College Writing 101: Synesthesia   Leave a comment

Seeing as how this is Tritonthink’s 101st post, I thought I’d deliver a “101” type introduction to a phenomenon that is growing in popularity and academically useful in college writing. Whether it’s personal statements or important essays for writing-based classes, synesthesia offers a flavorful device capable of capturing the attention and imagination of your professors, TAs, and other evaluators.

Question: What the heck is synesthesia?

Synesthesia is
the cross-wiring of two neurological senses resulting in one’s personal experience of a phenomenon being colored by an unexpected sensory output. Something you’d expect to perceive in terms of one sense is loudly tinged by another sense. To see the color of a sound, sense the personality of a number, or taste the flavor of a specific musical pitch are examples of synesthesia.

Genuine scientific synesthesia is an involuntary perception felt by people who can’t separate their senses. For those of us lacking such remarkably confused neurological systems, synesthesia can represent a literary technique useful for producing rich, multi-sensory descriptions. I will interchangeably refer to “synesthesia as a literary technique” as sensory cross-wiring.

Question 2: So what?
Professors love sensory cross-wiring. It’s creative, diverse, expressive, unique, and deeply personal. Those who can describe their experiences in synesthetic terms have achieved a higher plane of sensory perception, freeing themselves from conventional boundaries and unlocking a limitless palette of visceral sensations. At least that’s the impression grader comments have left me when I’ve employed synesthetic descriptions in my papers. You too can announce that you’ve graduated high school and are ready to stroke keys in the Big Leagues with sensory cross-wiring.

Wow, that sounds cool! How do I sign up?
To become a literary synesthesiac, you first have to know your senses. There are five basic senses:

Sight- Color is probably the most important visual stimuli for sensory cross-wiring. Shape, pattern, and position are also related to sight. 
Includes all things musical such as tone and rhythm. Sounds are often said to be experienced as flavors or colors.
Adjectives describing temperature, texture, and hardness are versatile and can be applied to things like letters and sounds.
Does it seem strange to think of a number or color in the abstract to have an inherent smell? Not for a sensory cross-wirer.
Traditionally sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and savory– but don’t limit description of flavors to these five. We don’t even consider bitter feelings or sweet personalities as cross-wirings.

There are more senses that can be employed in sensory cross-wiring such as personality traits and the sense of acceleration, and more creative senses are welcome, accompanied by command of their description, of course. With a firm grasp of senses and the way they are described, we move on to how they are applied to each other and objects.

Okay! Sensory cross-wiring doesn’t sound so bad–
It’s not. Ultimately, it’s just one method of crafting effective adjectives, that leave an impression on the reader. Cross-wiring senses produces novel and unexpected descriptions. Some instances of sensory cross-wiring fall into the category of personification such as the idea of a free-wheeling and gregarious number “7”. Most people don’t see 7 that way when they’re botching L’Hospital’s Rule and integrals, but it provides an interesting way to think about the number. Sensory cross-wiring isn’t just a random pairing of unrelated senses and objects; it aims to strike a chord of inherent accuracy in its descriptions.

Enough about theory and intentions– let’s get to some actual examples!
Okay then. How would you describe the color of this stylish sweatshirt?

Without sensory cross-wiring in mind, I would keep my
sense of sight consistent and say, “the color is green.”  Sight is often described in color, and green is a ubiquitous color. Duh. Now let’s cross-wire sight and taste. No longer would I say “the color is green,” I would now say, “the flavor is green.” And what’s the greenest taste you can think of? Our stylish hoodie is now a “green apple-flavored” hoodie. Sensory cross-wiring accomplished.

Okay, I get it. Now let’s do a better one.
Tough customer, I see. So everybody knows the punchy intro of persistent quarter notes for the Black Eyed Peas hit “I Gotta Feeling” yeah? Clearly that relates to the
sense of hearing, and if we want to keep our senses uncrossed, we might describe those well-known beeps in terms of tempo, pitch, and note intervals. But this isn’t Music Theory 101, is it? Let’s inject some flavor into it. A synesthesiac might describe the opening notes as “tangy” with a hint of walnut when the pitch drops. You can almost taste the notes now.

This is starting to feel familiar.
It should because sensory cross-wiring has been blended into our consciousness. Different musical instruments and styles are often said to have inherent colors, perhaps most famously
the blues. Because music is such a visceral experience, it’s easy to attach most any sensory description to it as long as it “clicks” properly. Visualizing melodies in full Technicolor and tasting words in full, rich flavor are effective sensory cross-wirings. Once you’re comfortable with it, you’ll have no problem describing how you were hearing smells and tasting colors in your essays.

Okay, let’s get in one more good example and start to wrap it up.
There’s two colors in the soothing image below. We’re not going to assign them flavors this time, though we easily could.

When I see this summery sky-scape, I feel relaxed, satisfied. And I hear silence. I e
rase the screeching jets and children from the soundtrack and let the colors fill in a score of serenity. Jazz musicians have figured out what colors flavor improvised melodies, but what sounds emanate from a calm blue sky and fluffy white clouds? Looks to me like the tranquil blue of the sky lightly plucks a progression of mellow harp tones while the white of the clouds whispers a soft lullaby. If I were crossing color and sound anyways, it might go something like that.

Pretty fruity, dude. But whatever floats your boat.
Which is my final point about sensory cross-wiring– it’s highly personal, not general. It applies to a specific person (you) in a specific place at a specific time. The blending of senses is impressive and all, but what gives it its power is that you personally crafted your description and it expresses an experience from a unique point of view. The impression that a sensory cross-wiring represents a window into one’s complex and free-thinking mind is a powerful advantage. It’s the literary technique equivalent of presenting a shiny red apple to the teacher.

Red-flavored, not colored, of course.


Posted August 30, 2010 by Wada in Linguistics

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