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NARRATOR (DILLY BARLOW): When someone talks to James he doesn't just
hear the words, he also tastes them.
JAMES WANNERTON: I have a problem with the name Derek for instance
which... it's like urgh it's horrible, its earwax.
NARRATOR: John sees colours when he hears numbers.
JOHN FULLWOOD: They're just like flashing colours, for example one would be
a whitish colour and two would be an orangey colour.
NARRATOR: And Heather is able to make quick calculations because she literally
sees her numbers around her.
HEATHER BIRT: I've got nought in front of me here and I have nought to ten
and then ten to twenty in an L shape, then twenty to thirty and that's all on a plane.
NARRATOR: They all have a bizarre condition called synaesthesia, in which their
senses are joined up. For a long time no-one took people like them seriously, but now
it turns out they're not so different from the rest of us. And their condition may even
help explain how we made that great evolutionary leap to develop language.
NARRATOR: Dorothy Latham has an extraordinarily colourful way of seeing the
world... a world in which colours just jump out at her. They're triggered when she sees
letters and numbers.
DOROTHY LATHAM: Manningtree is quite a mid green because of the big M at
the beginning and my M is mid green. Norwich is a bright yellow word because my N's
are bright yellow. The reality of it is white on blue but the images of the riot of colour
are in my mind.
NARRATOR: And it's not just written words that produce this experience...
spoken words have an even more curious effect.
TRAIN ANNOUNCER: Platform 12 is the delayed 12.03 train from Braintree. The
delayed 12.03 arriving from Braintree is now approaching platform 12.
DOROTHY LATHAM: I see the words spelt out letter by letter, on a sort of ticker
tape in front of my forehead here and I do see the letters in colour, in my colours.
NARRATOR: Of course, Dorothy knows the colours aren't really there. These
colours are triggered by the intermingling of her senses of vision and hearing. It's a
condition called synaesthesia.
DOROTHY LATHAM: I imagined everybody would be exactly the same until I
spoke to school friends about it when it was about ten and they said you're imagining
it and you're a weirdo and so I shut up about it and kept quiet.
NARRATOR: Adding colours to other senses is the most common form of
synaesthesia... but it can get a lot stranger.
NARRATOR: Running this pub can get very confusing for James Wannerton. He
has an unusual form of the condition, which means that he doesn't just hear words, he
also tastes them.
JAMES WANNERTON: I see a customer, if I know his name I instantly get the
taste of his name. There's somebody that comes in here that tastes of wet nappies...
but it isn't that strong, I mean it's not nice and it doesn't sound very nice but it's not
that strong a flavour, therefore it doesn't affect me as bad as much as say Derek would.
I mean Derek, I don't find Derek offensive because it's earwax but because it's very
NARRATOR: James has no control over which taste is linked with which word.
JAMES WANNERTON: The problems I have are but I mean somebody will come
in, they then order say a pint of that, I get the bacon rind taste, they then order a
packet of roasted nuts and I don't get roasted nuts, I get some sort of peculiar burnt
meat taste. They then pay me the fiver from which I get a taste of strawberry jam
sandwiches, very very specific, I then have to give them their change, change
invariably tastes of processed cheese, a cheesy taste.
NARRATOR: In everyday conversation he is bombarded with flavours.
NARRATOR: His synaesthesia can even set off a battle between real flavours and
the ones that are triggered by words.
JAMES WANNERTON: If somebody says something to me, they're talking to me
I can be doing this but whatever they've said I'll get the flavour, the flavour will come
and I'm sitting here listening to him before tasting flavours while looking at this,
JAMES WANNERTON: It's the conflicts, if somebody is saying do you like this
and then I get a strong taste of yoghurt. I find it very difficult to sit there preparing
sausages and bacon and eggs when I'm getting yoghurt and chocolate tastes and
everything over the top of it, it makes me feel horrible.
INTERVIEWER: So what would work well for you if you had to spend more time
in a kitchen?
JAMES WANNERTON: I'm getting confused, all these smells...
INTERVIEWER: Do you want to go and get a breath of fresh air?
JAMES WANNERTON: Would that be all right?
INTERVIEWER: Yeah of course it's all right.
JAMES WANNERTON: You know it's just all the smells.
INTERVIEWER: No that's fine yeah, just go and take a walk.
