Author Archives: Nicholas Maamari

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. 


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


Garden pics taken by Harry

World Cup game pic taken by Anika

Synesthesia art:


Paris or Provence?

I somehow manage to squeeze onto the packed metro. I’m jammed in between the door and the countless people annoyedly gazing in my direction. I am overwhelmed. Right when I think this is the extent of this morning’s stimulation, the sound of accordion song busts into my ears. These chaotic metro rides were exciting during the first week or so in Paris; they were part of getting immersed in the culture! However, the honeymoon phase ended, and the metro became more stressful than exhilarating. That’s when this past weekend came to the rescue, providing a much needed break from the hectic, bustling Paris. The class took a trip to Provence, a region in southern France known for its colorful countryside, Roman architecture, and extensive art history. The difference in lifestyle was immediately noticeable. Everyone went about their day in a much more relaxed manner; there was no concept of time. This was quite the contrast from Paris, the city where everything is done in a rush. Whether you are navigating the crowded streets or shoving your way onto the metro, it seems you never get a break from the constantly accelerating Parisian lifestyle.

Cinematic shots in Avignon

Mullerthal region of Luxembourg, known for its impressive rock structures

The trip to Provence left me feeling refreshed. It was as if all the stress accumulated from the prior two weeks had been erased, and I was returning to Paris with a clear head. This made me realize how powerful the suburbs and nature can be towards influencing one’s mood. Most notably, when we visited the Pont du Gard aqueduct during the trip, the pristine, never ending river made me feel completely at peace. I couldn’t get enough, though, so I went for a hiking trip in Luxembourg this weekend and the nature had the same restorative effect. This made me question the effects of living in the city versus living in the suburbs. If just two days away from the city can be like hitting a reset button, are there permanent effects or consequences from living in one environment or the other? There have been various findings that suggest that urban living may pose a threat to our health.

At Pont Du Gard

Studies suggest that we undergo neurological and behavioral changes due to living in evolutionarily unfamiliar settings (cities) (Lambert et al., 2015). Research on this topic dates all the way back to 1868, when Charles Darwin found that the brains of domesticated rabbits were smaller than those of wild rabbits (Darwin, 1868). About one hundred years later, in 1972, there was a study that compared mice brains in natural and artificial environments. The natural environment had things such as logs and tree branches, whereas the artificial environment consisted of plastic toys. Mice were allowed to live in either of these environments for four to ten weeks, and were then autopsied. The results showed that the naturally-enriched group showed higher levels of DHEA, a hormone linked with positive health influences such as more emotional resilience (Starka et al., 2014; Rosenzweig et al., 1972). There is even evidence in humans of the positive neural effects of nature and the negative effects of urban environments. For example, humans showed an increase in prefrontal cortex activity when viewing an actual plant compared to viewing an image of that same plant (Igarashi et al., 2014). Furthermore, a recent study from the UK suggests that children raised in urban environments are at an increased risk for psychotic symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia (Newbury et al., 2016). These findings are theorized to be due to lower social cohesion paired with more crime victimization seen in urban neighborhoods (Newbury et al., 2016).

The various forms of pollution experienced in urban environments also have a negative influence on our overall health. Light pollution is no exception. Light exposure at night interferes with the body’s natural circadian rhythm (McClung, 2007), in turn interfering with hormone secretion and other physiological processes (Stevens et al., 2013). This can pose serious health problems. For example, a 2008 study found a strong correlation between light at night and breast cancer incidence in about 150 different communities (Kloog et al., 2008). Animal studies have shown similar results, too. A study on hamsters in which they were exposed to constant light, both at night and day, caused them to show less locomotor activity, less preference for a sucrose solution, and dampened daily cortisol rhythms compared to control mice living in an environment with a natural lighting pattern (Bedrosian et al., 2013). These symptoms are considered to be representative of depression (Bedrosian et al., 2013). Light pollution is thus another factor of urban living that may lead to diminished mental and overall health.

Image result for light pollution map

A map of the world’s light pollution

All the studies discussed above make urban living sound quite horrific, but it should be mentioned that it is difficult to draw broad conclusions from them that can be applied to our lives as humans. For example, in field studies done on humans, the samples taken usually represent small populations and it is almost impossible to control for confounding variables. In the studies done in the lab, on both humans and animals, it is impossible to recreate the environments and experiences that everyday life provides us with. This being said, these findings do still suggest that urban living could pose health concerns to us, and possibly future studies will be more conclusive.

Although city life has its perks, such as better access to health care and more job exposure, both past and recent research suggest that an occasional break from the scurry of everyday life certainly wouldn’t hurt.


Bedrosian TA, Galan A, Vaughn CA, WeilZ M, Nelson RJ. Nocturnal light alters diurnal patterns of cortisol and clock proteins in female hamsters. J Neuroendocrinol. 25:590–0606. (2013).

Darwin C.  The variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication. 1s. London: John Murray; (1868).

Igarashi M, Song C, Ikei H, Miyazaki Y. Effect of stimulation by foliage plant display images on prefrontal cortex activity: a comparison with stimulation using actual foliage plants. J Neuroimaging. (2014).

Joanne Newbury, Louise Arseneault, 1 Avshalom Caspi, Terrie E. Moffitt, Candice L. Odgers, and Helen L. Fisher. Why Are Children in Urban Neighborhoods at Increased Risk for Psychotic Symptoms? Findings From a UK Longitudinal Cohort Study. Schizophr Bull. 42(6): 1372–1383. (2016).

Kelly G. Lambert, Randy J. Nelson, Tanja Jovanovic, and  Magdalena Cerdá. Brains in the City: Neurobiological effects of urbanization. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 58, 107-122. (2015).

Kloog I, Haim A, Stevens RG, Barachana M, Portnov BA. Light at night co-distributes with incident breast but not lung cancer in the female population of Israel. Chronobiol Int. 25:65–81. (2008).

McClung CA. Circadian genes, rhythms and the biology of mood disorders. Pharmacol Ther. 11:222–232. (2007).

Rosenzweig MH, Bennett EI, Diamond MC. Brain changes in response to experience. Scientific American February. 22–30. (1972).

Starka L, Duskova M, Hill M. Dehydroepiandrosterone: a neuroactive steroid. J Steroid Biochem Molecul Biol. (2014).

Stevens RG, Brainard GC, Blask DE, Lockley SW, Motta ME. Adverse health effects of nighttime lighting: comments on American Medical Association policy statement. Am J Prev Med. 45:343–346. (2013).