The Science Behind the Story

The Skeekit-Woogle Test (Analog, March 2006)

by Carl Frederick

"I will simply remark - First, that the existence of the colour associations with sound is fully as remarkable as that of the Number-Form with numbers. Secondly, that the vowel sounds chiefly evoke them. Thirdly, that the seers are invariably most minute in their description of the precise tint and hue of the colours.They are never satisfied, for instance, with saying "blue", but will take a great deal of trouble to express or to match the particular blue they mean. Fourthly, that no two people agree, or hardly ever do so, as to the colour they associate with the same sound. Lastly that the tendency is very hereditary."

Sir Francis Galton (1883) "Inquiries into Human Faculty." (taken from the uk synaesthesia website cited below)

My story, 'The Skeekit-Woogle Test' concerns synesthesia. This is a cross-wiring of the brain where vision, sound, and even smell are mixed up. Some forms of synesthesia cause synesthetes (people with the condition) to see a color when they hear a particular word or to associate smells with shapes. In fact, there are synesthetes with any possible pair of senses coupled.

The most common form is where a word or letter is associated with a color. About 66% of synesthetes (with the severe form of the condition) have this form. The next most frequent form is time-units associating with colors (23%), and then musical sounds associating with color (19%). The least frequent (about 0.1%) is where a temperature is perceived as a kind of touch.

Some people in the field also include as synesthesia, cross-wiring between the senses and various emotions. All these forms leads me to wonder if perhaps the word 'synesthesia' is too encompassing--a variety of different brain irregularities all being lumped under the same word.

About fifty percent of synesthetes have more than one form of the condition.

Synesthesia seems to occur more often with females: 70% vs 30% for males. It occurs (proportionally) more often with left handers, and there is at least anecdotal evidence that a link exists between creativity and Synesthesia (in fact, a Trinity College, Dublin report states that synesthesia is seven times more common in creative people than in the general population. [I find that statement quite suspect]). Indeed someone who sees a C major chord as bright blue with orange flecks, might well be called creative by the mere fact of having synesthesia. The creativity link may have been forged because of some rather famous people with the condition:

Richard Feynman (physicist)

Nikola Tesla (engineer/scientist)

Vladimir Nabokov (writer)

Vasily Kandinsky (artist)

Paul Klee (artist)

Franz Liszt (composer)

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (composer)

Jean Sibelius (composer)

Alexander Scriabin (composer)--claimed, but probably not

People are born with the condition and there's some evidence that it runs in families. And, in contradistinction to my story, synesthesia is not (as far as we know) the result of a virus or bacterium.  

Up until comparatively recently, synesthesia was thought to occur in one person out of 25,000. Modern estimates range from 1 in 2000 to 1 in 200.

Some researchers though, think the prevalence (for a mild form) is much higher:

E.g. Over half of the population would say that higher pitched sounds are brighter whereas lower pitches sound darker.

And at least one cognitive scientist, Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California (San Diego), thinks almost all of us have it in some form.

Actually, I got the idea for the Skeekit-Woogle story from listening to the superb BBC 2003 Reith Lectures (which you can hear on-line at www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/reith2003/) given by Dr. Ramachandran. I sort of stole the Skeekit-Woogle test idea from him. I quote Dr. Ramachandran from Lecture One:

"Well now, I'm going to show you that you're all synesthetes but you're in denial about it. So what I want you to do is... I want you all to imagine two shapes in front of you. One of them, imagine, is a shattered piece of glass with jagged edges, the other is like an amoeba, It's got undulating curvy shapes. And one of them I'm going to call a bouba, and the other is kiki - which is which? Now the amazing thing is 98% of people will pick the shattered piece of glass with the jagged edges, and say oh that's a kiki, and the undulating amoeboid shape, oh that's a bouba, even though they have never seen the shape before.      

Why does this happen? Well I suggest it happens because you're all synesthetes."

I'm not sure I entirely buy this test (despite my theft); there seems to be something very different about seeing, for example, a capital G as bright yellow than identifying a shard of glass as a kiki (as opposed to a bouba).

(In my story, the two words were Skeekit and Woogle, and the two items were a shard of broken glass and a shelled, hard-boiled egg.)

Maybe kiki feels like a shard because the shapes of the letters in kiki are spiky. But then again, maybe the letters are spiky because their sounds are perceived as sharp. Or maybe the letter shapes are like the objects (e.g. the letters in bouba might look more like an amoeba than do the letters in kiki). Who knows? I certainly don't. But I'd like to.

Okay then, Analog readers: I'm asking your opinions. What do you think? Is the test a reflection of synesthesia or not? Those of you who speak languages other than English--does the test work in those languages as well? Do any of you have the heavier forms of synesthesia? Are you left-handed, female, play a musical instrument, creative (whatever the heck that means)? [Indeed, how can an SF reader possibly not be creative?]

A Few Synesthesia Websites:

http://www. uksynaesthesia.com/ UK Synesthesia Assoc

http://www.tcd.ie/ Trinity College Synaesthesia Research Group

http://web.mit.edu/synesthesia/www/ MIT's Synesthesia Page

http://www.synesthesia.info/ American Synesthesia Assoc