JAMES WANNERTON: I can't get these out my head. Sorry.
INTERVIEWER: That's all right.
NARRATOR: For decades synaesthesia baffled the scientific community and no-
one could quite believe it was real.
NARRATOR: For a while hallucinogenic drugs were blamed, especially in the
1960s. Some put it down to an overactive imaginationo... thers thought it was caused
by associations from childhood that had survived into later life. In the end no-one
could find out what was causing it, so synaesthesia was placed in the same scientific
category as séances and spoon bending.
NARRATOR: But Professor Ramachandran thought it should be taken more
seriously. He's one of the world's leading brain researchers and at the University of
California, San Diego he devised an experiment to test whether synaesthesia was real
PROFESSOR VS RAMACHANDRAN: We decided to invent what you might
loosely call a clinical test for synaesthesia. A way of finding out whether somebody's
genuinely experiencing the colour, literally seeing the colours when confronted with
certain numbers or whether they're just making it up or just crazy maybe.
PROFESSOR VS RAMACHANDRAN: Take a seat. A simple experiment, just look
at this display and what do you see there?
NARRATOR: The volunteers were shown displays, in which on letter of the
alphabet was arranged in a simple shape and then two other letters were added at
random to make a confusing picture. They only had a short time to see if they could
spot the hidden shape.
PROFESSOR VS RAMACHANDRAN: Do you see any shape?
PROFESSOR VS RAMACHANDRAN: No, OK.
PROFESSOR VS RAMACHANDRAN: No, OK.
JEFF COLEMAN: I saw a square.
JEFF COLEMAN: It looked like a triangle.
PROFESSOR VS RAMACHANDRAN: When you were viewing this what was your
internal subjective experience?
JEFF COLEMAN: Well I'd see a field of letters, different colours and a red
triangle would pop out or a red rectangle or something and I would just see it.
NARRATOR: According to PROFESSOR VS RAMACHANDRAN, Jeff had to be
synaesthete. The only way he could see the hidden shapes so quickly was if the letters
appeared to him as coloured.
PROFESSOR VS RAMACHANDRAN: This suggests that in fact he's not crazy,
he's literally seeing those numbers tinged with colour. This was the first clear cut
evidence that synaesthesia is an authentic early sensory process and it's probably
caused somewhere in the sensory pathways in the brain, evoking the actual perception
of the colour.
NARRATOR: So synaesthesia was real, not a trick of the memory or imagination.
It sparked a new search for what could be causing it.
NARRATOR: One of the clues lies with people like Dorothy Latham. Seeing
colours runs in the family.
DOROTHY LATHAM: This rather darkish blue is the colour B in my own
particular coloured alphabet.
PETER LATHAM: A is a slightly paler yellow... also August would be around this
colour as well.
DOROTHY LATHAM: The pink is like my P and also number seven is this shade
NARRATOR: Not only does her brother Peter have colour synaesthesia but so
does Peter's son.
DOROTHY LATHAM: Oh there's some strong colours up there shall we go back
up to where the colours are stronger?
PROFESSOR COLIN BLAKEMORE: I think it's pretty clear that it is genetically
influenced, it certainly runs in families very consistently. It's probably as much
influenced by genetic disposition as conditions like schizophrenia and autism and
dyslexia for instance.
DOROTHY LATHAM: Neither of these colours are represented in my alphabet.
PETER LATHAM: The mauve would stand for V which would be a dark purple
and also lighter but not as light as this Thursday.
NARRATOR: But Dorothy and Peter don't always see the same letters as the same
PETER LATHAM: There's a strong red down here...
DOROTHY LATHAM: Oh yes, well that's my O colour, strong red.
PETER LATHAM: Oh that's interesting, that's more my R colour and Z.
NARRATOR: The fact that even in families, each synaesthete is affected
differently, suggests that synaesthesia is not caused by a simple genetic mechanism.
PROFESSOR COLIN BLAKEMORE: It's probably only about seventy per cent
influenced by genes, so there must be environmental influences that determine
whether you're actually going to become synaesthetic or not.
DOROTHY LATHAM: I didn't think we did have any similarities but suddenly
we've discovered a couple already but we've also hit on loads that are different.
