Author Archives: Daniel Son

Synesthesia: A hereditary superpower?

A lone man playing the electric guitar in a small living room. As he plays each individual chord, he begins to describe a scene similar to those of painting. A swirl of blue and green here, a swirl of yellow there, each individual chord contributing towards the tapestry of sound like an individual paint stroke in a grand painting. The phenomenon this man is going through is known to the scientific community as synesthesia. 

Painting Composition VII by Wassily Kandinsky: the painting is said to reflect the experience Kandinsky had while listening to a symphony

Synesthesia is a neurological condition where the activation of one sensation often leads to an involuntary activation of another sensory sensation (Asher, 2009). It is stated to affect around two to four percent of the world’s population, with many famous artists and musicians such as Wassily Kandinsky and Kanye West suggested to have this particular sensory phenomenon. So while this seems all well and good, but now you are probably asking what the deal is with the man that I mentioned in the beginning. Well, that man I was describing, in the beginning, happens to be my older cousin.


My cousin has a subclass of synesthesia classified as chromesthesia. Whenever he hears sounds such as music, he often sees flashes of color within his field of vision. He described the phenomenon of being like his own individual superpower, where he could see the world in his own unique way, and science seems to back up his own individual statement. A study conducted by Ward and company in 2017 found that when scientists look at the V4 part of the visual cortex (which is stated to be responsible for object recognition) shows that individuals with synesthesia showed greater visual performance compared to the general public (Ward 2017). As a common individual, I always wondered what it would be like to see through my cousin’s eyes. After experiencing a multitude of sounds here in Paris, from the roar of the metro to a local philharmonic orchestra playing in Luxembourg garden, a new question began to pop into my head, why didn’t I have this condition? What was the underlying mechanism behind this phenomenon that allowed my cousin to develop this ability and I wasn’t?

A local orchestra performance was done in Luxembourg Garden in Paris: how would it look to someone with synesthesia?

While many methods such as specific types of drugs and hypnotic techniques have been noted to develop a false synesthetic like experience researchers call “artificial synesthesia”, the main underlying factor within the development of synesthesia seems to focus on a genetic influence (Deroy and Spence, 2013). A study conducted by Barnett and company in 2008 investigated the familial patterns of those who developed synesthesia. By conducting a systematic survey of 53 measured synaesthetic, it was found that nearly 42 percent of those who participated in this survey reported a first-degree relative (parent or sibling) who also was a synesthetic (Barnett, 2008). What was interesting about this was that these first-degree synesthetic individuals did not necessarily share the exact same type of synesthesia, but may actually have different subsets. This research reflects the idea of synesthesia being a hereditary trait within immediate family members. This idea of the heritability of synesthesia is further supported when we look at the genetic markers underlying synaesthetic.


An investigation done by Asher and company in 2009 set out to understand the genetic influence that may underlie the development of synesthesia. Asher began his investigation by looking at a large group of 43 families of synesthetes recruited from the Cambridge Synaesthesia Research Group database (196 total participants, 121 who were affected, 68 unaffected and 7 unknown). After analyzing the genetic information of all individuals, it was suggested that four chromosomes (labeled 2q24, 5q33, 6p12, and 12p12) were said to hold evidence of genetic linkages (Asher 2009). What this means is that these genes were identified to have been inherited together within families of those who have synesthesia. 


While this information suggests a strong heritable cause for the development of synesthesia, the effect seems to be limited to those of immediate family members. Second-degree relationships like those between me and my cousin do not seem to reflect any correlation in terms of synesthetic heritability. While my cousin and I have been as close as brothers since as long as I could remember, it seems that our genetic code seems to keep me away from experiencing the sounds of the worlds in his eyes.


Although I may not be able to see the world through a near superhuman form of vision, it doesn’t change the amazement that this could mean towards the development of future generations. With synesthesia showing a strong genetic heritability, who knows, maybe this superhuman-like ability may be the visionary way to experience the world in the future.


