Friday, July 23, 2010

Burne-Jones and Synesthesia


Two years ago, I did a post on a comment Edward Burne-Jones had made about how he saw the days of the week as different colors, except for Sunday which was "wet, ever since I was tiny, though I don't know why." At the time, an anonymous poster mentioned that there was a term for this condition, Synesthesia, but I didn't do much follow up on the idea, I'm sorry now to admit. Then, the other day, while perusing a totally unrelated blog that was talking about animating inanimate objects as another symptom of synesthesia, the subject came to my attention again, and I read the Wikipedia article about the condition.

According to the article, Synesthesia is "a neurologically-based condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway." Burne-Jones' admission that the days of the week represent different colors is probably an example of grapheme ---> color synesthesia, in which "letters or numbers are perceived as inherently colored."


Also according to the article, "Although synesthesia was the topic of intensive scientific investigation in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was largely abandoned by scientific research in the mid-20th century, and has only recently been rediscovered by modern research." If the condition was discussed in the late 1800s, it makes me wonder if Burne-Jones was aware of it. I would love to find out how people with synesthesia were regarded in the late Victorian era. Was it considered just a quirk, or was it a symptom of a more serious mental condition to them?

Quite a few synesthetes end up in artistic careers. "Many people with synesthesia use their experiences to aid in their creative process, and many non-synesthetes have attempted to create works of art that may capture what it is like to experience synesthesia." Or, as another wonderful article on the topic states, "There are elements of synethesia in almost any creative endeavor. It is no wonder that so many artists were self-proclaimed synesthetes. The ability to create metaphors, tying together seemingly unrelated things has been responsible for some of the most beautiful poetry and prose created by human kind. It is this connection between senses, this cross-linkage that allows us to easily comprehend such abstract concepts as "the bitter wind" or such descriptions as "Juliet is the sun."

Not everyone with synesthesia, even the same type, see the world the same. "Some grapheme ? color synesthetes report that the colors seem to be "projected" out into the world (called "projectors"), while most report that the colors are experienced in their "mind's eye" (called "associators")." This calls to mind for me the frequent references in Burne-Jones' writings to wanting to "go on always in that strange land that is more true than real" or that he "lived inside the pictures and from the inside of them looked out upon a world less real than they." Perhaps if Burne-Jones had synesthesia of the "minds eye" variety, the conflict between his inner and outer reality would have been even more deep and pronounced, explaining in part his desire for the inner landscape.

In the Wikipedia article section on famous people with synesthesia, it says "Determining synesthesia from the historical record is fraught with error unless (auto)biographical sources explicitly give convincing details." Because of this, we can't guarantee that Burne-Jones had synesthesia, although I would love to now re-read The Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones by his widow, Georgiana, with this idea in mind. The particular example that sparked this exploration, the colors of the weekdays, is especially fascinating to me, because six out of the seven days are marked by a color, but the seventh day is marked by a different sense, feeling "wet." Perhaps someone with more knowledge of Synesthesia could tell us what this might mean.

In the conclusion to a fascinating article on the evolutionary function of Synesthesia, Alexandra Mnuskin writes "The extraordinary experience of synesthesia has opened the door to some of the most complicated and as yet uncharted functions of the brain. We all experience a certain amount of cross wiring, and it is this which defines us as human beings. Researchers have shown cases where color-blind synesthetes were actually able to perceive colors in numbers without ever having seen those colors before [2]. To me, this discovery is really the culmination of everything I have been learning about the brain. All on its own, the human mind can create something we have never experienced such as an abstract concept of color. It can produce a subtle and poetic language to tell stories about things we have never seen with our eyes. This one mass of cells can encompass our entire reality." If Burne-Jones had Synesthesia, perhaps the image in his mind's eye wasn't so much an escape from reality, but another way of perceiving things that truly are, on some level, real. This was part of his genius, and why his art still seems to carry us away into another "strange land."

12 comments:

Von said...

What a wonderful post , thank you for it and all it explains.I like it so much I think I'll link it if I may, mainly for my own benefit but also because it will appeal to others with similar interests.

Hermes said...

Never heard of it - fascinting.

Sam said...

