Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Synesthesia in medicine and the humanities

Eleni I. (Lena) Arampatzidou

Dr. Arampatzidou would like to dedicate this essay to Professor Alexander Nehamas, Director Dimitri Gondicas and the Stanley Seeger Center at Princeton University for their support and generosity in offering her a research fellowship in medical humanities which made this publication possible.

Wassily Kandinsky
Composition VII, by Wassily Kandinsky, a possible synesthete

Synesthesia (syn=plus + aesthesis=sensation in Greek) is a term used in both literary / artistic and medical contexts. In literature and other artforms, synesthesia is understood as a phenomenon of high creativity conveying a multi-sensational experience and a multisensory perception, being defined either as a “term denoting the perception, or description of the perception, of one sense modality in terms of another” (Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 1965: 839) or as “the phenomenon wherein one sense modality is felt, perceived, or described in terms of another” (The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 1993: 1259).

Although this interconnection of the senses traces back to ancient times and can be found in Homer, Aeschylus, Pindar, Aristotle, and the Bible, synesthesia became a concept of interest at the end of the nineteenth century (fin-de-siècle) in Europe. It is defined as “the production of a reaction in one sense upon the reception of a stimulus on another sense such as having the sensation of a color upon hearing a sound” (Roedig, 1958: 128). The term “synesthesia” was coined in the Century Dictionary (1891) but was used long before that, by Baudelaire in his sonnet “Correspondances” (1857) and by Rimbaud in his sonnet “Voyelles” (1871) in which he employs the synesthetic association of the two different senses of sight and sound as he assigns a specific color to each vowel: E white I red U green O blue. J.-K. Huysmans’s novel Á Reboursoffers many examples of synesthesia, the most outstanding being when the leading character Duke Des Esseintes orchestrates string quartets and entire symphonies in his throat by tasting and combining tastes of different types of wine and liqueur which reproduce sounds of musical instruments thus achieving special correspondences between the different senses of taste and sound. Baudelaire’s name was connected par excellence with synesthesia although he never used the term but instead captured its meaning through his theory of correspondences among the arts and the senses. That Baudelaire’s work lacks a “consistent and genuine expression of synesthesia” has been highlighted by Roedig, who suggests that although “synesthesia is considered as an integral part of Baudelaire’s doctrine of correspondences and analogies, or of his mystique or of his esthetics or of his criticism,  . . . real synesthesia would have been no more than a curiosity for Baudelaire” since “what he sought was the essential unity behind the appearances” (Roedig, 1958: 128).

Although Baudelaire popularized the theory of correspondences, Swedenborg, a Swedish theologian, philosopher and scientist introduced the idea of correspondences between natural and spiritual things much earlier at the end of eighteenth century. He wrote, “There is such a correspondence of natural things and spiritual not only in each and every thing of man, but also in each and every thing of the world.” The play of the senses is enacted in this framework of correspondence between the natural and spiritual worlds, thus maintaining a transcendentalism to be refuted later by Baudelaire. “The perception of the mind corresponds to the smell of the nostrils,” Swedenborg explains. “The smell and the nostrils are correspondences, and the action is influx. For this reason a man who has interior perception is said to have a keen nose, and perceiving a thing is called scenting it out” (Swedenborg, 2004, e-text). What stands for sure is that this perception of synesthesia emphasizes “the privileged role of the poet as ‘seer’ as the interpreter of symbols for the rest of mankind who are unable to perceive their hidden meaning” (Haas, 1984: 210).

By contrast in the medical / neuro(bio)logical sphere synesthesia is perceived as a clinical condition. Here it is defined on a neurological basis as “suffering from synesthesia”, “diagnosed with synesthesia”, “a case of synesthesia”, and we hear about experiments that juxtapose “normal subjects” to synesthetes (Ramachandran & Hubbard, 2003: 51). In this context “synesthete” is the word for a clinical case instead of the “seer” that it used to denote and has its semantics fluctuate between concepts of normality and abnormality:

