Practical Synasthesia

Alan Moore, interviewed:

"There’s an awful lot of synasthesia, I mean one of the greatest writers, a lot of the greatest writers, one of my favourites, Vladimir Nabakoff, he was a synasthetic…to him, the letter ‘O’ was white, the word ‘Moscow’ was green flecked with gold…olive green, flecked with gold. I can see that. And it’s a good thing to try and develop. Synasthesia is a great literary tool. You’ll be able to come up with perfect metaphors that are really striking and strange, because they maybe jump from one sense to another – try describing a smell in musical terms.


Actually, it can be quite easy. Also, it’s how we tend to do things anyway. They’ve just proven that – you know when Jilly Gordon gets on a roll on The Food Program and she’s talking about: “..it’s a kind of buttery, composty, tractory – I’m getting peat, I’m getting burning tyres…”. Now they’ve done tests – those people who describe the flavour and bouquet of wine, they’re not describing the flavour or the bouquet at all – they are synasthetically describing the colour. They’re taking visual cues. They did things where they’d put an odourless and tasteless colour agent into white wine to make it look like red wine, and then they’d note the kind of language the wine-tasters were using. When it was white wine they were using: “…buttery, new-mown hay”…you know, yellow, basically, was what they were saying, whereas when it was red wine they were saying: “…its wonderfully fruity, blackcurranty”…talking about red things. It’s synasthesia. It’s how a lot of our senses…I think synasthesia is probably a lot more common than the sensory aberration that it’s made out to be, and there’s probably a key there, somewhere, to how we sense everything. Synasthesia. There’s something there."

I hope so.

It would be wonderful to harness synasthesia in the UI of mobile devices. Going beyond multimedia output and multimodal interfaces – delivering meaning in Gladwellesque thin-slices of preattentive recognised patterns.

I’ve got about a month of my time in April to look into this at work. I’m thinking of looking at the Mindhackers, Damasio, Hiroshii Ishii, Ben(s) Fry and Schneiderman, and Ambient Devices as a start.

I’m very aware this is far from an exhaustive list; and moreover, it’s only the cognitive science / interface research worlds I’m thinking of so far.

I have a feeling, inspired by Alan Moore’s thoughts,  that looking into other fields of sensory endeavour might also be revealing: sculpture, painting, drama – or ritual, religious or otherwise – ways of constructing feelings and understanding through all our senses.

Ns_sensesIt it looks like we have at least 21 of them to play with…

With recent announcements of the increasing capabilites for new visual possibilites (Flash, SVG in Nokia mobiles) and coincident pronouncements on the constraining nature of the WIMP interface hangover into  the mobile context, I think it’s a good time to look into this.

Anyway – if you have any thoughts or contributions, or want to get in touch about the subject, leave me a comment, trackback or drop me a line to the usual address…

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See also, Abe Burmeister’s reflections on the seminal "Interface Culture" some 8 years on from the publication of Johnson’s book.

0 comments
  1. I’ve been fascinated by synaesthesia for many years and on a recent trip to the UK I watched a great BBC documentary on the subject – “Derek Tastes of Earwax”. It probably won’t be the type of in-depth, analytical research that you’re looking for, but I found it gave a great summary of some of the recent research (and it has cool 3D visualizations!)

  2. Richard Hutt said:

    Tell you who is or was very interested in Synaesthesia – Roger nee Jim McGuinn of the Byrds – remember particuarly him discussing how certain songs were “dolphin grey” which makes perfect sense… Hi Matt.

  3. marty said:

    Surely it’s Nabakov? Discuss.

    But it’s definitely Jilly Goolden, as in “i’m getting oakey, I’m getting peaty, I’m getting right on your nerves, aren’t I?”

    Hey, I’m still waiting for issue 3 of Big Numbers.

  4. Lilith said:

    Cold tastes like metal, Heat smells of dust and canvas… Sometimes sounds feel raw…

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