Though I've never been properly assessed with it, I appear to have a bit of synesthesia. About half the letters of the alphabet make me "see" colors, as do words made up of those letters. Also relevant to the post, I work as an illustrator. Sometimes I use what I "see" to influence my illustrations, sometimes not. But it can play a part - especially if I'm drawing an alphabet book.

RowanDeVoe said...

grace,
this post has really freaked me out. i have never heard of this condition yet this is how my twin and i have lived our lives. this is how we first spoke to each other in our twin language. we associate each person with a coloured number. we associate each number with a colour. we associate each day of the week with a colour. there are water days, sun days, earth days. there are also ways of describing peoples' faces-shadow face, tan shadow face, water face, blue bone face, number 9 grey face, red 5 face and on and on.

in my own art and thinking, i have specific "worlds" or places i go-shade forest 7 green, water land wet turquoise 3 and 9, ice and mineral land silver green periwinkle castle 11, 7 and 11 green meadow land-twin land, 4 and 11 sunset tall grass land yellow and orange, 8 purple land sunrise soft with panda bears, birthday cake land smells like number 1 white with chips of aqua and pink 1 smells like mint and wild strawberries, sunset firefly letter A land sugar clover is a red 5 and a purple monday, a "danny smell" smells like a cat on a brown tues and is a wet day a brown day is a number 14...

i could go on and on. my twin has forgotten much of this but can talk her about what colour number a person is, what type of shadow face a person has, where a danny smell is or a birthday cake smell is their colours, what combinations of numbers colours are and a few of the different lands-like mineral ice land, clover land, brown cat land and their numbers.

all of these things influence everything i do and make complete sense to me. i designed a pink and purple wedding dress and coat for her because of the purple panda 8 which is her favourite. the decorations at her wedding were yellow 4 straw and 11 orange pumpkins because she loves the 4 and 11 yellow/orange combination too. since it was on a sat. it had to have stars and water plus some cold/cool and if there was no cold/cool i had to give it a 13 star cold/cool of my own.

i know this all sounds really crazy. i never thought of it being crazy and never knew it had a name-i have never even thought of it. i just thought this was how my brain worked(oh, roses plus water=purple 7). yikers! now i wonder what is going on with me!

i also translate to the different languages i have learned over the years-greek, spanish, some german, italian. help! what is wrong with me? is my brain dying or going to explode? i do have horrific migraines and in no way a master artist. oh no, don't get me talking about ground berries, colours, letters and numbers or places and numbers and letters! wow. can you email me?

RowanDeVoe said...

grace,
this post has really freaked me out. i have never heard of this condition yet this is how my twin and i have lived our lives. this is how we first spoke to each other in our twin language. we associate each person with a coloured number. we associate each number with a colour. we associate each day of the week with a colour. there are water days, sun days, earth days. there are also ways of describing peoples' faces-shadow face, tan shadow face, water face, blue bone face, number 9 grey face, red 5 face and on and on.

in my own art and thinking, i have specific "worlds" or places i go-shade forest 7 green, water land wet turquoise 3 and 9, ice and mineral land silver green periwinkle castle 11, 7 and 11 green meadow land-twin land, 4 and 11 sunset tall grass land yellow and orange, 8 purple land sunrise soft with panda bears, birthday cake land smells like number 1 white with chips of aqua and pink 1 smells like mint and wild strawberries, sunset firefly letter A land sugar clover is a red 5 and a purple monday, a "danny smell" smells like a cat on a brown tues and is a wet day a brown day is a number 14...

i could go on and on. my twin has forgotten much of this but can talk her about what colour number a person is, what type of shadow face a person has, where a danny smell is or a birthday cake smell is their colours, what combinations of numbers colours are and a few of the different lands-like mineral ice land, clover land, brown cat land and their numbers.

all of these things influence everything i do and make complete sense to me. i designed a pink and purple wedding dress and coat for her because of the purple panda 8 which is her favourite. the decorations at her wedding were yellow 4 straw and 11 orange pumpkins because she loves the 4 and 11 yellow/orange combination too. since it was on a sat. it had to have stars and water plus some cold/cool and if there was no cold/cool i had to give it a 13 star cold/cool of my own.

i know this all sounds really crazy. i never thought of it being crazy and never knew it had a name-i have never even thought of it. i just thought this was how my brain worked(oh, roses plus water=purple 7). yikers! now i wonder what is going on with me!

i also translate to the different languages i have learned over the years-greek, spanish, some german, italian. help! what is wrong with me? is my brain dying or going to explode? i do have horrific migraines and in no way a master artist. oh no, don't get me talking about ground berries, colours, letters and numbers or places and numbers and letters! wow. can you email me?

