Kandinsky's "Composition VIII, 1923," in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.
They may really feel they hear paintings, for instance. But the condition doesn’t occur only with sound and sight: the most bizarre forms of it have been reported.
A study in the Aug. 22 issue of the research journal Consciousness and Cognition, for example, found that some people link time and space. One described December as a red area located at arm’s length to the left of their body.
Ward detailed findings of his own new studies on synaesthesia at a talk at the British Association for the Advancement of Science Festival of Science in Norwich, U.K. this week. His work focused on the sound-color-linkage of which Kandinsky spoke.
His found that most of us tend to agree with synaesthetes on which images match which sounds, and that we prefer them combined rather than alone.
Kandinsky, who lived from 1866 to 1944, “wanted to make visual art more like music—more abstract,” Ward said. “He also hoped that his paintings would be ‘heard’ by his audiences. This seems more achievable now that we have found such a strong link between vision and hearing.”
“Although information from the world enters our heads via different sensory organs—the eyes and ears in this instance—once they are in the brain they are intimately connected with each other. Impressively, they are connected in non-random ways, so that some combinations of sound and vision go together better than others.”
In experiments, Ward said he asked six synaesthetes to draw and describe their visual experiences of music from the New London Orchestra. Six non-synaesthetes were asked to do the same. Also, an animator created films combining the music and drawn images. These were shown to visitors at London’s Science Museum.
Furthermore, 100 images were presented to over 200 people. They were asked to choose the image that best fit the music. They consistently chose images drawn by synaesthetes over others, Ward reported.
This shows, he said, that while non-synaesthetes can’t hear a painting or see music literally, they do sense the crossover and tend to choose the “correct” image. “All of us have links between our hearing and vision—even if we don’t really realise it,” Ward said.
That’s not to say that synaesthetes hear precisely the same sounds in “listening” to a Kandinsky painting.
Describing the artist’s “Composition VIII, 1923,” Ward reported, one synaesthete said: “The jumbled mass of lines gave various tones, which changed as my eyes travelled round the picture. When looking at the large multicoloured powerful circle at upper left, I get a pure tone which can be too much, so to relieve my mind of this I travel back to the cacophony of jumbled lines and shapes. This painting therefore is a good balance of contrasting noise—pure tones and cacophony—which was a delight to see.”
Another described it as follows: “There is a huge splurge of sound left-hand top—booming and vulgar! Below it is a mousy little meee sound which then translates into ‘oh’s and ‘ah’s and pops at the various circles. The lines are sharp and are moving to the right with the sound of steel—like blades scraping against one another. The triangle and boomerang shape are surprised and pop up laughing with a ‘whooo’.”
The next stage of the research will use brain scans to monitor the brains of synaesthetes when Kandinsky triggers sound or when sound triggers a vision, Ward said.