NARRATOR: Having established a genetic link, scientists have now set out to
discover what environmental influences might be shaping each person's Synaesthesia.
NARRATOR: Clues to those environmental influences might come from the mind
of James Wannerton and from his ability to taste words.
JAMES WANNERTON: Covent Garden is chocolate, crinkly chocolate. Edgware
Road is a sausage flavour, a very slight sausage flavour. Russell Square its celery with
NARRATOR: Today he's on his way to take part in a research project, which will
look for any experiences in his life that might have shaped these bizarre associations.
JAMES WANNERTON: It's quite nice that, a melted fruit gum.
NARRATOR: Dr Jamie Ward is a neuro-psychologist who has been studying
James for the past two years. He's found that James consistently links the same words
with the same tastes. Now he wants to discover if there's a pattern to those links which
may explain how they were first formed.
DR JAMIE WARD: Thanks for coming in today James. What I'd like to go
through with you is the particular tastes that you get in response to some words so I'm
just going to read aloud some words and if you just describe to me the best you can,
any taste that you might get from them okay?
JAMES WANNERTON: Yep fine.
DR JAMIE WARD: Er lets start with the word might.
JAMES WANNERTON: I get a strong marmite flavour.
DR JAMIE WARD: What about the word wipe?
JAMES WANNERTON: That's marmite again.
DR JAMIE WARD: Okay.
JAMES WANNERTON: It's very weak so it is different from the other marmite
taste but it's still marmite.
DR JAMIE WARD: Right, so what you're saying is both the word might and wipe
have the taste of marmite.
JAMES WANNERTON: They do, yes.
DR JAMIE WARD: Okay, well that's interesting, because both of these words
obviously have particular sounds in common. So let's try another word that sounds
similar, what about the word light.
JAMES WANNERTON: Yeah, that's marmite again... and with lots of butter this
DR JAMIE WARD: What's really interesting about this is that it suggests that
there's a structure to his synaesthesia and it's not just arbitrary associations between
words and tastes but there is in fact a structure and a shape to this which might tell us
a little bit about how it's come about and about how it's actually wired in.
NARRATOR: But Dr Ward has also noticed another pattern, which may explain
how James's connections between words and tastes might have begun.
DR JAMIE WARD: Okay, let's try another word, what about seven?
JAMES WANNERTON: Seven's nice that, it tastes like... well the only way I can
articulate it it tastes like Spangles, which are sweets, Spangles sweets but I mean I
haven't had one of those in years but it's a sweet I used to have as a child.
DR JAMIE WARD: That's interesting because it suggests that some of your taste
experiences are not for things that you're currently eating in your diet, they're for
things that you used to eat before.
JAMES WANNERTON: Mmm, yeah.
NARRATOR: Dr Ward has found that James's synaesthetic tastes are from his
childhood. There are no associations with foods from later in his life like olives or
JAMES WANNERTON: But a lot of those flavours I've noticed are sort of things
like tinned carrots and processed peas, I must have had a pretty awful diet, mustn't I?
DR JAMIE WARD: So what's perhaps happened in James is that in his childhood
during the process of vocabulary acquisition there's kind of been a chaining between
the sounds of words with the sounds of the names of food, going back down to the
actual concrete experience of tasting that food.
NARRATOR: What James shows is that childhood experience must be a vital
environmental influence in shaping his synaesthesia. Having established this,
scientists wanted to go a step further, to find out what was happening inside a
NARRATOR: Important insights have come from studying John Fullwood. He
sees colours that are triggered by spoken words.
JOHN FULLWOOD: They're just like flashing colours, for example one would be
a whitish colour... two would be an orangey colour... four and five are sort of reddish
NARRATOR: But for John, not all words produce colours. From childhood, his
only coloured words have been ones that fit into sequences, like numbers or days of
the week or months of the year.
JOHN FULLWOOD: I think as soon as I started to be aware of things that needed
to be ordered I started to attach colours and spatial attributes to them.
NARRATOR: What is remarkable is that John is able to see these colours at all,
because for all his adult life he's been blind.
JOHN FULLWOOD: It's a nice thing to have because it enables you to be able to
distinguish things, one from another. You can distinguish something from something
because they've got different colours.
NARRATOR: Because he is blind, John's synaesthesia cannot possibly be
influenced by any signal from his eyes so he's an ideal person to study. His very real
sense of seeing colours can only be triggered by something inside his brain.
