connected telegraph
Why Miles Davis saw the blues
(Filed: 27/10/2004)

Auras exist, but inside our brains because of a mix-up between the different senses, says Roger Highfield

The ability to see an aura shimmering around a person is one of the more common, and colourful, "psychic powers" that some people claim to possess. Now scientists have become convinced that these auras are real at least in the mind of the beholder and are very revealing.

Kind of blue: jazz legend Miles Davis, the poets Baudelaire and Rimbaud and the composer Lizst were all synaesthetes

They have nothing to do with "energy fields", hotlines to the spirit world or glimpses of other dimensions, but they do reveal something profound about the design of the brain. Intriguingly, there is evidence that this apparently magical ability may be much more common than thought, and may provide insights into how our ancestors first evolved language.

Language and mysterious auras may be linked by a bizarre mixing of the senses called synaesthesia. Some people with this condition can experience colours in response to people they know or in reaction to "love", "hate" and other words that evoke emotions. This is known as emotion-colour synaesthesia.

Now a new study, reported in the journal Cognitive Neuropsychology by Dr Jamie Ward's team from University College London, shows how this rare form of synaesthesia can also make some people see colourful halos and auras around their loved ones. "A popular notion is that some people have a magical ability to detect the hidden emotions of others by seeing a colourful `aura' or energy field that they give off," says Dr Ward. "The ability of some people to see the coloured auras of others has held an important place in folklore and mysticism throughout the ages."

Although many people claiming to have such powers could well be charlatans, "our study suggests a different interpretation. These colours do not reflect hidden energies being given off by other people, rather they are created entirely in the brain of the beholder."

In his study, Dr Ward described the case of GW, a young woman who could see colours such as purple and blue in response to people she knew or to the sound of their names. Words triggered a colour which spread across her field of vision, while people themselves appeared to have coloured "auras" projected around them. For example, "James" triggered pink, "Thomas" black and "Hannah" blue. In this way, the colour of a person's aura revealed the way GW felt about that person. Similarly, when GW felt she was in a happy party, the venue took on a red tint.

When GW took a test in which she rated 100 words on a scale of one to seven for their emotional impact, the UCL team found that highly emotive words such as fear or hate also triggered colours. Words associated with positive and happy emotions tended to elicit pink, orange, yellow and green. But words associated with negative and gloomy emotions triggered brown, grey and black.

"GW does not believe she has mystical powers and has no interest in the occult, but it is not hard to imagine how, in a different age or culture, such an interpretation could arise," says Dr Ward. "Rather than assuming that people give off auras or energy fields that can only be detected by rigged cameras or trained seers, we need only assume that the phenomenon of synaesthesia is taking place."

Saints have often been depicted with an aura and this may tell us something about the artists who painted them. Many creative people have been thought to have the two-for-one sensory experience of synaesthesia. Vladimir Nabokov, the author, wrote: "I have this rather freakish gift of seeing letters in colours." Other synaesthetes include the jazz legend Miles Davis, the poets Baudelaire and Rimbaud and the composer Lizst.

Previous estimates suggested as few as one in every 25,000 people and more women than men have synaesthesia. Recently, in BBC2's Horizon programme, Dr Ward described how he has launched an effort to find out how common the condition really is, after finding, when conducting straw polls among his students, that as many as one in 100 claim to have it.

In one study, he has been asking passers-by to take part in an experiment in which they are without realising it tested for synaesthesia. The test is designed to show that synaesthetes would consistently link the same colours to the same letters and numbers while normal people would use guesswork. The study is still under way, but if its preliminary findings are backed it suggests that there could be as many as half a million people in Britain who see coloured letters and numbers, many probably not realising that this is unusual.

"If you start asking your friends and relatives, it's not beyond the realms of possibility you'll soon find a synaesthete and they may not know it," says Dr Ward.

A follow-up study is even more startling: we may all be affected to some extent. The insight came when Dr Ward studied synaesthete Dorothy Latham, 70; when she hears notes go from low to high, the colours she sees go from purple to black and mid-brown to yellow and white. "What this suggests is that there is some organising principle which dictates how individual notes get associated with particular colours," said Dr Ward.

He was surprised when he repeated the experiment with a control group of non-synaesthetes, revealing a similar association of darker colours and low pitched notes to lighter colours/high pitched notes.

"Beneath the surface we all have mechanisms that link together sound and vision and the mechanisms seem to be pretty much the same in both synaesthetes and other members of the population," says Dr Ward. "So we're all in a way synaesthetes, even if we don't realise it."

Clues to the "purpose" of muddled senses came from another synaesthete, Heather Birt, 28, a music teacher who sees coloured numbers arranged in three- dimensional space around her. The mechanism that links numbers to colours also seems to stimulate the part of her brain that produces a sense of space. When he investigated, Dr Ward found this ability to work with numbers by arranging them in space was common.

"In fact we all seem to do this, even though most of us are completely unaware of it," he says. "We tend to think about numbers being arranged from left to right in space, but only synaesthetes have the ability to sense it."

Perhaps synaesthesia enables us to deal with abstract concepts and other sequences in a concrete way. Some scientists go further. Because he has found that full-blown synaesthesia is eight times more common among artists, poets and novelists than in the general population, Prof Vilayanur Ramachandran of the University of California, San Diego, believes it is linked with creativity. "The basis of creativity is seeing unexpected links, sometimes even making seemingly random links and picking the ones which make sense or which are beautiful. This is the basis of all creativity, whether in poetry, visual art or literature."

And he believes that our common ability to link sounds and objects may have been the springboard to language. The connection between our senses of hearing and vision was an important step towards the creation of words, perhaps when our earliest ancestors used sounds that evoked the object they wished to describe.

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