The Fascinating Phenomenon of Synesthesia and Art

 Wassily Kandinsky, Sketch for Several Circles, 1926. Image courtesy of New Orleans Museum of Art.

Synesthesia—a neurological condition that occurs when certain sounds cause a person to see specific shapes or colors, or when a name triggers a mental image instantaneously—is the closest experience humans have to mind-bending superpowers. Originating from Greek terminology, synesthesia means “to perceive together,” which accurately describes how people with this condition experience their sensations working together to create images or shapes in the mind's eye.

WedMD lists the most common forms of synesthesia as seeing or hearing a word or sound and tasting food, seeing a shape and tasting food, hearing sounds and seeing shapes or patterns, hearing sounds after you smell a certain scent, feeling an object with your hands and hearing a sound, and finally, feeling a touch when seeing someone else being touched (this is called mirror-touch). According to one academic study by Ryan Murray, the first documented case of the fascinating neurological condition was conducted by George Tobias Ludwig Sachs in 1812. Over the course of the last two centuries, synesthesia has become a more widely known concept. Some research suggests that one in every 2,000 people are synesthetes.

Because synesthesia bridges the gap between music, visual art, sounds, shapes, textures, and colors, it is only natural that many of the world’s most creative people are synesthetes. According to one article titled “5 Synesthesia Artists Who Paint Their Multi-Sensory Experiences," “For Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, music and color were inextricably linked. The abstract painter, cellist, and synesthete created an iconic collection of abstract paintings that expressed how he associated each musical note with an exact hue. He once said, ‘The sound of colors is so definite that it would be hard to find anyone who would express bright yellow with bass notes or dark lake with treble.’” If you’ve ever seen a Kandinsky, the synesthesia practically jumps off the canvas—almost as if Kandinsky wanted the viewer to hear what he listened to while abstractly painting the circles in his famous work, Sketch for Several Circles (1926). Vincent Van Gogh is also said to be a synesthete, and I believe it. The rhythmic quality of his brushstrokes and intensified color palette suggest a deeper connection between sound and art. Whether these artists knew the term for their unusual sensory experiences or not, it is clear synesthesia played a role in their creative process.

John Lennon, Imagine. Melissa McCracken. Image courtesy of My Modern Met.
John Lennon, Imagine. Melissa McCracken. Image courtesy of My Modern Met.

Contemporary artists are exploring their synesthesia, too. Synesthete artist Melissa McCracken sees color and paints music. For McCracken, sounds become beautiful bright colors she turns into oil-on-canvas-creations. One recent painting titled John Lennon Imagine (pictured here) interprets the song through the artist’s synesthesia and depicts a beautiful abstract landscape.

Many famous musicians have synesthesia too. 7-time Grammy award-winning artist Billie Eilish has tone-color synesthesia, meaning for Eilish, each day of the week has a color, number, and shape while certain smells have a specific texture or temperature. It is hard to deny that this connection of smells, shapes, textures, and sounds supports creative endeavors.

For those of us who do not have the luxury of incredible sensory capabilities, it is exciting to hear music or see art that comes from people with these fascinating traits. To try and tap into seeing sounds and hearing shapes, you can try listening to music that evokes certain emotions and paint what you hear or feel. It is an interesting exercise that encourages a direct relationship between our emotions and inner artist with music, sounds, shapes, and colors.

Billie Eilish, Image courtesy of artist’s Twitter.
Billie Eilish, Image courtesy of artist’s Twitter.

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