NARRATOR: Megan Steven of Oxford University is conducting an experiment to
discover what is happening inside John's brain, when he sees his synaesthetic colours.
A scanner will show which parts of his brain are activated when he hears words.
MEGAN STEVEN: Okay, John we're gonna do the first experiment now, what I'd
like you to do is...
NARRATOR: First she studies his brain activity when he listens to words that
don't give him colours.
MEGAN STEVEN: Master... like... exquisite... society... more... okay John, how
did that go?
JOHN FULLWOOD: Okay yes.
NARRATOR: Neuroscientists have discovered that our different senses seem to
be processed in separate areas of our brains, so the vision areas are usually only
triggered by signals from the eye, the hearing areas only by signals from the ears and
it's the same with other senses like touch.
PROFESSOR COLIN BLAKEMORE: If you look at the brain, the anatomy of the
brain and how it's organised, look at where the obvious nerve bundles go to, it all
looks as though the senses are completely separate from each other. You have the eyes
connecting through to particular parts of the brain and the ears and then the tongue
and so on, they're all very very separate from each other.
NARRATOR: As expected John's brain scan shows activity in his sound
processing areas when he listens to these ordinary words.
MEGAN STEVEN: Okay, here we go.
NARRATOR: But Megan Steven then reads John a list of words that do trigger his
MEGAN STEVEN: February, April, Saturday. Okay John, well done, now we're
just gonna come and see what happens on the screen here.
NARRATOR: The scan now reveals what it is that is causing his synaesthesia. Not
only is the sound area of the brain active, but parts of the visual area have been
triggered as well. Areas, which should only be activated by a signal from the eye.
MEGAN STEVEN: When John hears words like Monday or January he sees a
specific colour and you can see here the area of his brain that lights up when he sees
that colour, an area of the brain we call V4, it's a visual area and it's an area that
processes information about colour. And we also have another area that's lit up at the
same time and that's an area we call V1, another visual area. If a sighted person were
to look at red you would see the same areas of the brain activated but John, of course,
is blind so we know that the only way he could be activating these areas of the brain
that process vision and colour is through the synaesthesia.
NARRATOR: So Synaesthesia is caused by the creation of special working
connections between areas of the brain which are normally quite separate.
PROFESSOR COLIN BLAKEMORE: That I think must mean that particular
groups of nerve cells are becoming connected functionally somehow, connected
together with each other so when one group of nerve cells fires off then another bunch
somewhere else, maybe a long way away in the brain, very specifically fires off
together with it and you get these conjunctions of sensation.
MEGAN STEVEN: Well done John, this is really interesting.
JOHN FULLWOOD: It makes me confident that I'm not actually making this up.
MEGAN STEVEN: We've got hard proof now, you can tell your wife that you
weren't kidding all along.
NARRATOR: So it is these extra connections within the brains of synaesthetes
which create for them the sense of a strange world that doesn't really exist. However,
recent discoveries suggest that synaesthesia may not be so unusual after all... it may
be something we all have.
NARRATOR: All summer long a secret experiment was underway at the Science
Museum in London.
DR JAMIE WARD: Well, it's a very exciting project because we've come here to
test over a thousand members of the general population so we've kind of taken the
science out of the lab and what we're trying to find out is just how common is
DR JAMIE WARD: So basically you're going to see a letter or number on the
screen here. And we want you to choose the best colour that goes with them. So how
you do that is up to you, there's no right or wrong answer. So just go with your
NARRATOR: The public didn't know they were being tested for synaesthesia.
They also didn't know that after they'd done the test once they would be asked to
repeat it. Synaesthetes should consistently link the same colours to the same letters
and numbers in both parts of the experiment. Non-synaesthetes should be less
consistent, as they are using guesswork.
DR JAMIE WARD: What we find is that the scores of people who don't have
synaesthesia normally lie between 0 and 50 per cent consistent, whereas people with
synaesthesia, when they're asked to choose the best colour, are normally between 80
and a 100 per cent consistent.
NARRATOR: The results show that nearly one in a 100 of us have this form of
synaesthesia. So there could be as many as half a million people in Britain who see
coloured letters and numbers.
