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Hearing Colors, Tasting Shapes

People with synesthesia—whose senses blend together—are providing valuable clues to understanding the organization and functions of the brain
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When Matthew Blakeslee shapes hamburger patties with his hands, he experiences a vivid bitter taste in his mouth. Esmerelda Jones (a pseudonym) sees blue when she listens to the note C sharp played on the piano; other notes evoke different hues--so much so that the piano keys are actually color-coded. And when Jeff Coleman looks at printed black numbers, he sees them in color, each a different hue. Blakeslee, Jones and Coleman are among a handful of otherwise normal people who have synesthesia. They experience the ordinary world in extraordinary ways and seem to inhabit a mysterious no-mans-land between fantasy and reality. For them the senses--touch, taste, hearing, vision and smell--get mixed up instead of remaining separate.

Modern scientists have known about synesthesia since 1880, when Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, published a paper in Nature on the phenomenon. But most have brushed it aside as fakery, an artifact of drug use or a mere curiosity. About six years ago, however, we and others began to uncover brain processes that could account for synesthesia. Along the way, we also found new clues to some of the most mysterious aspects of the human mind, such as the emergence of abstract thought and metaphor.

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