Synesthesia is an event by which the prompting of one sense group gives stimulation to a sensation in another group. The term synesthesia according to Campen and Froger (2008), comes from the Greek terms syn that means together and aesthesis which means to perceive.1 At present, the most popular and widely known form of synesthesia is the hearing of vowels or music in color. Campen and Froger (2008) also add that the different types of synesthesia such as the sense of smell is stimulated by one or more senses such as hearing and sight.2 Color Synesthesia for one is described as one type of this phenomenon and is referred to as the person’s sensation of color that is formed out of the prompting of an unseen sense. In addition, such a phenomenon is expected to come from the neurological nature of an event rather than from the event of a mental construction.3 Typically, people experiencing the same type of phenomenon such as the color-word synesthesia are said to have varying experiences. Despite the presentation of the same type of words or letters, it was revealed that such an experience will elicit different colors for each person.
This type of phenomenon has already existed even in the ancient years. Even Pythagoras and Aristotle were able to study such a phenomenon. It was through them that the messages of the shades of gray and musical intervals were studied. Artists have also explored such an event of music color synesthesia since the 17th century. As a matter of fact, scientific study of the phenomenon began with a medical case study and thus consequently followed by experimentation with different groups of people during the 19th century.
Crétien V. Campen and Clara Froger, "Personal Profiles of Color Synesthesia: Developing a Testing Method for Artists and Scientists," Leonardo 36, no. 4 (2003): 291, doi:10.1162/002409403322258709.
Crétien V. Campen and Clara Froger, “Personal Profiles”
Because of the uniqueness of the condition, synesthetic experiences are sometimes interchanged with hallucinations. Although it may seem so, synesthetic experiences are not to be mistaken as hallucinations. Those who are affected by the condition do not see their synesthetic feelings as perceptions that lie outside their worlds. It is instead, an internal experience of the person that is affected by the synesthetic phenomenon. Despite the fact that it has been described by scholars such as Aristotle and Pythagoras, the study was ceased because of the lack of evidence to prove such a phenomenon.4 As a matter of fact, it was mentioned in the writing Nature; however, it still ceased to be studied because of lack of evidence. But, because of the advancement of technology and because of the modern equipment used by medical professionals, synesthesia can now be strongly tested by means of different tests. These diagnostic tests are founded on the principles that people with the condition are reliable in their word and letter color matches over the course of years. Even computers or any artificial device cannot imitate such a condition that makes it easier for professionals to identify the phenomenon. Currently, synesthetic brains and its automaticity are proved through the use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs). Such synesthetic brains demonstrate a kind of separation between the traditionally separated brain divisions. It is just a mere kindling of the activity of one are of the brain with another.5Another interesting fact about such a condition is that it only clusters within families and that there is a suggested pattern of inheriting the condition. There is, according to Eagleman (2010), a pressing probability of having a unitary dominant gene. 6 So what are the typical signs of having synesthesia?
David M. Eagleman, "Synaesthesia," British Medical Journal 340, no. 7740 (June 2010): 221,
Eagleman, "Synaesthesia," 221.
It has been said that synesthesia can be linked to a heightened creativity. Ward et al. (2008), have revealed that people who have synesthesia may perform better in some aspects of art and in some measures of creativity than those who don’t.7 As it is defined, creativity is also likely to be linked to the term synesthesia. As defined by Ward et al. (2008) Creativity is the ability to create new connections that are adaptive.8 As with synesthesia that links one stimulated sensory aspect of the individual prompts another sense to be active. Therefore what other evidence are there that links synesthesia to creativity? As stated by Ward et. al., one of the evidence that link creativity to synesthesia is shown from many famous creative individuals. Some of the examples are painters, composers, and authors.9 It was also stated that synesthesia is more common among the creative people such as musicians, poets, and artists. However, evidence that prove otherwise are still varying. In Ward et al.’s (2008) study, it has been revealed that from an assessed group of 358 fine arts students, there is a 23% reported dominance of synesthesia.
Such a claim is evidenced by the advocates of synesthesia. The people who admire this phenomenon believe in the subjective or the personal linking of all the sensory perceptions. Such a typical acceptance of synesthesia is the outcome of two philosophical perspectives. As explained by the romantic writers and artists, the linking and stimulating of different senses was seen as a mysterious relationship with a higher degree of reality or entity. 10
7. Jamie Ward et al., "Synaesthesia, Creativity and Art: What is the Link?," British Journal of Psychology
99 (2008): 127, doi:10.1348/000712607X204164.
8. Ward, "Synaesthesia,Creativity and Art"127.
9. Ibid., 128
10. Judith Zilczer, ""Color Music" Synaesthesia and Nineteenth-Century Sources for Abstract Art," Artibus
et Historiae 8, no. 16 (1987): 101, doi:10.2307/1483303.
Since many people back then clearly advocate the synesthetic phenomenon, many art historians believed of the existing connections between music, art and synesthesia.11 In fact as the term was quite popular, it was used to pertain to the literal, as well as the complex relationship between the existing arts. During that time, the synesthetic phenomenon is treated as something different. Some people affected by synesthesia are recorded to have seen a specific color upon hearing certain musical sounds or notes.12 On the other hand, other artists relate certain odors with colors or sounds. For a synesthetic person, such an event is consistent with his ideas. 13 Contemporary art is quite adept in the phenomenon. Many visual artists for one find music in color and vice versa. They use their specific synesthetic capabilities in order to create a masterpiece. Because of its cessation for 126 years, evidence of the synesthetic abilities of a person was not observed until later times. This fact has therefore led many scholars to record observations of artists who belong to the contemporary art era.