Asher, J. E., Lamb, J. A., Brocklebank, D., Cazier, J. B., Maestrini, E., Addis, L.,Monaco, A. P. (2009). A whole-genome scan and fine-mapping linkage study of auditory-visual synesthesia reveals evidence of linkage to chromosomes 2q24, 5q33, 6p12, and 12p12. American journal of human genetics, 84(2), 279–285. doi:10.1016/j.ajhg.2009.01.012


Barnett K, Finucane C, Asher J, Bargary G, Corvin A, Newell F, et al. (2008) Familial patterns and the origins of individual differences in synaesthesia. Cognition. 2008;106(2):871‐893. 10.1016/j.cognition.


Deroy, O., & Spence, C. (2013). Training, hypnosis, and drugs: artificial synaesthesia, or artificial paradises?. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 660. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00660


Roe, A. W., Chelazzi, L., Connor, C. E., Conway, B. R., Fujita, I., Gallant, J. L., Vanduffel, W. (2012). Toward a unified theory of visual area V4. Neuron, 74(1), 12–29. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2012.03.011


Ward J, Rothen N, Chang A., et al. (2017) The structure of inter-individual differences in visual ability: evidence from the general population and synaesthesia. Vis Research;141: 293–302.


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Image 2: Taken by me

Lights, Camera, Brain Activity?

A suave young man acting like a French Humphrey Boggart walks down the street to chat up the young woman. They bicker and laugh at their daily life in Paris, as the young man casually asks the girl to come run away with him to Rome in order to escape the cops. This scene comes from one of my favorite black and white movies of all time, the French film by Jean Luc Godard Breathless.

A scene from Jean Luc Godard’s Breathless where we see our anti-hero Michel walking down
the streets of Paris with his American “girlfriend” Patricia

When I first saw this film for the first time in my sophomore year at Emory, it helped to inspire a deeper appreciation for film as a form of art all on its own. And I know I’m not alone in sharing that sentiment. In the limited time, I have spent here in Paris, I have understood how much the people here have an appreciation for their movies. From the Hollywood blockbusters to the more local avant-garde films, the streets and metros of Paris have never seemed to be without a shortage of advertisements for upcoming movies. Seeing how prevalent cinema seemed to be saturated throughout all cultures, got me to wondering exactly what is it about cinema makes us drawn to them? What exactly happens within our minds when we watch movies?


One of the interesting things I have found about movies is how watching a movie seems to bring a sense of shared experience and emotion with whoever you’re watching it with. A study conducted in 2008 by Hasson suggests that this particular shared phenomenon is not just isolated in the way that you feel, but also in the way that your brain is activated throughout the movie.

This particular study by Hasson set out to investigate the influence that exposure towards watching popular media has on evoking similar states of awareness. To test this, Hasson utilized a method known as inter-subject correlation (ISC) analysis to investigate the similarity of his subject’s brain activity throughout the experiment. ISC is a method that compares the activity of a specific region within a subject’s brain through a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) test to the activity of other subjects within the same region (Hasson, 2008). Using this method, Hasson first tested for the activity of the brain between 5 humans subjects. The subjects were put in an MRI scanner while watching the opening 30 minutes of Sergio Leone’s 1996 film The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The activity of the brain was recorded throughout the brain and then compared to the other subjects using ISC. After testing, Hasson found that the ISC between all subjects of the study were similar throughout multiple areas of the brain, particularly with the fusiform face gyrus which is associated with face-specific processing within the brain (Hasson, 2008; McCathy, 1997). This suggests that whenever we watch the same scene of a movie, our brains are similarly activated with others who also watched this exact scene. This aids itself in understanding why we seem to have this feeling of a shared experience whenever we watch a movie together with someone.

