Even before the musicians start playing, the sound has begun. A loud buzzing from faulty speakers bleeds in from the back of the Geological Lecture Hall, making the crowd antsy. The event’s lecturer is the aptly named Psyche Loui, a Wesleyan University neuroscientist. Loui mounts the stage wearing a tweed jacket over a t-shirt that reads “music + science = sexy.” Someone in the audience sneezes.
“That was orange,” Loui says.
This is “Hearing in Color,” the kick-off event for the national conference of the American Synesthesia Association, a non-profit founded in 1995 to support synesthesia research.
Project LENS, a group of Harvard alumni whose work connects classical music to non-musical topics, organized the event.
Synesthesia is a sensory phenomenon that causes the stimulation of one cognitive pathway to automatically activate another. For someone who experiences synesthesia, sound could have a color; numbers could have a smell. People who have synesthesia, called synesthetes, constitute about one to four percent of the population. At this event, though, that statistic shoots up. It’s hard not to wonder what else the buzzing sound from the faulty speaker is generating in the space. Does the sound create color? Taste?
Before the five featured musicians of Project LENS begin performing, audience members are encouraged to text in one-word descriptions of their feelings. Responses are projected onto two separate screens.
The non-synesthetic audience members’ responses are mostly emotional adjectives: great, fascinated, annoyed, relaxed. The synesthetes’ are abstract, descriptive: crackly, poppy, buzzy, warm, red, bronze.
Rainer A. Crosett ’14, a Project LENS co-founder, performs a piece with an intentionally wide variety of musical textures on cello: “Russian Fragments” by Rodion Shchedrin. As the music progresses, two words grow on the synesthete’s screen: yellow and orange.
Helena Melero, a synesthesia researcher at King Juan Carlos University in Spain, has multiple forms of synesthesia, among them music-color, smell-color, and sound-touch associations. She describes the sound of the cello as “in the middle of my body.”
The piece ends, and Loui stands again at the podium. “Do the yellow and the orange camp want to duke it out?” she says.
The tone of the question is playful—can sensory experience even be debated?—but later, Loui follows up sincerely. “Oh, they debate them,” she says.
“You start out thinking, it’s just this quirk, people with synesthesia,” she says. “But the more you study them the more you think, man, is everything I’m seeing actually real or is everyone just different in many very acceptable ways?”
Herein lies the impetus for many scientists to study synesthesia: the phenomenon creates a way to make inferences about sensory experience and consciousness.
Later, the musicians play a segment of the first movement of Debussey’s String Quartet three times. Each repetition attempts to embody a different taste: sweet, sour, and bitter. Though these words describe taste, they also have emotional connotations, which makes it difficult to know which association creates the experience.
“Music is a really abstract art form,” cellist and Project LENS co-founder Alan M. Toda-Ambaras ’13 says. “There really aren’t a lot of ‘sound words.’ There’s loud, soft. But not a lot.”
“We resort to looking for other vocabulary,” violinist and third Project LENS co-founder Ariel S. Mitnick ’13 adds. The descriptive language around music often calls in other senses: bright, sharp, or colorful. The musician is forced to think across senses.
Project LENS is the product of a frustrated conversation Toda-Ambaras and Mitnick had one day while riding the 1 bus. A the time, the two were a part of Harvard College’s dual degree program with the New England Conservatory (NEC), though they had known each other since they met at age 14 at the Greenwood Music Festival.
Toda-Ambaras and Mitnick felt that classical performances were not engaging new audiences; they were too long, and provided no entrypoint into the music. “We were frustrated by the perception of [classical] music, that it is an ivory-tower pursuit,” says Mitnick.
The two musicians, along with Crosett, another NEC student, wanted to create interactive events. The plan was “blending Ted-style talks with classical performance,” Mitnick says.
Project LENS, the ASA, and Harvard Brain Science Initiative reached out to Loui to speak at “Hearing in Color” based on her combined interests in music and neuroscience.
Loui is the director of Wesleyan’s MIND Lab, which studies how brain structure and function affect musical processes. She began looking at synesthesia because of her interest in absolute pitch, the ability to recognize a note’s pitch intuitively. These phenomena are both associated with unusually bright neural pathways and larger-than-average hubs of neural connectivity.
This hyperconnectivity can also make make people vulnerable to mental illness—so synesthesia research could also be a way of targeting mental health interventions. This research is still in its early stages, though, and there are inherent complications in directly targeting hyperconnectivity for treatment without jeopardizing its positive associations. Who wants to sacrifice being exceptional?
Exceptionality, though, can have its drawbacks. Carol J. Steen, ASA President and co-founder, recalls being dumped by her best friend at age seven after Steen said that the letter A was the prettiest pink she’d ever seen. “You’re weird,” came the crushing reply.
“It becomes part of your life,” Steen says. “If nothing else, to find out what happened. To find out, do other people have colored letters? To find out, are you alone?”
Here, at least, she is not. Toward the end of the event, during a Q&A; period, a woman asks why music-color synesthetes always report seeing beautiful colors—pale green, gold, blue. Immediately the synesthetes in the crowd laugh and murmur in opposition: the colors, it turns out, are not always pleasant. Manifestations of synesthesia can be radically different, but there is a sense here of mutual understanding.
Some melancholy too, from the outside, of missing out on parts of experience. Being in the “out” group, it’s impossible to say what filled the space at that moment. Perhaps a warm yellow, a contented red.