When 'B' Is the Color of a Wet Frog and Chicken Tastes Pointy: How Our Perceptions Color Our World


NEW YORK, Feb. 7 /PRNewswire/ -- Letters of the alphabet have color: "A" is the color of an orange sunset and "B" is the color of a wet frog. Musical notes have color too: the key of "F" is the brightest of blues and the music of Ravel is red and green. And tastes have shapes. A well-cooked chicken has points, and the taste of chocolate is smooth, polished wood.

Painter David Hockney, author Vladimir Nabokov and composer Franz Liszt are just a few celebrated persons who have experienced the blended perceptions of synesthesia (pronounced like anaesthesia). Author Patricia Lynne Duffy, herself a synesthete, writes about them in her book, Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens: How Synesthetes Color their Worlds, (Henry Holt & Co.; $26.00). Due to some tricky cross-wiring in the brains of synesthetes, when one of their five senses is stimulated, more than one responds.

"I cannot help but hear everyone's name in a certain color," says Duffy. "Also every word and number has a color." She continues, "Everyone of us has some little quirk of perception. Nature, so endlessly creative, has arranged things so that each of us perceives a slightly different world. Each time any of us looks at the world, a new world is created, a world created by our one-of-a-kind pattern of neurons and experiences."

Many synesthetes use their form of perception creatively. Painter David Hockney paints the colors of the music he "sees" when he designs stage sets for the Metropolitan Opera. Author Vladimir Nabokov wrote of the colored alphabet he "heard." Composer Franz Liszt, saw colored musical notes and instructed the musicians in his orchestra, "Gentleman, a little bluer if you please."

Duffy tells how until she was 16, she thought everyone heard words and letters of the alphabet in color. When her father told her that was not so, she was shocked. "I had taken it for granted that the whole world shared these perceptions with me," she says.

While synesthetes have been inspiring wonder and curiosity in researchers for centuries, it is only recently with the invention of brain scanners and MRI's that the study of synesthesia has been taken up again. Scientists at Yale University, the National Insititutes of Health, Cambridge University, and the University of California at San Diego are among those researching it.

Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens not only informs readers about the phenomenon of synesthesia, but also indicates ways in which all of us "color our world" with our unique perceptions. Synesthesia and its literal perception of color just gives us a very concrete example of what all of us do.

Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens: How Synesthetes Color their Worlds (Henry Holt & Company; $26.00) also contains exercises designed to help both latently synesthetic and non-synesthetic readers become more aware of the ways they inwardly see, hear, taste, feel, and otherwise code the complex world around us.