When we visited the Musée D’Orsay a couple of weeks ago, I was disappointed to hear that The Starry Night painting by van Gogh was at another exhibition; I had looked forward to the opportunity of seeing it in person. Although this was not possible, this past weekend we travelled to Arles, the town where van Gogh lived most of his life. It was a wonderful experience to walk around the areas where he painted his most famous works! Vincent van Gogh, one of the most famous painters from the mid-1800s, was also a man who lived a struggling life. Being somewhat of an outcast, he was ostracized by his community leading him to live a life of loneliness. Over the years, he spiraled into a routine of drinking absinthe that eventually led to the deterioration of his health. He was diagnosed with epileptic seizures and lived in and out of an asylum in Arles, France. Few know that he did his most famous works while he was suffering from these manic and depressive episodes. Seeing as how we have learned so much about him and even visited his hometown, I decided to look more into his medical diagnosis.
When you look at The Starry Night, you probably wonder how is it that van Gogh was able to see those colors in the sky when you can only see dark shades of blue at night. There are various theories as to why he decided to paint it that way, but one of those theories was that van Gogh had synesthesia. Synesthesia is a condition when stimulation in one sense automatically leads to sensations in another sense (Bradford 2017). For example, a person might see a letter and automatically associate it with a color. In the case of van Gogh, there is some evidence that points to him having chromesthesia. Chromesthesia is a subset of synesthesia in which certain sounds are associated with colors. “Vincent Van Gogh explained in his letters that for him, sounds had colors and that certain colors, like yellow and blue, were like fireworks for his senses” (Katie 2018). Could it be that he had synesthesia.
Synesthesia is still a widely unknown occurrence. There are 6 regions in the brain, primarily in the motor and sensory cortex, where higher activation levels are observed, V4 (involved in color perception) being one of them (Rouw et al. 2011). For this reason, there are two differing hypotheses as to how it arises, one of them being that there is somehow a disinhibition when relaying back sensory information to the different brain areas, meaning that essentially anyone has the potential to develop synesthesia. The other theory is that there is a cross-activation mediated through white matter pathways that occurs between the different sensory cortex areas; this is something you are born with, so only those people are able to develop it.
To test this out, researchers performed a visual imagery task to induce synesthesia in a group of individuals (Nair and Brang 2019). They were put in a dark environment to simulate visual deprivation and were then asked about the shapes of multiple letters through audio. The results show that there was significantly more visual imagery when a sound was presented right after the audio recording. The fact that it took approximately 5 minutes to induce these sensations points to the theory that everyone is born with the capacity to be synesthetic, but it only appears when one of the other senses is deprived.
Could this be what van Gogh was experiencing? In a 2016 case study, they describe how a 20-year-old woman who was diagnosed with social phobia and schizophrenia due to her avoidance of social groups and claims that she could see colors when she heard sounds. The doctors thought that she was suffering from hallucinations. In reality, she had savant abilities and synesthesia. To have someone be misdiagnosed only a couple of years ago, makes you wonder if maybe the doctors missed something when diagnosing van Gogh. At a young age, when he took piano lessons, he described the experience as overwhelming because each note was associated with a different color He was disregarded and His teacher believed him to be insane and wouldn’t allow him to continue the lessons (Taggart 2019). Could it be that he was never understood because he did in fact think distinctly due to his ability to perceive the world in a different way? A question that may never be answered, but could give us a little more insight into one of the greatest artistic minds of that time. Maybe for van Gogh, the sky was in fact joyous and explosive, not just a simple color.
Bradford, Alina. “What Is Synesthesia?” LiveScience, Purch, 18 Oct. 2017, www.livescience.com/60707-what-is-synesthesia.html.
Bouvet L, Barbier J, Cason N, Bakchine S, Ehrlé N (2017) When synesthesia and savant abilities are mistaken for hallucinations and delusions: contribution of a cognitive approach for their differential diagnosis, The Clinical Neuropsychologist, 31:8, 1459-1473
Katie. “Vincent Van Gogh and the Power of Synesthesia in Art.” Exploring Your Mind, Exploring Your Mind, 20 June 2018,
Nair A, Brang D (2019) Inducing synesthesia in non-synesthetes: Short-term visual deprivation facilitates auditory-evoked visual percepts, Consciousness and Cognition, 70: 70-79.
Rouw, Romke, et al. “Brain Areas Involved in Synaesthesia: A Review.” Journal of Neuropsychology, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd (10.1111), 16 Sept. 2011
Shovava, and Shovova. “5 Synesthesia Artists Who Paint Their Multi-Sensory Experiences.” My Modern Met, 28 Feb. 2019
Picture 1: https://www.overstockart.com/painting/van-gogh-starry-night
Picture 2: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Café_Terrace_at_Night
Picture 3: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/cafe-van-gogh-forum-square-arles-aivar-mikko.html