Sunday, 15 August 2010

Synesthesia

Recently my Father sent me an article from the April edition of Scientific American. The article is entitled ‘Making Scents of Sounds’ briefly explores some new research, which suggests that smell can be affected by sound. Mice were used in a study by Daniel Wesson who was trying to trying to fathom the way the olfactory tubercle responds to odours. This particular structure at the base of the brain was only implicated in odour detection as recently as 2004.

Wesson noticed that when he put his coffee mug down on the lab bench that the sound caused a spike in the tubercle activity of the mice he was studying. Along with a colleague he undertook experiments which proved to his satisfaction that the tubercle in mice did indeed discriminate odours. The experiment was repeated using tones and some cells in the tubercle responded. It was also found that one cell that didn’t respond to either odour or sound would respond to their combination.

When researching for the Victorian Pharmacy I read with interest G.W. Septimus’s mid 19th Century book on perfume. In the book he makes a connection between aromas and analogous musical notes. In perfumery we talk of notes, dyads, triads and chords. The metaphor is elegant and apt.

Assuming that the mice weren’t carrying out their own experiments on Wesson and co the connection between sound and smell or ‘smound’ as it has been dubbed could have been proved – at least in mice.

The author of the article suggests that the discovery ‘may help elucidate the defective processing behind mysterious disorders such as synesthesia, in which patients taste colours and see flavours.’ Note the words defective and patient.

Some years ago the Cheltenham Literary Festival hosted a whole day about the relationship between mental health and creativity. Fay Weldon was one of the presenters. Another session was hosted by a care worker who brought several people from a mental health care home, which houses people going through a difficult patch. These people had volunteered to read poetry or prose they had written during what is known in the trade as an ‘episode’ (slight digression but that could establish a link between watching soaps and mental illness).

I personally found their work and their willingness to share it very moving because it was characterised by a complete lack of artifice. Authentic, raw and vulnerable – could this be how we really are underneath a nice big solid self that denies such nonsense? The empathy invoked in most of the audience would suggest so.

The Psychiatric establishment likes to define mental health almost entirely in terms of social conformity. Well folks the bad news is that if society is nuts then run for the hills if you value being healthy and wacky both. There are many historical examples of creative people particularly musicians who experienced a composition in a non auditory way before going home and writing it down.

I suspect that the real implication is that all the senses are connected as implied by the Buddha. During those moments when our sense of self fades we gain more than we lose. I propose a new condition to be adopted by the current DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association). This condition is something that most psychiatrists suffer from...obsessive compulsive sexist pejorative labelling disorder. DSM is also a brilliant book for looking up your friend’s and relations idiosyncrasies because it confirms how weird and dysfunctional they are.

Link to read more http://web.mit.edu/synesthesia/www/ if you follow the link you will see at the bottom of the page a request to let them know what you ‘think’ of their website. Go on be a devil and tell them how you feel about it.

1 comment:

  1. Alec..I like where you went here in this post.
    Thanks!

    ReplyDelete