A figure from Hasson’s study: found that brain activity (this figure showing the fusiform face area) of areas throughout the brain were activated similarly across all subjects

While Hasson’s study does not go completely in depth into the neurophysiological systems that are influenced during movie watching, this question is further examined in a later study conducted by Pitcher in 2019. Within this particular study Pitcher set out to investigate the difference in brain region activity between viewing moving images vs stable images (Pitcher, 2019). Pitcher conducted this study by monitoring the brain activity of 22 participants through fMRI as they watched videos of moving bodies and faces and objects and compared them to the brain activity of the subjects when they viewed static images. Pitcher found that within this study that areas such as the extrastriate body area (involved in perception of the human body and body parts) and the occipital place area (involved in scene perception) are more activated when presented with the videos compared to when they are presented with a static image (Dilks, 2015; Serguei, 2004; Pitcher, 2019). The wider activation of these particular areas of the brain suggests how whenever we watch a movie, there is a greater sense of interactivity as you find yourself engaging to the movement of the people and scenery along with the object itself.


This interactivity of film with its audience is something that I continually find myself enthralled with. It’s an art form that draws us into the world of its characters, engaging us in ways that I have never fully understood. It’s a medium that utilizes itself to connect people from all over the world. From Peru to China, to the USA and Paris. This is a medium that seems to enthrall our souls and neurons.


So to end this off, I say that if you ever wanted to connect with someone on a deeper level, ask them to watch a movie and you’ll have an experience that connects you as deeply as the neuronal level.



Dilks, D. D., Julian, J. B., Paunov, A. M., & Kanwisher, N. (2013). The occipital place area is causally and selectively involved in scene perception. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 33(4),


Hasson U. Landesman O. Knappmeyer B. Vallines I. Rubin N. Heeger D. J. (2008). Neurocinematics: The neuroscience of film. Projections, 2, 1–26.


McCarthy G., Puce A., Gore C. J., & Allison T. (1997). Face-Specific Processing in the Human Fusiform Gyrus, J. Neuroscience 9(5)


Pitcher, D., Ianni, G., & Ungerleider, L. G. (2019). A functional dissociation of face-, body- and scene-selective brain areas based on their response to moving and static stimuli. Scientific reports, 9(1), 8242.


Serguei V A., Christine M S., Gordon L S., & Maurizio C. (2004) Extrastriate body area in human occipital cortex responds to the performance of motor actions. Nature Neuroscience 7(5)


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Curing Van Gogh? A Shocking Revelation

As I stared at the small frame hanging from the walls of my friend’s bedroom, I found myself entranced. I remember standing in awe as I took in the dark swirls of the painting’s dark blue sky; the bright yellow dots that represented the stars; and the calming landscape of the town in the background. The way that these aspects seemed to move and churn drew me in, unlike any other painting that I had previously encountered.


The painting that saw that day was Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, to this day, one of my favorite paintings of all time. When I stared at that painting for the first time, I initially appreciated the visual beauty of the work, taking it just as a simple piece of art. However, I recently had the opportunity to visit the mental asylum where he is said to have painted many of his most prolific pieces. While I was there, my individual perception of the painting began to change. Rather than a simple piece of art, Van Gogh’s style and painting began to reflect a deeper meaning, a look into his deteriorating madness.

Starry Night: One of Van Gogh’s most prolific paintings. Said to describe the view of a village from the east window of his mental asylum.

While Van Gogh is still remembered today by the many beautiful pieces of work, there is another aspect of Van Gogh himself that remains a hot topic of discussion, his mental instability. Throughout his life, Van Gogh had suffered through many psychotic symptoms. He was noted to have suffered from multitudes of mood swings between major depression and extreme highs, incoherent speech, and lapses of consciousness (Blumer, 2002). He was also noted to have suffered from visual and auditory hallucinations, although these were only within short durations (Strik, 1997). While there is a multitude of diagnoses surrounding the actual nature behind Van Gogh’s mental instability, the most prevalent of these is the diagnosis of bipolar disorder (Blumer, 2002). While understanding the nature of Van Gogh’s illness offers up an interesting line of discussion in itself, I believe this discussion is simply a platform for a greater line of questioning. That question is whether Van Gogh could be effectively treated with the techniques of today.


