Heightening the senses
Is Tuesday blue or yellow? What does Kings Cross train station taste like? What colour is your favourite song? The National Science and Media Museum’s temporary exhibition Supersenses explored the psychological phenomena behind these questions.
Our whole world is multi-sensory. When we eat, we receive information from taste, smell and sound receptors. However, some individuals receive simultaneous sensory output from two seemingly unrelated senses. This is the phenomenon known as synaesthesia. Deriving from the Ancient Greek “syn” (together) and “aisthēsis” (sensation), synaesthesia is a perceptual feeling that occurs when two sensory pathways are automatically activated together (Cytowic, 2002). For example, songs are coloured, names have texture, letters are musical and words have taste.
In order to live efficiently (and to give our brains a break), we are constantly inhibiting sensory information. Synaesthesia occurs when some of these sensory pathways aren’t inhibited fully, says the theory of response inhibition. Science tells us that synesthetes are more likely to partake in creative activities (Dailey, Martindale, Borkum, 1997) so the phenomenon naturally lends itself well to artistic interpretations. The Supersenses exhibition saw a fusion of science and art to illustrate living with the condition. A ‘sensory sound pit’ by artist Di Mainstone allowed visitors to interact with moving sand, light and music to give the effect of seeing colours in response to sound. A ‘lexical-gustatory synaesthesia’ London tube map by James Wannerton showed how something as arbitrary as a tube station can be assigned a specific taste (apparently Covent Garden tastes like chocolate digestives and Kings Cross like fruit cake and dripping).
We all have the capacity for synaesthesic experiences on some level. The well-known bouba-kiki effect (Köhler, 1947) demonstrates this; in the study people universally associate a round shape with ‘bouba’ and a spiky shape with ‘kiki’. Alberto Gallace, Charles Spence and Erica Boshin from the Cross Modal Research Laboratory in Oxford reported in 2010 that bouba and kiki also have specific tastes associated with them. For example, mint chocolate is rated as more “kiki” than regular chocolate. The exhibition explored this, and prompted visitors to think about the vast individual differences within perception and senses. A ‘colour vision experiment’ installation narrated the differences in colour perception (my idea of the perfect ‘yellow’ was subtly different to that of other visitors).
All in all, the exhibition toyed with some interesting concepts in an immersive and interactive way. I left with a feeling of heightened senses (and I couldn’t help but wonder what my own name would taste like).
Cytowic, Richard E. (2002). Synesthesia: A Union of the Senses (2nd edition). Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Dailey A, Martindale C, Borkum J (1997). "Creativity, synesthesia, and physiognomic perception". Creativity Research Journal. 10 (1): 1–8.
Gallace, A., Boschin, E., & Spence, C. (2010). On the taste of “Bouba” and “Kiki”: An exploration of word–food associations in neurologically normal participants. Cognitive Neuroscience, 2(1), 34-46.
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