DR JAMIE WARD: It suggests that if you start asking your friends and your
relatives that it's not beyond the realms of possibility that you will soon find
somebody who is a synaesthete. It might be somebody who you've gone to the pub
with every week and all of a sudden you say you know do you think about A as being
coloured, do you think about 5s being coloured and they'll say yes of course I do, you
know everybody does. Well not everybody does but it is still quite common and you
haven't got to look too far in order to find it.
NARRATOR: Jamie Ward's experiment has revealed a massive hidden
population of synaesthetes... but he's gone on to make an even more startling
discovery. Synaesthesia might be a condition that affects all of us.
NARRATOR: The discovery came when he began a study involving Dorothy
Latham. Dorothy doesn't just see colours when she hears spoken words, she also sees
colours when she listens to music.
DOROTHY LATHAM: As I play the notes from low notes through middle to high,
the colours change for each note in slight gradations and they go from the purples and
blacks and dark browns through greens and mid browns to bright colours like yellow
DOROTHY LATHAM: So as I play these colours will be changing in my mind.
DR JAMIE WARD: What we were keen to find out with Dorothy was whether or
not it was just a simple random association of colours with notes or whether there was
an underlying logic. What we did with Dorothy is we presented her with a whole series
of notes over three octaves in a random order. For each of the notes we presented her
with a colour palette of a wide range of colours and asked her to choose the best colour
that goes with that particular note and we got some amazing results. So what you can
see here is that for the low pitched notes we've got these darker purple and brown
colours and as we move further up we get oranges and yellows and right at the top end
it's more white. So we've got this amazing pattern going from dark to light. What this
suggests is that there is some organising principle which dictates how particular
musical notes become associated with particular colours.
NARRATOR: But the big surprise came when he repeated the experiment with a
control group of non-synaesthetes.
DR JAMIE WARD: This is what we found for a typical control subject. So
differently from Dorothy you haven't got a gradual transition from one colour to the
other, but nevertheless you can discern some kind of trend where there are darker
colours for the low pitched notes and much lighter colours for the high pitched notes.
What our results suggest is that beneath the surface we all have mechanisms that link
together sound and vision and the mechanisms seem to be pretty much the same in
both synaesthetes and other members of the population.
NARRATOR: So we're all in a way synaesthetes, even if we don't realise it. Our
senses of vision and hearing are linked together within our brains. It's just that some
people experience a more exaggerated version.
PROFESSOR COLIN BLAKEMORE: What's really extraordinary about
synaesthetes is that they have the experiences, they have the experiences as strongly
and vividly and genuinely as your experience of looking at me, so it touches on the
whole issue of what it is about certain kinds of brain activity that lead to awareness.
NARRATOR: But if synaesthesia is so widespread, it begs the question why? Can
there be some strange evolutionary benefit to human beings in having senses that
intermingle and if so, what could it be?
NARRATOR: An important clue has come from Heather Birt.
NARRATOR: Heather sees coloured numbers which are arranged in three
dimensional space around her. She has what is known as a number line.
HEATHER BIRT: I've got 0 in front of me here, and I have 0 to 10 and then 10 to
20 in an L shape, then 20 to 30 and that's all on a plane, then 30 to 40 which is above,
40 to 50, 50 to 60 and so on in tens all the way up to a 100 and then the block repeats
itself exactly up to 200 and so on in blocks all the way up to a 1000 here... and then it
carries on forever.
NARRATOR: Heather's number line suggests that her synaesthesia has an extra
dimension. The mechanism that links numbers to colours also seems to connect to the
part of her brain that produces a sense of space.
NARRATOR: It's an aspect of her synaesthesia with a real practical benefit. It
helps with her maths. By moving around her number line she's able to calculate her
HEATHER BIRT: Thank you very much, cheers. It is difficult for me to imagine
anyone else doing maths in another way as it probably is for you to work out how I do
it with my visual thing because it's the only way that I know.
NARRATOR: And she's not alone in having a number line. John Fullwood also
sees numbers in space. He sees days of the week, months of the year and years
themselves around him, including the year of his birth.
JOHN FULLWOOD: From where I'm sitting, it's back there.
INTERVIEWER: Is 1949 back there?
JOHN FULLWOOD: Yes, yes.
INTERVIEWER: And where's 2004?
