While demonstrating a Rolfing® technique during an alternate modalities class, a strong distinctive odor was emitted by my model as her tissue released under my hands. Commenting on this olfactory eructation, I was asked to describe it. My spontaneous reply: “It smells yellow!” Naturally, this elicited puzzled expressions and a confused silence. I explained that as bodies release toxins associated smells can be identified.’ Furthermore, for some practitioners, these smells manifest themselves as colors. This experience of “colored smelling” exemplifies the neurological phenomenon synesthesia that has received considerable attention recently.
I was first introduced to this phenomenon a few years ago by a good friend who recommended an extraordinary book: The Man Who Tasted Shapes by Dr. Richard Cytowicz. This book is a curious melange of hard science, personal speculation and brilliant deductive reasoning which elucidates the mysteries of this arcane subject in a highly entertaining manner. However, before I consider his and other theories of possible causes of this confusion of the senses, some historical background may help provide a general context for these ideas.
Exactly what synesthesia is and how it occurs is a subject of some controversy. In fact, until recently many scientists questioned its existence, although, it is now widely accepted as a genuine neurological phenomenon. Synesthesia is the effect of one sense triggering a response in another. Long before this phenomenon was explained, many major artists had experimented with fusions of diverse art forms, often creating compelling works whose history includes specific references to synesthetic experience. Unquestionably, the most influential effort in this arena are the music dramas of the 19th century German composer, Richard Wagner (1813-83). Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk (Total Art Work) was an elaborate effort to coordinate music, text, set design, lighting and action into an overpowering unity. Wagner’s intention was to enrapture and mesmerize his audience, transporting them to a mystical mythological realm. He even had a concert hall built in Bayreuth where his unique dramas could be performed in accordance with his frequently inconsistent theories.
His writings influenced an entire generation of musicians and artists, particularly in France where his ideas were transformed in a very un Wagnerian manner. One of the first important early French Wagnerians was the symbolist poet, Charles Baudelaire (1821-67). This artist, quoted at the beginning of this paper, explored a richly erotic world of symbolic sensorial connections. Consider how Baudelaire creates oddly perverse images with his peculiar evocations of smell, color and sound. Later French writers like Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907) described rarefied sensual worlds described in rich synesthetic detail (see, for example the hero’s “taste organ,” an elaborate “instrument” that dispensed a variety of rare and exquisitely colored liqueurs, as described in A Rebours). Another French symbolist, Arthur Rimbaud (1854-91), experimented with such conceits as linking colors with specific vowels. His 1871 poem Les Voyelles, for example, begins with the lines:
“A black, E white, I red, U green, 0 blue: vowels, some day I’ll reveal your hidden messages.”3
The early 20th Century composer and mystic Alexander Skryabin (18721915) experienced certain musical keys as having distinct colors. His 1910 work, Prometheus, The Poem of Eg, included a mute color-generating keyboard which projected shapes and images during the performance. These visuals, projected during the performance, were intended to mirror specific tonal and melodic events. A later incomplete work, Mysteriumn fused dance, music, poetry, colored light and fragrance. Similar connections between color and sound occur in the works of the 20th Century French mystic Olivier Messiaen (1908-92). Messiaen’s large-scale symphonic work: Les Couleurs de la Cite Celeste (The Colors of the Celestial City, 1963) fuses a programmatic linking of harmonies and instrumental colors with esoteric religious imagery. Both of these artists described true synesthetic hearing, identifying tonalities and even pitch aggregates (chords) with specific colors.
Somewhat more artificial unions of the visual and auditory arts are found in an art exhibit entitled Synesthesia in Contemporary Art. The collection includes works by well known multimedia artists such as Laurie Anderson and Nam June Paik. In his introduction, Don Bacigalupi establishes a connection between aural and visual phenomena, arguing that these links predate language. Popular culture, he argues, extends this relationship by “exploiting a symbiotic relationship between sound and vision. We use sound in the service of the visual and conversely, we exploit visual art in service of sound.” He believes that such interrelationships are “the commercial manifestations of the Gesamtkunstwerk imagined by Richard Wagner.”4 While this feels rather hyperbolic, certain thematic relationships with Wagner’s theories certainly do exist. For example, Alberto Mijangos describes his art in quasi-Wagnerian language. “In music, numerical notes follow one another forming a pattern that creates a song. Patterns of color and form develop to make a painting. In ‘Surrounded by Sound’, I attempt to achieve a continuum of Action and Awareness – an invisible sensory link that connects music and visual art.”5 Similar language abounds in this diverse retrospective catalogue.