Since the time of Van Gogh, modern psychiatric treatments have developed far beyond what we could have imagined. With the development of mood stabilizers and antipsychotic medication, the effective treatment of these major mental disorders has increased dramatically (Lopez-Munoz, 2018). However, one of the most effective treatments for the most popular diagnosis of Van Gogh, bipolar disorder, may not lie within the development of these modern antipsychotic medications but rather something rather shocking, electroconvulsive therapy.


Electroconvulsive therapy, otherwise known as ECT, is a form of treatment within patients with severe depressive or bipolar disorder. The technique relies on administering a brief electrical stimulation of the brain while the patient is under anesthesia. This brief electrical stimulation forces the patient into a brief seizure (McDonald, 2016). Though the exact mechanisms underlying the effectiveness of electroconvulsive therapy are unknown, there are still a variety of theories that are used to explain the phenomenon. One of the most common of these theories deals with ECT’s influence on the release of neurotransmitters. One study conducted in 2014 by Baldinger, found that after the implementation of ECT on patients suffering from bipolar disorder there was an overall increase in the release and binding of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, which are associated with the stability of one’s mood and the brain’s reward system respectively (Baldinger, 2014).

A picture of a patient going through electroconvulsive therapy. Unlike electroshock therapy, electroconvulsive therapy is generally very safe with few side effects.

While this particular treatment gets a horrible reputation by the press, often being cited as unethical and invasive, modern neuroscientific research seems to show a different story. In a recent study conducted in 2017, Perugi aimed to investigate the influence that ECT had on the response rates of patients who suffered from Bipolar Disorder. By conducting an observational study on 522 patients who suffered from Bipolar Disorder before and after they had gone through ECT, Perugi found that around 344 (approximately 68.8%) of participating patients responded positively to the treatment. These results reflected Perugi, the greater effectiveness that ECT seemed to have with the response of the patients. He notes how with the improved rate of response along with the unlikelihood of future mood destabilization within his patients, that ECT should not be limited towards a finite amount of patients but used within a greater context (Perugi, 2017).


With the greater percentage of improvement that we see in modern-day patients with bipolar disorder, it can be easily inferred how the implementation of this treatment could have influenced the treatment of Van Gogh during his time. Techniques like ECT have pioneered a modern wave of mental illness treatment that allows for those suffering to live the best lives that they can possibly achieve. Who knows, if only this type of treatment were readily available to Van Gogh’s personal physicians, maybe there would have been greater amounts of Van Gogh’s work to fill the halls of museums all around the world.



Baldinger P, Lotan A, Frey R, Kasper S, Lerer B, Lanzenberger R. Neurotransmitters and electroconvulsive therapy. J ECT. 2014;30:116–121.


Blanco C., Laje G., Olfson M., Marcus S.C., Pincus H.A. 2002; Trends in the treatment of bipolar disorder by outpatient psychiatrists. Am. J. Psychiatry.159(6):1005–1010.


Blumer D. The illness of Vincent van Gogh. Am. J. Psychiatry. 2002;159:519–526. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.159.4.519.


López-Muñoz, F., Shen, W. W., D’Ocon, P., Romero, A., & Álamo, C. (2018). A History of the Pharmacological Treatment of Bipolar Disorder. International journal of molecular sciences, 19(7), 2143.


McDonald, W., & Fochtmann, L. (n.d.). 2016; What is Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT)? Retrieved from


Perugi, G., Medda, P., Toni, C., Mariani, M. G., Socci, C., & Mauri, M. (2017). The Role of Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) in Bipolar Disorder: Effectiveness in 522 Patients with Bipolar Depression, Mixed-state, Mania and Catatonic Features. Current neuropharmacology, 15(3), 359–371.


Strik, Werner. (1997). [The psychiatric illness of Vincent van Gogh].. Der Nervenarzt. 68. 401-9.