Because of such a notion, famous people back then were believed to be at a higher connection with reality when compared with the other artists. One of the famous artists and painters who was identified as synesthetic is Edvard Munch. To begin with, the art of Edvard Munch stems from identifying the vital role of the kind of drama of his imagery. He was very much engrossed in the drama of art and identified himself as a sensitive painter even at the early years of his career. 14
11. Greta Berman, "Synesthesia and the Arts," Leonardo 32, no. 1 (1999): 15,
12. Berman, “Synesthesia and the Arts,” 15.
13. Ibid., 15
14. Carla Lathe, "Edvard Munch's Dramatic Images 1892-1909," Journal of the Warburg and
Courtauld Institutes 46 (1983): xx, doi:10.2307/751120.
Such a drama in his artwork was demonstrated through rendering of people’s gestures and faces.15 His artworks were manifestations of the unconventional physiognomy. For Munch, he has made an effort to move as far away from the typical reproduction of people’s physical attributes. His distance from the conventional has also led him to produce artworks that are sometimes exaggerating to emphasize the most important features of the portrait. During the early 1890s, Munch frequently made the comment, “I paint not what I see. Rather I paint what I saw.” From this commentary, Lathe (1983) draws the conclusion that drama was an important feature and motivation on Munch’s representation of his memories.16 The people he saw in performance were a permanent motivation to Munch’s works of art. As a matter of fact, it was revealed the decision to create a series of pictures pertaining to living people who feel, suffer, breathe and love dawned on him while listening to the Rumanians. These Rumanians were singing in a dance hall in St. Cloud.
His interest in performing arts provides an explanation as to why there is a discrepancy between the positive descriptions of his friends for him and the most negative interpretations that appear in his works of art. These negativities are revealed to the people who did not know him. His personal life is also evident in such a drama in the arts. Munch was noticeably connected to the best artists during that time. Most of his friends included the circle of good musicians, actors, and dramatists. In addition, much of his developed images, an important accountability goes much to his choice of writers, musicians, and actors. In one of his statements, Munch says that for the writers, musicians and actors that he admired, he wished to imitate the exposed hidden subconscious ideas of their minds that was manifested in their works.17
15. Lathe, “Munch’s Dramatic Images,” 191.
16. Ibid., 191
17. Ibid, 192
Many of the friendly modern critics that he had in his lifetime, Munch for himself as well, has compared his art to music.18 Sometimes, Munch’s paintings resemble more of music than visual art. During the late 19th century, there was a combined understanding of music and the emotions and coloristic aspects of music. There was also an analysis of the harmony that was embedded in color. Munch himself was conscious of using color as analogous to the aspects of music. Because of such a phenomenon that was demonstrated in his works of art, Munch’s view embraced the concept of synesthesia as a phenomenon that was quite evident in his art. He also accepted the view of the symphony in art where there is a combination of movement, drama and poetry.19 As such, because of the multiple senses that are involved in creating his work, there came one of his most popular paintings that are The Scream. According to Paulson, Munch’s way of attack to the involvement of synesthesia, or the unity of senses has produced the visual portrayal of emotion and sound.20 Because of such a fact, The Scream today is one of the major works of art for the Symbolist movement. It is as well an inspiration for the many artists who were involved in the Expressionist movement of the early twentieth century. Dr. Heyrman (2005), discussed in one of his lectures that The Scream is a portrayal of what it was like to hear a silent internal scream. Munch’s portrayal of such a synesthetic involvement was brought to life through this painting. 21
18. David Loshak, "Space, Time and Edvard Munch," The Burlington Magazine, April 1989.
19. Norma Steinberg, "Munch in Color," Harvard University Art Museums Bulletin 3, no. 3 (Spring 1995).
20. Noelle Paulson, "Munch, The Scream | Art History: Symbolism |Khan Academy," Khan Academy, last modified 2015, https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/becoming-modern/symbolism/a/munch-the scream.
21. Hugo Heyrman, "Art and Synesthesia: in search of the synesthetic experience" (lecture, First International Conference on Art and Synesthesia, Universidad de Almería, Spain, July 28, 2005).
According again to Dr. Heyman, Munch wrote that The Scream was a brainchild of the time when he started to experience a synesthetic involvement with color. That time, he said, while the sun was setting, the sky turned blood red and for that he paused because he was exhausted. While also leaning on the fence, Munch saw tongues of fire and blood that was set above the blue-black fjord. While his friends moved on, Munch experienced trembling feelings of anxiety.22 Because of such experiences that he is involved with in colors and music, Munch’s works of art are mainly quintessential with the universal themes of death, love, and fear. He internalizes his color to a higher degree than most artists. His work with The Scream is considered as the exemplary model of the existential despair and disappointment of the contemporary man.23 As such, Munch was evidently affected by the experiences of the synesthetic phenomenon.
22. Heyrman, “Art and Synesthesia.”.
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Eagleman, David M. "Synaesthesia." British Medical Journal 340, no. 7740 (June 2010): 221-222. doi:10.1136/bmj.b4616.
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Edvard Munch Portrait
Edvard Munch’s The Scream