JOHN FULLWOOD: Well 2004 is where I am now.
INTERVIEWER: And what about 2020?
JOHN FULLWOOD: Oh that's over there.
NARRATOR: Jamie Ward decided to find out just how common this ability to
work with numbers by arranging them in space was among synaesthetes. He found it
DR JAMIE WARD: Lots of synaesthetes said that they have number lines in
which numbers were arranged out in space. And this was very exciting because it was
as many as 60 per cent of people who have coloured numbers also see numbers being
arranged in space, which is a huge percentage of the synaesthetic population.
NARRATOR: But the true revelation came when he ran an experiment with a
group of non-synaesthetes.
DR JAMIE WARD: One experiment involves showing numbers on a computer
screen and what people have to do is make a decision about those numbers with their
left and their right hand. So for example they might judge whether a number is odd or
even. And what we find is that people are faster at responding to small numbers such
as one or two with their left hand and faster at responding to larger numbers such as
eight and nine with their right hand. So it appears as if we all have a number line that
runs from one on the left through to nine and so on on the right hand side.
NARRATOR: So it seems we all have a sense of numbers arranged in space.
NARRATOR: These number lines suggest to Dr Ward a reason why synaesthesia
might exist in the human population.
DR JAMIE WARD: One clue for why synaesthesia might survive is that it enables
us to deal with abstract concepts such as numbers and other sequences in a very
concrete way using our senses.
DR JAMIE WARD: What we do is we actually put these sequences into a special
arrangement and this seems to be common to each and every one of us but its
something that Synaesthetes are very aware of but most of us are not aware of.
MAN IN PARK:Yeah hi mate, yeah hi.
NARRATOR: So synaesthesia may be a more extreme form of something we've all
had to develop.
MAN IN PARK: You've booked a table yeah? What six people, no you need to
make it more, about eight.
HEATHER BIRT: Thirty to forty.
NARRATOR: Synaesthesia could be a manifestation of how we have learned to
work with abstract concepts... to manipulate numbers and ideas. Something that has
defined our species and helped shape our civilisation and some scientists go even
further. They think synaesthesia may help explain another critical skill that defines us
as human... our creativity.
NARRATOR: This idea was developed when one scientist began to wonder about
the genetics of synaesthesia. What purpose did these genes actually serve?
PROFESSOR VS RAMACHANDRAN: Very often in biology when you find a gene
that doesn't have an apparent function, a non-functional gene, there's usually hidden
agenda. So what might the hidden agenda be in the case of synaesthesia, why is it so
NARRATOR: When he looked for answers, one thing in particular struck him.
PROFESSOR VS RAMACHANDRAN: The clue comes from the fact that
synaesthesia is eight times more common among artists, poets and novelists than the
NARRATOR: He began to develop a daring theory. Could synaesthesia help
explain creativity? He started to look at artists and their influences.
NARRATOR: Aldeburgh, on the Suffolk coast. The light and landscape here have
long attracted artists. Jane Mackay is a painter and the inspiration for her work starts
with her synaesthesia.
JANE MACKAY: The sea is quite complex, it has a velvety beige bit to it, it also
there, just how that... that oom boom of the wave coming down is quite grey and
expanding. There's also the sound of the pebbles being pulled back by the sea. It's
some sort of bluey grey sort of sound. It is absolute bliss because all I have to do is just
listen to some music and I have got so much I want to paint, I can hardly breathe.
NARRATOR: She's exhibiting paintings that are inspired by an opera by
Benjamin Britten who lived and worked here.
NARRATOR: The opera is based on a disturbing ghost story, the Turn of the
JANE MACKAY: The purple just appeared... almost subconsciously here because
with the colour of the two main instruments here, which is the alto flute and the bass
clarinet, and to me they were absolutely purple velvet, they couldn't have been
JANE MACKAY: This one is variation one of the opera and I saw it as this
incredibly sharp shaft of coloured light, rising out of the centre on a blue background.
JANE MACKAY: It gets more and more dissonant and more and more spooky
really, that's why all these sort of jangley shapes came in, almost like cut glass.
NARRATOR: Many famous artists have been synaesthetes, including the jazz
legend Miles Davies... and the painter Kandinsky.
NARRATOR: No-one believes that synaesthesia directly causes creativity, but
experiencing one sense in terms of another can be a source of artistic insight.
