Synesthesia or Ode To Being Human

Imagine you are studying an alien civilisation. You fly to their planet and hover over a group of 4 aliens walking on what appears to be a street. You turn on your Babel Fish to translate from the Alienese and hear this:

Little Alien 1 (to Little Alien 2): I like even numbers a lot better than odd numbers. Do you?
Little Alien 2: I do
Big Alien 1: Not me. I’ve always liked odd numbers better.
Big Alien 2: Me too. My whole life I’ve respected them more.

What an odd, alien way of thinking, you might think. I mean, liking odd over even numbers is weird enough but respecting one over another?!

Of course as you’d probably have realised (especially if you hover over hyperlinks), the example is a bit closer to home. Little Alien 2 is me as a kid. Little Alien 1 is my friend Shly. Also as a kid. Big Alien 1 is my mother. Big Alien 2 is Shly’s mother. And we appear to have caught a wonderful human affliction called synesthesia.

Synesthesia is when several senses or ways of looking at things are conflated by the human brain. This includes seeing numbers as colours, being able to taste people’s names, seing musical notes as colours, smelling shapes etc. It’s a condition that varies a lot from person to person and is apparently much higher in creative people. A very fascinating intro on this is Ramachandran’s TED talk.

So here’s the spoiler: to an extent it’s part of human experience. We all have at least a little bit of it in us. Some questions that you should have no trouble answering*:

  • On the example at the top: some might prefer odds, some evens, some neither. However, the latest episode of the Geologic Podcast featured some funny political ads between two parties: the odd numbers and the even numbers. Which numbers were described as dependable, precise and reliable? Which were the voice of creativity and intuition?
  • What weighs more, the note on the right end of the piano or the left?
  • I made this one up so it could be just me: what’s higher, the taste of a sweet apple or the taste of a sour apple? I’d be interested to hear about this one especially in the comments.
  • Finally, my favourite example from the Ramachandran talk. Look at the images below. One is named KIKI and one is named BUBA. Can you decide which one?

So what does this mean? Two things, I reckon. Firstly, it shows that we’re clearly animals, with some reflexes hard-wired into us by evolution. There is no logical reason to connect Kiki with the angular figure — it’s like the knee jerk reflex. Secondly, it shows how great it is to be a person for the very same reason. Not only are we not purely rational, but there is a non-rational** element that underpins our most basic sensory perceptions like sight and sound. This is where our sense of metaphor comes from. It’s why I can feel that there is some reason the angular figure should be called Kiki even though I can’t verbalise it in a way that doesn’t sound silly.

If you want a [non-supernatural] reason why it might be meaningful to be a human, it’s all here: the beauty of the highly fragile and special perception us humans have of the world, and the evolved sense of metaphor that even the coldest human being cannot escape from.


*May well vary with culture. If you are unable to experience one of the senses (eg. you are deaf), I’d be especially interested to hear your experience.
**Not the same as irrational!

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The thinly-veiled identity of lives and rants in Sydney. Views not his own, provided by hivemind. All my original work on this blog is licensed under a CC BY-NC License.

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