Otherwise completely normal [the synesthetes] seemed to have a certain peculiarity: they experience sensations in multiple modalities in response to stimulation of one modality. Musical notes might evoke distinct colors . . . Today, when the reality of synaesthesia is accepted, we can explore positively the phenomenon’s physiological connection with sense-related metaphorical associations, and ask whether normal people also experience synaesthesia. We all speak of certain smells — like nail polish — being sweet, even though we have never tasted them. This might involve close neural links and cross-activations between smell and taste, which can be thought of as a form of synaesthesia that exists in all our brains. This would not only make sense functionally — e.g. fruits are sweet and also smell “sweet” like acetone — but also structurally: the brain pathways for smell and taste are closely intermingled and project to the same parts of the frontal cortex. (Ramachandran & Hubbard, 2003: 49, 52)

Cytowic revisits the juxtaposition of the two different conceptions of synesthesia. While synesthesia is identified as a brain-based sensory or perceptual condition during which stimulation in one sensory modality automatically triggers a perception in a second modality, Cytowic distinguishes between its understanding as a literary device and its physical perception which he argues is distinct from “a mental object like ordinary cross-modal associations, metaphoric language or even artistic aspirations to sensory fusion” (Cytowic, 2002: 6). It is interesting to read in his words how the medical / neuro(bio)logical context addresses synesthesia in the artistic context:

Much ink has flowed discussing synesthesia in art, music, literature, linguistics, natural philosophy and theosophy. Most accounts emphasized colored hearing, the most common form of synesthesia. By mid-nineteenth century, synesthesia had intrigued an art movement that sought sensory fusion and a union of the senses. Multimodal concerts of music and light sometimes including odor were popular and often featured color organs, keyboards that controlled colored lights as well as musical notes.

Cytowic is accurate when he stipulates that “the perceptual phenomenon is completely unheard-of in literary and linguistic circles where the term synesthesia is understood to mean rhetorical tropes or sound symbolism (a la Humboldt and Saussure)” (Cytowic, 2002: 6). On the other hand the same thing might be assumed when he is reducing the reading of Rimbaud’s poem “Voyelles” to a study of the perceptions of a synesthete (Cytowic, 2002: 4). He also reduces the harsh scientific rhetoric by shifting to more moderate formulations. He clarifies that synesthesia is “abnormal only in being statistically rare.” Most importantly he attempts to develop the argument that synesthesia is possibly a normal brain process that is prematurely displayed to consciousness in a minority of individuals. He is offering an insightful paradigm when he distinguishes between deliberate contrivances and involuntary experiences of synesthesia which are qualitatively different and looks down on the experimental scientific practice that turned humans into subjects—abandoning the individual. And he is thankful to his neighbour for consenting to undergo tedious psychophysical experiments, examinations, and invasive procedures related to the diagnosis of synesthesia (Cytowic, 2002: 6).


  1. Richard Cytowic, Synesthesia: a union of the senses, (Cambridge Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2002).
  2. Diana Haas, “Early Cavafy and the European ‘Esoteric’ Movement”, Journal of Modern Greek Studies, Volume 2, Number 2 (October 1984): 209-224.
  3. V.S. Ramachandran & E.M. Hubbard, “The Phenomenology of Synaesthesia”, Journal of Consciousness Studies, 10, No. 8 (2003): 49–57.
  4. Charles F. Roedig, “Baudelaire and Synesthesia”, Kentucky Foreign Language Quarterly, Volume 5, Issue 3 (1958): 128-135.
  5. Emanuel Swedenborg, “Influx and Correspondence”, in Spiritual Life and the Word of God, e-text ed. William J. Rotella, (Project Gutenberg, 2004). Accessed March 20 2016. http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/14026/pg14026-images.html
  6. “Synaesthesia”, Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, ed. Alex Preminger et al, (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press: 1965), 839-840.
  7. “Synaesthesia”, The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, ed. Alex Preminger et al, (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press: 1993), 1259-1260.

LENA ARAMPATZIDOU is Assistant Professor in Modern Greek Studies at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. She has taught at the Universities of Amsterdam, Birmingham, King’s College London, Lund Sweden and Εötvös Loránd Budapest. She has participated in Conferences in Greece, Cyprus, Britain and Sweden. Her articles and papers have been published in peer reviewed journals in Greece, Cyprus, USA, Britain, Switzerland and Australia. Her book entitled The Poetics of C.P. Cavafy and Aestheticism: An Intertextual Approach (Kyriakidis Bros, 2013), was awarded a Prize by the Academy of Athens.

Spring 2016



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