Synesthesia explained by Vilayanur Ramachandran

by Matthew James Taylor on 17 May 2009

The synesthesia condition explained by Vilayanur Ramachandran

Lately I have been obsessed with watching videos on TED is a fantastic website full of hundreds of talks by very interesting people. I highly recommend it. Today I want to draw your attention to a particular presentation about synesthesia. I found this video fascinating because it offers the first ever explanation of how synesthesia actually works. This means a lot to me because I have synesthesia - it's nice to finally understand what is going on in my head!

If you don't know what synesthesia is then you can read my previous article on the topic. It describes how I associate colours to letters and numbers (a common form of synesthesia), or for more details try this Wikipedia page.

The video is below. The part about synesthesia starts at the 17:40 mark but it's well worth watching the whole presentation if you have time.

A short summary of Ramachandran's explanation of synesthesia

Babies are born with a highly interconnected brain, then as they grow older the cross-wiring is trimmed down naturally. In some families there must be a genetic condition that causes this trimming to be less effective. The end result is synesthets (people with synesthesia) have areas of cross-wiring still intact. This causes normally separate areas of the brain to remain linked. For me these areas are colours, numerals and letters. Vilayanur argues that this cross-wiring of the brain leads to a greater propensity for metaphorical thinking and creativity. It seems to be correct as the condition is eight times more common in creative people like artists, musicians and novelists. I consider myself creative even though a lot of my art is based on science like anatomy, and creativity definitely runs through my family, particularly on my dad's side (he is a full time artist / art teacher). Maybe there is a science behind creativity after all?

If you find this talk fascinating then I highly recommend Vilayanur's book Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind. I first read his book a number of years ago but it wasn't until his talk on TED that I learned of his work regarding Synesthesia. Hopefully he will publish another book soon with more detailed information on the topic.

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Matthew James Taylor