Synaesthesia, for those who don't know, is 'a confusion of the senses, whereby stimulation of one sense triggers stimulation in a completely different sensory modality', so that colours may be heard, sounds tasted, smells seen. Famous synaesthetes - as those who suffer from (or enjoy?) the condition are known - include Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Kandinsky, Nabokov and Hockney. John Harrison's Synaesthesia: The Strangest Thing, a scientific and historical study, is due from Oxford in March. The condition has been dismissed by at least one anonymous 'notable scientist' as 'romantic neurology', but in the foreword to Synaesthesia, Simon Baron-Cohen says:
this book will do much to educate the general public about the important but often overlooked point that we do not all experience this universe in the same way. For the most part, synaesthetes would not wish to be free of the synaesthesia and if anything feel somewhat sorry for the rest of us as we go about our unisensual existence. My guess is that John Harrison's valuable book will ring a colourful bell for many people who until now did not realise that their experience had a name, and who will now be able to identify themselves with like-minded others.
LRB 4 January 2001 | PDF Download