Synaesthesia What does synaesthesia feel like? [video]Synaesthesia is a peculiar neurological condition in which the senses are interlinked in unusual and mind bending ways, the genuineness of the condition has been verified by concrete clinical studies. Letters, sound and taste can have colours, days of the week can have personalities, textures can have smells, the list goes on (see below). It’s a phenomenon that’s easy to describe in simple terms but difficult to fully appreciate. It was only recently discovered that the prevalence of synaesthesia may by 88 times higher than previously assumed. Brain imaging experiments have helped shed light on the cause, with the prevailing explanation of synaesthesia being that we are all born with the neural connections interlinking the different sensory areas of our brain, however in normal development most of these connections are pruned whereas synaesthetes maintain the connections. The animation below, made by a student is the best visual depiction of the phenomenon I’ve seen to date.

The different factors that synaesthesia may affect are:

  • Letters
  • Numbers
  • Days of the week
  • Months of the year
  • Food stuffs
  • Personalities
  • Sounds, tones and music
  • Smells
  • Personal associations – e.g. mother-smell
  • Taste
  • Shape


Simner J, Mulvenna C, Sagiv N, Tsakanikos E, Witherby SA, Fraser C, Scott K, & Ward J (2006). Synaesthesia: the prevalence of atypical cross-modal experiences. Perception, 35 (8), 1024-33 PMID: 17076063 (PDF)

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NB: I’m unable to verify the mathematical claims made in this piece but research is ongoing and according to Jason, is due to be published shortly. Watch this space.

Jason Padgett is currently purported to be the only person in the world who can accurately draw fractals by hand which are mathematically correct. You are probably familiar with computer generated fractals such as the interactive one below but creating them by hand is a different task entirely.

A number of years ago Jason received a brain injury from a severe blow to the back of the head in a mugging. As a direct result of this Jason acquired a form of synaesthesia in which fractals can be seen in every part of the world. What is astounding about Jason is that he claims to be able to apply this insight to his number sense and draw mathematical phenomena in a completely unique way.

Jason has very kindly given permission for me to reproduce some of his works below. The drawings are without doubt strangely compelling. I should note here  that I’m not a mathematician and seeing as there is absurdly little debate of Jason’s work on-line I’d advise you to take this with a “pinch of salt”. I’d be fascinated to see some academic debate on the theory behind the concepts presented here.

All images remain copyrighted (©JasonPadgett, 2011). Copies of his work are available from

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chuck The Intriguing Case of Chuck CloseA self portrait by Chuck Close

In doing some research on Prosopagnosia, a psychological condition which distorts the perception of faces I stumbled across the fascinating and inspiring case of Chuck Close, a man more famous for his spell-binding art than his prosopagnosia. Prosopagnosia doesn’t actually affect the ability to see in any way but rather the ability to recognise faces in the normal uniquely human way.

822850 face recognition The Intriguing Case of Chuck Close

The current consensus in the literature is that we can remember such an extroardinarily large number of faces beause we use a vector based mathematical model called the “Face Space model”. According to this model we remember faces by what makes them specifically different from the average face rather than having a photographic memory for faces as a whole. This explanation has been used to generate the powerful face recognition algorithms we are beginning to see employed in intelligent CCTV systems.

face recognition The Intriguing Case of Chuck Close

For some however, the part of the brain (the “fusiform face area”) that handles this information is damaged. This can cause an individual who is intelligent and able in every sense of the word fail to be able to distinguish their closest friends and family. This became common knowledge for many after the famous “case of the man who mistook his wife for a hat” by Neuroscientist Oliver Sacks. Oliver Sacks has only recently with his book “Inside The Mind’s Eye” declared himself to suffer from a milder case of prosopagnosia.

Until now I’ve read much on prosopagnosia but been quite unable to remotely grasp how it must feel. It’s been described as being like a human trying to distinguish sheep based on their facial features, something simply incomprehensible in the same way as human faces. Taking a look at Chuck Close’s artwork however gives us a window in to how it must feel. Chuck draws faces by taking a photograph and then dividing it in to pixels and painstakingly copying the shading from the pixels on to huge canvases. The effect of this is somewhat amazing. If you stand directly infront of the canvas it is almost impossible to discern anything apart from a seemingly random blur of colour. It is only when one steps back that the amazingly intricate features of the human face become apparent.

I found the following Chuck Close piece on an art blog that gives a wonderful description of the piece yet remains starkly oblivious to the mental condition that enabled it…

“I cannot even imagine the creativity, design sense and fabric knowlege needed to construct this spectacular rug/portrait out of silk and linen.  It is an amazing experience to stand in front of it and back up little by little until the montage of colors becomes a face full of character.”

chuck close rug 1 The Intriguing Case of Chuck Close

Upon understanding exactly how this work came to be makes the piece just that bit more beautiful. I find humbling to be able to take a glimpse out of the eyes of someone with this condition. At the same time it is strangely awe-inspiring, in a way that compels the viewer to want to explore their consciousness that bit further (than perhaps is, technically, legally allowed). Until now I thought the art work of individuals with synaesthesia was likely to be the most (naturally) psychologically influenced art to provoke that effect, but that discussion is for another day.

If you think you might have prosopagnosia you can participate in current research virtually in an online test with the prosopagnosia research centre here.

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