PROFESSOR VS RAMACHANDRAN: The basis of creativity is seeing unexpected
links, sometimes even making seemingly random links and picking the ones which
make sense but which are beautiful, whatever that means. This is the basis of all
creativity, whether in poetry or in visual art or in literature.
NARRATOR: Professor Ramachandran was particularly interested in one type of
creativity used in everyday speech - metaphors. Ways of speaking which connect
different concepts. He's noticed that these often involve links to the senses.
PROFESSOR VS RAMACHANDRAN: Our language is replete with what we might
call synaesthetic metaphors, where you are sort of linking different sensory systems in
metaphorical usage. As, for example, you say loud shirt. My shirt's not making any
noise, why do you call it loud shirt, you instantly understand what I'm talking about. It
heightens your appreciation of its vivid colour. Or when you say cheddar cheese is
sharp. Obviously, cheese isn't sharp, if you rub it on your skin it's soft but then you say
well no no no, I mean it tastes sharp but there's a circularity and we're using a tactile
adjective to describe a taste.
NARRATOR: Ramachandran believes that this ability to see and express one
thing in terms of another is central to the artistic process.
NARRATOR: Take for example Shakespeare. The Globe Theatre in South
London. Director Tim Carroll has seen how powerfully Shakespeare's metaphors work
on audiences today.
TIM CARROLL: Take something like my heart has turned to stone, we know that
somehow it isn't really your heart that's doing the feeling and your heart hasn't really
turned to stone but it's so much more immediate and so much more real to us to hear
that your heart has turned to stone than if you simply said my feelings have become
rather cold or hardened.
NARRATOR: Many of Shakespeare's metaphors are synaesthetic, involving a link
to the senses.
TIM CARROLL: When Shakespeare uses the expression bitter cold he's
connecting the feeling of coldness, the taste of bitterness and putting them together.
Now logically that may not make any sense but for all of us it works, we feel it's right.
NARRATOR: But Tim Carroll believes the genius of Shakespeare comes when he
goes beyond sense metaphors to ones which involve links to more abstract ideas.
TIM CARROL: One of my favourites is from the Tempest, this music crept by me
upon the waters, which brings together an abstract music with something so real as to
creep. What kind of animal it is that might creep by Ferdinand upon the waters we
don't know but it creates an image in our minds which is exciting.
PROFESSOR VS RAMACHANDRAN: I think that use of metaphor may rely on
mechanisms similar to those used in synaesthesia. One highly speculative idea is that
maybe the same genes which give rise to synaesthesia, when expressed more diffusely,
may be more prone to make these links across different conceptual realms, therefore
make you more creative, more imaginative, make you more prone to metaphor in
NARRATOR: He believes that synaesthesia and creativity may share a similar
genetic basis, an ability to open links within our brains, not only between senses but
also between concepts. If this is so, it's an extraordinary insight. But he thinks
synaesthesia may explain even more. It may also cast light on one of the most
fundamental scientific puzzles of them all... how this started.
NEIL ARMSTONG: It's one small step for man... one giant leap for mankind.
PROFESSOR VS RAMACHANDRAN: The emergence of language has always
been an extremely controversial topic.
MARGARET THATCHER: The lady's not for turning.
BILL CLINTON: I did not have sexual relations with that woman.
PROFESSOR VS RAMACHANDRAN: How do you start with the grunts and
groans and howls, of our ape like ancestors and then evolve all the sophistication of a
Shakespeare or a George Bush? This is one of the big puzzles of language. How do you
evolve an arbitrary set of symbols to denote objects and events and relationships in
the world. Did our ancestors all sit next to the fireplace and say 'axe', everybody say
'axe' after me, 'axe'? Obviously not, that's not how it got started. But if that didn't
happen, how did it get started?
NARRATOR: He's come to Pacific Beach in California to test his theory on how
language might have started. He believes that our common synaesthetic ability to link
sounds and objects may have been the springboard to language.
PROFESSOR VS RAMACHANDRAN: I'm gonna do a simple experiment right
here on the beach. To test this, we're gonna take two shapes, one of which is kind of
round and the other is sort of jagged and we're gonna give them to people and ask
them to tell us which one is a booba, which one is a kiki. These are just nonsense
words and we're gonna see if there is any non-random correspondence between one
shape and one sound. One of them is booba, the other is kiki, which is which?
