One of the most fascinating anomalies of human perception is a phenomenon called synesthesia, a word derived from the Greek for joined sensation. For
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One of the most fascinating anomalies of human perception is a phenomenon called synesthesia, a word derived from the Greek for joined sensation. For
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FIG. 1: Basil Ganglia mapped 128 MIDI notes to the visible color spectrum and programmed the synesthizer to respond to notes by generating signals that mimic the brain''s EM patterns when -perceiving the corresponding colors. Synesthis is a big hit with the heads at Callosum Corp. U.S.

One of the most fascinating anomalies of human perception is a phenomenon called synesthesia, a word derived from the Greek for “joined sensation.” For those who experience it, stimulating one of the five senses — sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch — causes a distinct perception in one or more of the other senses. For example, a synesthete might hear the color red or taste the touch of leather on their skin.

Among the famous historical synesthetes was Russian composer Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915). In an effort to express his own synesthetic experiences, Scriabin often used “light organs” to control beams and clouds of colored light during his performances. He even experimented with wafting scents through the audience to coincide with specific moments in the music. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), he died before completing his magnum opus, Mysterium, a seven-day-long piece to be performed at the foot of the Himalayas in India, after which, he believed, the world would dissolve in bliss.

Dr. Spanakopita “Spanky” N. R. Ganglia, of Callosum Corp. U.S., has recently turned his attention to this phenomenon and how it might be directly stimulated in nonsynesthetes, not merely simulated as Scriabin sought to do. You might recall his previous invention, the Mindophone (see “Tech Page: Music on the Brain” in the April 2000 issue), which led to the astounding discovery that the Internet had achieved independent consciousness (see “Tech Page: Cybersinger” in the April 2004 issue).

Ganglia, aided by his musician brother Basil, began his latest research by recording and analyzing the brain activity of synesthetes undergoing various sensory stimuli. He found that areas of the brain involved with one type of sensory perception emitted specific electromagnetic (EM) patterns when another sense was being directly stimulated.

The next step was to find a way to incite the synesthetic experience in nonsynesthetes. Ganglia decided to start with the simplest and most common case: seeing colors in response to hearing sounds. He built a device he calls a synesthizer, which generates signals that match those he recorded from the visual cortex of synesthetic brains responding to sound. Then, Basil mapped the range of perceivable pitches to the visible colors (see Fig. 1) and programmed that mapping into the device, which includes a MIDI input. As different notes are played on any synthesizer, the synesthizer produces a signal that mimics the EM pattern of the visual cortex when perceiving the color mapped to that note.

Stimulating a nonsynesthetic brain with those signals turned out to be the easy part. Ganglia simply modified his Mindophone headpiece, which was originally designed to detect EM activity in the brain. In the adapted version, the sensors were converted into EM transmitters and placed at the back of the headpiece, where they would be in close proximity to the visual cortex. The signals from the synesthizer are converted into harmless EM radiation and projected into the occipital lobe of the brain, causing the visual cortex to behave as though it's processing colors in response to the music being played by the synthesizer.

The initial experiments were a big success, with many Callosum colleagues lining up to try it after disappearing briefly into the restroom and emerging with red eyes and goofy, giggling grins. “Oh, wow, man!” was a common refrain heard in the test chamber, a clear indication that they were, indeed, seeing colors along with hearing music. Of course, that could have been because of the preparation they underwent beforehand, but Ganglia confirmed that the effect was not chemically induced. He concluded that synesthis, as he calls the technology, could be the Next Big Thing in the evolution of consciousness. Just don't bogart that headpiece!