Suppose you’re at a concert with a friend who leans over and whispers in your ear, “What color was that music?” It may seem like a strange question, but there are some people for whom the answer is entirely self-evident, and perhaps your friend is among them. Such individuals have a neurological condition called “sound-to-color synesthesia,” or “chromesthesia,” in which they effortlessly and spontaneously experience their own personal light show while hearing music and other sounds. Interestingly, many chromesthetes grow up assuming that everyone has the same visual responses to sounds as they do, and are shocked when they discover this is not so!
Chromesthesia is relatively rare, occurring in only about 1 in 3,000 individuals. Nevertheless, a remarkable number of famous visual artists and musicians are members of this select group, including Vincent Van Gogh, Wassily Kandinsky, David Hockney, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Leonard Bernstein, and Duke Ellington.
Most of us don’t experience colored light shows when we listen to music. But recent scientific evidence shows that many non-synesthetes do have music-to-color associations similar to the cross-modal experiences of chromesthetes. In my laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, we have been seeking answers to questions about the nature of music-to-color correspondences in both synesthetes and non-synesthetes. Our results have been eye-opening. They are uncovering the remarkably associative power of the human brain, and perhaps above all, underscoring the centrality of emotion in our mental lives.
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