Theories about what causes some individuals to experience the world synesthetically are far from consistent. One of the most interesting, mentioned above, appears in ]Ig Man Who Tasted Shapes. The book’s title comes from an experience Cytowicz had while eating dinner with a friend. This friend rather sheepishly mentioned that he feared for his sanity since he experienced tastes as having highly distinctive shapes. As a neurologist, Cytowicz reassured his friend that he was not crazy but was experiencing a type of synesthesia, carefully explaining the details of this condition in layman’s terms. This conversation led Cytowicz to research this neurological phenomenon and eventually resulted in his developing an interesting theory of its cause. Along the way, he encountered other synesthetes including a woman who experienced sounds as having shape. At his first meeting with her, she begged him to shut off his beeper, complaining that its sound was like lightning bolts or “blinding red jaggers.”6 After much experimentation, he theorized that the source ofsynesthesia is in a primitive part of the brain, the limbic system, more specifically the left hippocampus. Arguing that synesthesia shares certain features with epilepsy, he proposed that parts of the brain somehow get disconnected, “causing the normal processes of the limbic system to be released, bared to consciousness, and experienced as synesthesia. In other words, a stimulus causes a rebalancing of regional metabolism.”7
There are many other recent theories about the causes of this condition, found in a collection of essays by Harrison and Baron-Cohen.8 Dismissing Cytowicz’s notions, they present a useful summary of several alternative theories. One theory is that of learned association. Its creators argue that a child’s learning letters using colored alphabets results in associations that effect adult experience. Cytowicz and others, however, dismiss this theory, pointing out that true synesthetes do not share the same color associations. Rather, the complete lack of any external pattern in color associations among synesthetes argues in favor of an internal mechanism. A more convincing internal mechanism theory is the Preserved Neural Connectivity theory, which posits that certain neural pathways between the visual and auditory regions of the brain found in early infancy persist into adulthood. This theory helps explain why auditory stimuli would simultaneously stimulate the visual cortex. Similarly, the Sensory Leakage Theory, suggests that since many cases of spontaneous synesthesia arise after damage to the anterior portions of the brain, these injuries somehow cause leakages of information into neural pathways ordinarily employed for processing visual information. There is also a genetic theory, based on studies that suggest patterns of synesthesia in families, particularly in twins, although the data are very inconclusive.
Cohen and Harrison argue that the kind of artistic synesthesia found in Baudelaire and Rimbaud is not true synesthesia but a contrived artistic device they call pseudo-synesthesia. They argue that one need not necessarily be a true synesthete in order to engage in this activity. However, I reiterate, several of the artists mentioned above actually did experience the world synesthetically, and this experience had a profound influence on their art and aesthetic writings.
What I find unconvincing is the notion that this sense can be developed, or perhaps, learned. Omar Karel suggests that there is a linkage memory system that uses a synesthesia to increase recall. “The possibility that synesthesia is exercisable, that it [sic] is some sort of ‘symbolically sensitive sensory muscle’ is alluring. When a synesthete looks at a door, he is more likely to see a distinct shade and hue, rather than a ‘white’, or ‘wood’. He may possibly listen, or hear, a distinct sound it produces. He may smell it and taste it. All these sensory impressions are memory cues that help the mind recollect any event. Memory, rather oddly, works in a remarkably useful way in this framework.”9 I believe that this argument is only valid if one has an a priori experience of the world in synesthetic terms. Regrettably, I find no evidence to support Karel’s later claims that this is a teachable phenomenon. In fact, most neurologists argue exactly the opposite.
After reviewing several books and articles on the subject, I concluded that my experiences meet the criteria for true synesthesia. I infer that the process works something like this. First, I accept that my client’s body is a storehouse of information and that this information can be accessed through touch. Once touched, an area of trauma can be accessed and the memory of specific events related to the resistant tissue can be experienced and released.10 Once this trapped detritus is released, a distinct odor is emitted. I perceive and process that olfactory information in a synesthetic manner (smell as color). Once this linkage has occurred, it initiates a rational process of attempting to more precisely ascertain the nature of the smell. I then ask the client what possible relevance this experience might have. This often leads to a discussion about a specific event and provides useful insights which helps the client better understand her internal experience.
For example, when touching the leg of a young female client, I recall smelling a dry dusty smell, which I experienced as bright white. I soon realized that the “bright white smell” was chalk, which I could see billowing in clouds. I asked the client why I might smell chalk. She replied that she had run track and that the chalk was used to mark the track. Prior to palpation, I had no information regarding the client’s athletic experiences.
Owing to the sheer number of similar experiences, I wished to better understand how I (and many others) process olfactory fascial information. While I seriously doubt that synesthesia is a teachable skill, the recognition of smells certainly is. Clearly, those who process information through smell can learn to refine their sensing through practice and use this skill to “read” and affect their client in a richer more engaging manner without having to decode a color as a smell and smell as a memory.
1. Translation by the author. The complete poem may be found in: Robinson, Christopher. French Literature in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1978), pp. 129-30.
2. In a recent e-mail 3/12/00, Peter Schwind pointed out that because of fat’s “high binding capacity for smells,” it is a likely source for the offending odors I report here rather than the fascia below it. According to Peter, this property of fat is frequently overlooked in this discussion as well as in our discussions of tissue. I wish to thank him for this clarification.
3. Arthur Rimbaud, “Les Voyelles, ” “A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, 0 bleu: voyelles, Je dirai quelque jour vos naissances latentes” (translation by the author).
4. Bacigalupi, Don, and Ph.D. S eyp sthe_ sia: Sound and Vision in Contemporary Art. August 27-December 4. 1994. San Antonio Museum of Art (San Antonio, TX: San Antonio Museum of Art, 1994), p. 1.
5. Bacigalupi, Synesthesia, p. 24.
6. Cytowicz, Richard E, M.D., The Mart Who Tasted Shapes (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993), pp. 46-47.
7. Ibid, p. 163.
8. Harrison, John E. & Baron-Cohen, Simon, ed., Synaesthesia: A Review of Psychological Theories, in Synaesthesia: Classic and Contemporary Readings, Chapter 7 (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1997), pp. 109-22. See also The Physiological Basis of Svnaesthesia, same collection, pp. 123-47.
9. Excerpt from Omar Karel’s website on synesthesia.
10. Oschman, James and Nora, “Somatic Recall.” Part I. Soft Tissue Memory, Readinas on the Scientific Basis of Bodywork, Vol. II, (Dover, NH: Nature’s Own Research Association, 1995), p. 15