PERSON AT BEACH: Booba and kiki.
PROFESSOR VS RAMACHANDRAN: This is kiki, this is booba?
PERSON AT BEACH: I think that's booba and that's kiki
PROFESSOR VS RAMACHANDRAN: Which is which?
PERSON AT BEACH: Well that's a kiki and that's a booba.
PROFESSOR VS RAMACHANDRAN: Are you sure?
PERSON AT BEACH: Pretty sure.
PERSON AT BEACH: I'd say this is booba, this one is kiki.
PROFESSOR VS RAMACHANDRAN: Why do you say that?
PERSON AT BEACH: It just looks like a booba, thank you.
PERSON AT BEACH: Booba and kiki.
PROFESSOR VS RAMACHANDRAN: Well, when we showed people these shapes
and said one of them is booba the other is kiki, tell me which is which, the majority of
them, 99 per cent of them of them spontaneously said that's a booba and that's a kiki
without even thinking about it.
PERSON AT BEACH: Kiki, booba.
PERSON AT BEACH: Kiki, booba.
PERSON AT BEACH: This one's booba and this one's kiki
PROFESSOR VS RAMACHANDRAN: Excellent, very good. This means there is a
non-arbitrary correspondence, a spontaneous tendency in all of us to pick the bulbous
amoeboid shape as the booba, so the gentle undulation of the sound contour
represented in the hearing centre in your brain mimics the gentle undulation of the
visual contour, similarly kiki has a sharp edge to it, sharp sound and that's mimicking
the sharp inflection of the visual contour of the kiki and this is what you need, this
initial bias is what you need to get the first words going.
NARRATOR: Ramachandran believes this synaesthetic connection between our
senses of hearing and vision was an important initial step towards the creation of
words. Our earliest ancestors first started to talk by using sounds that actually evoked
the object that they wished to describe. But that was only part of the process. He
found that there was a cascade of other links in our brains which reinforce this
PROFESSOR VS RAMACHANDRAN: Just as you have synaesthesia within
sensory areas you also have the propensity to mimic hand movements with lip and
tongue movements. Now this is probably because the hand and the mouth area are
right next to each other in the brain and there is some cross activation of the kind you
see in synaesthesia. What I am claiming is that there is a non-arbitrary mapping
between the hand gestures and unconscious lip and tongue movements. For example
un peux, diminutive, teeny weeny, tuna in Indian language versus enormous, large
where the lips actually mimic what the fingers are doing and I don't think that's a
NARRATOR: If he's right then language emerged from the multitude of
synaesthetic connections within our brains.
PROFESSOR VS RAMACHANDRAN: We've got several types of interaction in
place but we can see how in evolution all of these acting in conjunction start boot
strapping each other and enhancing each other resulting in the whole avalanche that
we call language.
WINSTON CURCHILL: Ah this is not the end, this is not even the beginning of
the end, though but it is perhaps the end of the beginning.
NARRATOR: Synaesthesia is a truly strange phenomenon, but most synaesthetes
enjoy having their senses intermingled. They wouldn't want to be without it.
JOHN FULLWOOD: It's so important to me. It would be like losing a finger or
something, you would feel physically bereft that it had gone.
NARRATOR: James Wannerton is more ambivalent. His form of synaesthesia is
JAMES WANNERTON: Normally there's a lot of information on one of these
signs here and I'm reading through, I'm getting the flavours which means I can't
comprehend the exact town names or whatever and then I get totally confused. It's
like where am I going, I don't know where I'm going, right, straight ahead, left?
NARRATOR: But given a choice he wouldn't want to be without it either.
JAMES WANNERTON: I enjoy probably about ten or fifteen per cent of this, the
rest of it's bad.
INTERVIEWER: Given the choice, if they would say, look it's only gonna be the
synaesthesia we take away, you will no longer taste words. What would you say?
JAMES WANNERTON: No, no though about it, no, I wouldn't want them to. No I
couldn't. I'm just terrified of what it would take with it.
NARRATOR: Today, synaesthesia is no longer regarded simply as a bizarre or
rare condition. It may now be opening a window into our greatest mysteries and some
of our greatest achievements.
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