RowanDeVoe said...

grace,
this post has really freaked me out. i have never heard of this condition yet this is how my twin and i have lived our lives. this is how we first spoke to each other in our twin language. we associate each person with a coloured number. we associate each number with a colour. we associate each day of the week with a colour. there are water days, sun days, earth days. there are also ways of describing peoples' faces-shadow face, tan shadow face, water face, blue bone face, number 9 grey face, red 5 face and on and on.

in my own art and thinking, i have specific "worlds" or places i go-shade forest 7 green, water land wet turquoise 3 and 9, ice and mineral land silver green periwinkle castle 11, 7 and 11 green meadow land-twin land, 4 and 11 sunset tall grass land yellow and orange, 8 purple land sunrise soft with panda bears, birthday cake land smells like number 1 white with chips of aqua and pink 1 smells like mint and wild strawberries, sunset firefly letter A land sugar clover is a red 5 and a purple monday, a "danny smell" smells like a cat on a brown tues and is a wet day a brown day is a number 14...

i could go on and on. my twin has forgotten much of this but can talk her about what colour number a person is, what type of shadow face a person has, where a danny smell is or a birthday cake smell is their colours, what combinations of numbers colours are and a few of the different lands-like mineral ice land, clover land, brown cat land and their numbers.

all of these things influence everything i do and make complete sense to me. i designed a pink and purple wedding dress and coat for her because of the purple panda 8 which is her favourite. the decorations at her wedding were yellow 4 straw and 11 orange pumpkins because she loves the 4 and 11 yellow/orange combination too. since it was on a sat. it had to have stars and water plus some cold/cool and if there was no cold/cool i had to give it a 13 star cold/cool of my own.

i know this all sounds really crazy. i never thought of it being crazy and never knew it had a name-i have never even thought of it. i just thought this was how my brain worked(oh, roses plus water=purple 7). yikers! now i wonder what is going on with me!

i also translate to the different languages i have learned over the years-greek, spanish, some german, italian. help! what is wrong with me? is my brain dying or going to explode? i do have horrific migraines and in no way a master artist. oh no, don't get me talking about ground berries, colours, letters and numbers or places and numbers and letters! wow. can you email me?

Stephanie Pina said...

This may seem strange and I've never articulated it before, so I don't know if I'll describe it well. My entire life I've done a similar thing with numbers, but I've never associated them with colors but with definite feminine/masculine personalities. I remember in elementary school seeing 1 as male and aloof while 2 was feminine and mean. 3 was male and friendly. 4 was like 2 (feminine, kind of mean) while 5 and 6 were both male. 7 was male and needy, he wanted 8 to like him but 8 wouldn't give him the time of day because she was obsessed with 9. I saw 8 and 9 as both feminine and 10 as male and aloof, the same as one. Probably one reason I did not do well in math was I was sitting there daydreaming about all this...and I still see numbers this way. So I was excited to read your post about Burne-Jones...partly because it is incredibly interesting and partly because I wonder if there is a similar condition dealing with numbers.

Grace said...

Stephanie, Merle, I'm so fascinated to hear of your personal experiences with this! The amazing thing about this condition to me is that it makes itself known in such different ways to different people. There seems to be a basically infinite number of senses -----> numbers or things.

Cat (darklingwoods) said...

This is so compelling, I think we all have some degree of this but perhaps visual artists tend to link colors. Like Merle I can remember doing this more as a child (not as complex as hers, the link with her twin is so fascinating) I'm loving your blog btw... such lovely and thoughtful posts!

Grace said...

Thank you, Cat! I'm so glad you found it interesting/helpful! :) Your blog is also lovely!

Shveta said...

I have wanted synesthesia ever since I first heard of it. Maybe one day, my brain will open up?

Grace said...

I'm torn...sometimes I think it would be lovely, other times I think it may be awfully confusing.