Synesthesia: Hearing Colors, Tasting Shapes
Richard E. Cytowic MD
p00907 at psilink.com
Mon Oct 11 23:09:42 EST 1993
Review: "The Man Who Tasted Shapes"
by Curt Suplee, Washington Post Bookworld
DOES THE SMELL OF NEWSPRINT make you hear doorbells? Then
you'll never finish this anyway, so put down the paper and pick
up "The Man Who Tasted Shapes: A Bizarre Medical Mystery Offers
Revolutionary Insights Into Emotion, Reasoning, and
Consciousness" by Washington neurologist Richard E. Cytowic.
The book is about synesthesia--a rare condition in which one
sensory stimulus involuntarily produces another. In one of his
subjects, the taste of chocolate mint caused him to feel smooth,
cool vertical columns; in another the sound of a beeper made her
see bright red lightning bolts. Perhaps one in a hundred thousand
people experiences it, and Cytowic has spent years developing a
provocative theory of how and where it happens.
He describes experiments showing that synesthesia is
dependent only on the left brain hemisphere, and is suppressed by
compounds that stimulate the cortex (caffeine, amphetamines) and
enhanced by cortical depressants such as alcohol or amyl nitrate
("poppers"). High -tech studies on the chocolate-mint man showed
that when he was having a synesthetic experience, blood flow to
the cortex dropped so low that he should have been left blind or
paralyzed. So where's the action? Cytowic supposes the
hippocampus, which is part of the limbic system--a cluster of
structures deep in the mid-brain that is older, in evolutionary
terms, than the ever-burgeoning cortex.
This leads Cytowic to call synesthetes "cognitive fossils"
and to speculate that synesthesia is "a very fundamental
mammalian attribute that is "actually a normal brain function in
every one of us, but that its workings reach conscious awareness
in only a handful" when "a brain process that is normally
unconscious becomes bared to consciousness" by an accident of
This argument, and its larger context of the new,
non-hierarchical view of brain function, are presented in a
chatty narrative thick with recollected dialogue and a great deal
of Cytowic's autobiography--including the revelation that he used
to write restaurant reviews for the Washington Blade under the
pseudonym Richard Escoffier. This method will make some readers
see red; others will find it just to their taste.
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