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Artists use synesthesia to expand their creative limits


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Imagine living in a world where music is not only heard, but also seen, where words have flavors and colors have a smell. That is a reality for some people with a rare neurological condition. And some artists are using it to expand their creative limits.

Michelle San Miguel of Rhode Island PBS reports for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Alyn Carlson, Artist: I think that were all lucky that it exists because without it, there would not be the magnificent art that we get to have all around us.

Michelle San Miguel: Artist Alyn Carlson has a neurological condition that she says makes her life and her artwork more interesting.

Alyn Carlson: I was probably 5, and I started seeing numbers in color. Three was yellow. Five was red. Zero was white. Seven was sort of a purplely blue.

Michelle San Miguel: Not only does Carlson see numbers in color, but she says she can also hear them and smell them.

You have been open about the fact that you feel self-conscious somewhat even talking about this.

Alyn Carlson: Yes, a little.

Michelle San Miguel: Why is that?

Alyn Carlson: Well, it's kind of because other people can't really relate to it.

Michelle San Miguel: Artist and musician Lennie Peterson certainly can.

Lennie Peterson, Artist: So, when I hear music, I see shapes.

Michelle San Miguel: What kind of shapes?

Lennie Peterson: They are -- well, they're in my art, and they're anywhere from a straight line, depending on the note, to all kinds of atmosphere within squares and circles.

Michelle San Miguel: Both Lennie Peterson and Alyn Carlson have synesthesia, a rare condition where a person's senses, including the sense of smell and sound, get mixed together.

We asked neurologist Dr. Richard Cytowic to explain just what synesthesia is.

Dr. Richard Cytowic, Neurologist: It's pretty easy.

Everybody knows the word anesthesia, which means no sensation. So, synesthesia means joined or coupled sensation. And there are kids who are born with two, three, or all five of their senses hooked together, so that my voice, for example, is not only something that they hear, but something that they might also see or taste or feel as a physical touch.

Michelle San Miguel: Carlson says the artwork featured in her studio was created in large part thanks to her synesthesia. Take, for instance, this abstract painting. Carlson says she painted it by mixing colors that smelled like one of her favorite things, a low tide.

Alyn Carlson: So I started to be able to pull in a whole family of those colors that smelled that way to me. It was like an undercurrent in the whole palette. And so, from that, I was -- I painted an 80-inch-wide abstract landscape just from the smell, those two colors that came together.

And that happened, boom, that was so fast.

Michelle San Miguel: Synesthesia is more common than some might think. Dr. Cytowic says 4 percent of the population has this union of the senses, including Lady Gaga and Billy Joel. Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov, who wrote "Lolita," also had it. So did composer and pianist Duke Ellington.

Is synesthesia more common among artists and musicians?

Dr. Richard Cytowic: Well, we are -- we're more familiar with famous artists who happen to be synesthetes than we are famous synesthetes who happen to be artists. And it's a chicken-and-egg question of, are they artistic because they're synesthetic or are they synesthetic because they're artistic?

But I think it's -- I think it's the former, that -- and they're used to unusual things going together.

Michelle San Miguel: It's those unusual things that inspire Peterson. He listens to music as he works and draws the shapes that he sees.

Now, these shapes appear three-dimensional in front of you? They're floating in the air?

Lennie Peterson: They are being created in front of me. They're not like in the -- they're not in the room. They're forming in front of me as I listen to music. And the more I concentrate on it, the more they're going to form and the clearer they're going to form.

Michelle San Miguel: Peterson's paintings are heavily influenced by the music he listens to.

Lennie Peterson: So this is specifically around a Miles Davis song, actually, called "In a Silent Way." And it's a very, mystical kind of setting for this song.

Then the synesthesia kicks in here. I start in the top left hand corner and my hand -- I let my hand go. And it's just a free flow of while the music is playing.

Michelle San Miguel: Is it hereditary?

Dr. Richard Cytowic: Oh, yes, absolutely, very strongly so. It runs strongly in families. Either sex parent can pass it down to either sex child, and you will see it in multiple generations.

Michelle San Miguel: Colorful experiences can also evoke pleasant sounds.

For Alyn Carlson, this combination of blue has a distinct pitch.

Alyn Carlson: Every time I started to put them together, I would hear cello. I would hear cello music, just a long note, just a long note. It's not a complicated piece of music.

Michelle San Miguel: As the paint is being mixed?

Alyn Carlson: Yes, as the paint is being mixed. When I would get still with it, I would just hear it.

Michelle San Miguel: What would a world without synesthesia look like for you?

Alyn Carlson: I don't know. I probably wouldn't be obviously doing what I do, making what I make. I'd be lost. I would be really lost, I think.

Michelle San Miguel: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Michelle San Miguel in Newport, Rhode Island.

Judy Woodruff: And that was just fascinating.

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