaesthetic
links tend to disappear as more orthodox neuronal links are established. But in
a minority of people some of these links remain into adulthood and it is
believed that there is a genetic factor involved in passing on this trait. Some
evidence for near-universal infant synaesthesia was provided by film of an
experiment where babies seem to be able to associate visual stimuli with a
previous matching tactile stimulus much more readily than ought to be the case.

Synaesthesia and the Arts
In addition to exploring the neurology and phenomenology of synaesthesia, the
programme also wove into the discussion an exploration of synaesthesia in the
arts. It was hypothesised that Kandinsky was a synaesthete, and two American
synaesthetes visited the MOMA where they believed that they could identify in
some of Kandinsky's more abstract paintings some of the visual structures which
auditory stimulation produces in them. There was also a brief snippet of
interview (in French) with Olivier Messaien who recognised his synaesthesia at
an early age. The chromatic nature of much of his music was mentioned, and we
heard a brief extract from *Colours of the Celestial City*, the score of which
contains at points Messaien's notations of the colours that those particular
musical sounds produced in him written over the stave. Some of Messaien's music
was played by a British synaesthete - interestingly, she agreed with Messaien
about the chromatic nature of his work but disagreed with all of the colours
that he experienced, her colours for that piece being entirely different.

Mention was also made of synaesthesia in literature, with examples quoted from
Baudelaire and Rimbaud, but the case explored in most detail here was that of
Nabokov. Dmitri Nabokov was interviewed concerning his family's synaesthesia,
sometimes while black-and-white film of VN pursuing butterflies somewhat
lethargically in a mountain setting was being shown. There was also a brief
snippet of a (black-and-white) interview with VN himself concerning his
examination of Dmitri. These Nabokov sections are transcribed in full below.

Vladimir Nabokov and Synaesthesia =================================
Synaesthesia has more recent links with literature. Vladimir Nabokov,
author of *Lolita* and a passionate lepidopterist, discovered at the age
of 7 that many ofthe letters of the alphabet had their own distinctive
colours. This coloured hearing has been passed on to his son, Dmitri:

DN: My father referred explicitly to his synaesthesia in *Speak, Memory*,
which was the definitive title of his autobiography. Let me see if I can
find the passage and quote it for you. "The long A of the English alphabet
has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French A evokes polished
ebony.... Dull green combined somehow with violet is the best I can do for
W..... B has the tone called burnt sienna by painters.... M is a fold of
pink flannel and today I have at last perfectly matched V with
"Rose-Quartz" in Maerz & Paul's _Dictionary of Colour_." Linguists of the
40s and later questioned the authenticity of my father's synaesthesia,
attributing it more to imagery and metaphor. He replied adamantly that he
regarded his own phenomenon of coloured vision and hearing with the same
rigour with which as an entomologist he studied lepidoptera.

Dmitri Nabokov on his own synaesthesia
Vladimir Nabokov analysed his son's coloured hearing when he was a small child:

DN: In 1945 he put me through a test of synaesthesia, of coloured vision or
coloured hearing of letters and in fact I found this in a diary of his. [Film
of a page from a diary of 1942 listing the letters of the English alphabet with
colours listed against some of them in VN's hand] I find to my amazement that
my A is still about the same shade - it was a dark purplish red and now it is
redder than that but only slightly. My B is still a dark brownish black, the C
is still light yellow, the F is still brownish but more tending towards beige,
and so forth. That can somtimes impart a colour to a whole word and of course
to acronyms. KGB has the nasty greenish tint of Paduk the frog in father's
*Bend Sinister*. UK has the nice combination of cream and British racing-green,
which was the colour of one of my first sports cars.

The hereditary nature of synaesthesia
The fact that synaesthesia runs in families and can be passed on from parents
to their children suggests that it must be a biological difference in the way
their brains are organised.

DN: It is hard to say whether my synaesthesia is directly hereditary. Father
found one fascinating instance where there was a genetic merging of his
colours and mother's colours into a kind of harmony that manifested itself in

VN: We asked him to list his colours and we discovered in one case, one letter
which he sees as purple or perhaps mauve is pink to me and blue to my wife -
the letter M. The combination of pink and blue makes lilac in his case. It is
as though his genes were painting in aquarelle.

Synaesthesia and creativity
Those synaesthetes who use their sixth sense creatively enjoy their sensory

DN: My father was both a creative artist, a very serious writer, and at the
same time a very serious scientist with regard to his lepidopterology. On the
one side he would have welcomed an investigation of a fascinating phenomenon;
on the other, he might have been a bit sorry to see the poetry of it go, just
as he would have been sorry to see the basically finite game of chess that
impassioned him finally solved by computer.


"OSK" is an enthralling and thought-provoking documentary. I have included all
the Nabokov references but left out much more from my review. If the programme
is broadcast on TV in your area then I recommend it highly - it crams a great
deal of interest into its 50 minutes. A full transcript is available from the
BBC for UK viewers. I have written to them to ask if they can also supply these
to overseas enquirers and if they have any present information about possible
US transmission. I will pass on their reply to the list.

Jerry Goodenough (
University of East Anglia

(P.S. Not the smallest delight of the programme was the fact that it gave a
long-time amateur VN enthusiast like myself the first chance to hear VN's
voice. Such a beautiful English accent - and after 20 years in America too!)