Synthetic Synesthesia??

Over the course of the past five weeks in Paris, we’ve had countless unforgettable experiences. These experiences have provided a variety of sensations. Whether it be hearing the stadium roar as the US women score another goal, tasting a range of wines in Provence, or viewing the perfect blend of colors in Monet’s paintings, our sensory systems have definitely been active, processing and responding to unique, memorable stimuli. However, our discussion of synesthesia in class this past week led me to wonder how different these experiences all may have been for those lucky enough to be synesthetic. 

What someone with synesthesia may see when listening to music (looks like the lights at the Philharmonic)

Synesthesia is a genetic condition in which one sense is combined with one or more others (Watson et al., 2014). For example, a synesthetic person may “hear colors” or “see smells”. Synesthesia affects people in various unique ways. A video we watched in class attempted to recreate one synesthetic’s experience, in which she saw certain colors pop up in the corner of her vision when she played certain musical notes on the violin. Based off the video’s portrayal, synesthesia seemed like a beautiful condition to have. I started to wonder how life would be different if I could combine my senses to create new forms of perception, especially thinking about all the highly stimulating sensory experiences we’d had during the trip. Over the past two weeks, there were two more excursions that really got me thinking about how different they may have been with synesthesia. First, we attended an exhibit at the Paris philharmonic called “From Kraftwerk to Daft Punk”. This was a modern art exhibit which contained combinations of electronic music, dancing LED lights, and cinematic videos. There was a large structure in the middle of the exhibit in which a bunch of poles were lighting up in different colors. Watching these lights move, along with the music playing, made this feel like a synesthetic experience. It was as though the lights were dancing along with the beat of the song. During our last week here, we had another unique sensory experience when we visited Monet’s garden. The scent of nature along with the sound of birds chirping and the large spectrum of colors seen had me thinking about synesthesia again. Could this combination of senses be similar to how synesthetic individuals experience everyday life? 

Taking in the garden

Smelling flowers for the full Monet experience

With all this curiosity, I decided to look into ways to experience synesthesia as a non-synesthetic. Unsurprisingly, the only reported ways of artificially inducing synesthesia involve the use of illegal substances. The most successful drugs in achieving this effect are psychoactive agents such as LSD (acid) and psilocybin (mushrooms) (Luke and Terhune, 2013), which are proposed to work by activating serotonin receptors in our brains (Daniel and Haberman, 2017). 

There have only been four controlled studies done on the effects of these drugs to induce synesthesia, all occurring between 1933 and 1966, but they all have been successful in creating synesthetic experiences in humans (Luke and Terhune, 2013). In one of these studies, from 1963, participants were given a light to moderate dose of either LSD or psilocybin. Additionally, they were played 16 different tones of sound before and after drug consumption. These patients reported experiencing more colors and visual effects (brightening of the visual field, disruption of visual patterns, creation of new visual patterns) when they were played the auditory tones while under the influence of the drugs compared to before being administered the compounds (Hartman and Hollister, 1963). These findings suggest that psychedelic substances can create sensual pairings, in this case auditory-visual, in non-synesthetic individuals. Although these results seem convincing, they can’t be completely conclusive because there is no way to tell the extent to which the patients experienced these synesthesia-like moments as well as difficulty in controlling for a placebo effect, as the participants may have already expected to have these experiences when administered the drugs. 

What would this have been like with synesthesia?

Recent research on psychoactive compounds has found that they may have further implications beyond recreational synesthetic experiences. A 2015 study looked at the effect of psilocybin to reduce suicidal thoughts and attempts (Hendricks et al., 2015). This was done by comparing four separate groups of individuals who had responded to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. These individuals were grouped based on their lifetime use of psychedelic drugs. In their lifetimes, they had either used psilocybin only, psilocybin & other psychedelics, non-psilocybin psychedelics only, or no psychedelics. They were then asked if they had experienced psychological distress in the past month, or suicidal thoughts or attempts in the past year. The most notable finding from this study was that the psilocybin only group had experienced any of these three outcomes significantly less than the no-psychedelics group (Hendricks et al., 2015). These findings begin to suggest that psilocybin may have therapeutic potential. However, this study does have it’s downfalls as all the participants were drug users, whether or not they used psychedelics. Thus, psychedelic users need to be compared to non-drug users to provide more conclusive results. 

These two studies show that while psychedelics could provide synesthetic experiences, we could possibly even see them used to treat mental health in the future, too. One thing is for sure, though: synesthesia was not necessary to fully experience Paris and our various excursions. Whether we were chaotically experiencing visual and auditory stimuli while navigating the crowded streets, or calmly taking in gustatory and olfactory stimuli in Arles, we consistently combined different sensations to create memorable experiences over the course of the program. 

Sources:

David Luke and Devin Terhune (2013) The induction of synesthesia with chemical agents: a systematic review. Front Psychol. 4: 753

Hartman A. M., Hollister L. E. (1963) Effect of mescaline, lysergic acid diethylamide and psilocybin on color perception. Psychopharmacologia 4: 441–451

Jeremy Daniel and Margaret Haberman (2017) Clinical potential of psilocybin as a treatment for mental health conditions. Ment Health Clin. 7(1): 24-28

Marcus R. Watson, Kathleen A. Akins, Chris Spiker, Lyle Crawford and James T. Enns (2014) Synesthesia and Learning: a critical review and novel theory. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 8: 98

Peter S Hendricks, Matthew W Johnson, and Roland R Griffiths (2015) Psilocybin, psychological distress, and suicidality. J Psychopharmacol. 9: 1041-1043

Images: 

Garden pics taken by Harry

World Cup game pic taken by Anika

Synesthesia art: https://www.sciencefriday.com/segments/the-color-of-music/

 

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