- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 4, 2001

When Carol Steen was 7 years old, she mentioned to a classmate on their elm-lined walk home from school in Detroit that the printed letter "A" was the prettiest pink she had ever seen.
"I thought she would agree, but she didn't," says Ms. Steen, a sculptor and painter in New York City. "She gave me a weird look, and I never mentioned it again."
She continued seeing colors when hearing certain sounds or seeing particular shapes. But it wasn't until she was about 30 years old that she was able to put a name to her condition. She learned from a friend and psychology teacher that it's called synesthesia, which literally means "join" and "senses."
One in 10 million people worldwide are estimated to have the condition, says Dr. Richard E. Cytowic, a District neurologist. For these people, one sensation, such as smell, conjures up one or more others, such as hearing a sound.
Ms. Steen, now 57, will be in the District with Dr. Cytowic and National Symphony Orchestra cellist and music teacher Yvonne Caruthers of Arlington to talk about synesthesia at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 15 in a lecture organized by the Smithsonian Associates.
The lecture "Synesthesia: Hearing Colors, Tasting Shapes" — will take place at the Ring Auditorium at the Hirshhorn Museum and will take place at the Ring Auditorium at the Hirshhorn Museum andSculpture Garden, Seventh Street and Independence Avenue SW.
Many questions remain about the causes and physiology behind synesthesia. But what is known is that in the brain of a synesthete, the visual center can become activated when the person hears a sound, Dr. Cytowic says. That means that when hearing a certain tone played, a synesthete will see a certain color. Why this cross-modal association occurs in synesthetes is unclear.
Ms. Steen became acquainted with Dr. Cytowic in 1993, when his book "The Man Who Tasted Shapes," came out. While she had allowed a few people into her confidence, her synesthesia was mostly kept a secret. Ms. Steen says she felt alone, isolated and different.
Then one day, she heard Dr. Cytowic being interviewed on National Public Radio about synesthesia and his new book.
"I sat there for 45 minutes and just cried," Ms. Steen says. "I knew I wasn't alone anymore … [Dr. Cytowic] gave me so much freedom; he gave me knowledge."
Since then, Ms. Steen has helped start the American Synesthesia Association, has contact with hundreds of synesthetes and readily shares her experiences.
The third lecturer, Ms. Caruthers, who is not a synesthete, organized the Smithsonian program because while researching musicians and composers, she found that the condition has played, and continues to play, an important role in music history.
"Alexander Scriabin was very vocal about his visions," she says. Scriabin was a turn-of-the-last-century Russian composer.
"Another one is the French composer Olivier Messiaen," Ms. Caruthers says. "It sounds like he did some of his compositions depending on the colors he saw. … He used his visions to stimulate his art."

Among contemporary musicians and composers who say they have synesthesia is Michael Torke, 39, who has composed and conducted classical music worldwide.
He's working on the music for "Contract," an original ballet for the National Ballet of Canada to premiere in spring. Looking back on his childhood, he remembers telling his mother about seeing colors when he heard certain music.
"It was when I started playing the piano at age 5. As a child, you didn't think that was unusual. I hear music, I see colors," says Mr. Torke, who lives in New York City. "I told my mother, 'I have to play that blue piece today,'" he says. Blue indicated that the piano piece was in D major.
A couple of decades later, Mr. Torke composed and released several CDs of compositions with names such as "Bright Blue Music," "Ecstatic Orange" and "Purple."
The colors indicate different keys. Orange, for example, indicates G sharp.
Asked how he might benefit from his synesthetic experiences, Mr. Torke responds, "I guess it makes my experience of music that much more vivid."
Scientists have known about the condition for about 200 years, Dr. Cytowic says. But it's just recently that the medical community has started accepting that there is a link between emotions and the brain, which has helped put focus on synesthesia, but also on such conditions as Alzheimer's disease and dementia.
"In the '40s and '50s, it was the party line that the brain had nothing to do with behavior," he says.
And there are still skeptics among doctors in his own field, but they are fewer and less vocal than in the past.
Dr. Cytowic became interested in the topic while doing his residency in Winston-Salem, N.C. He was interested in higher brain functions such as learning disabilities and would go to the basement library to do research during down hours. It was while reading works of Russian psychologist Alexander Luria, who studied cognitive psychology, that he was introduced to the term synesthesia and its implications.
But Dr. Cytowic's first real-life encounter with synesthesia was at a dinner party in 1980. Michael Watson, the host, had said the chicken wasn't quite done yet because there weren't enough points on it.
Dr. Cytowic realized Mr. Watson had synesthesia. He connected smells with shapes.
Later, Dr. Cytowic decided to specialize in synesthesia and has published several books on the topic.
The condition is more common among women and men, and one theory is that it's passed on through the X chromosome, Dr. Cytowic says. But more research needs to be done to determine the reason some are born with this condition.
And while artists may be the most famous synesthetes, the condition exists in people in more common professions such as teacher and lawyers.
While research on synesthesia is far from complete, Dr. Cytowic says there are a few diagnostic methods to test whether someone is a synesthete or not. Among them are that the sensory perceptions have to arrive involuntarily and that it's an emotional experience.
"When people find out they are synesthetes, it's an amazing sense of relief," he says. They get it confirmed "that they are not making it up. They're not nuts."

Unlike other medical conditions, synesthesia normally doesn't need to be treated, Dr. Cytowic says. It's seldom so extreme that it interferes in a negative way, such as having so many sensory experiences that it
overwhelms. On the contrary, most synesthetes see it as an asset.
Ms. Steen says she's certainly reaped benefits from the condition.
"I love having it. You sit there with a book, and you can read in Technicolor," she says. "I have never suffered from it. … I just wanted to find other people who had it to compare notes."
It also inspires her as an artist. Once on a vacation to Algonquin Park in Ontario, a naturalist friend of Ms. Steen's howled to attract wolves. They never came, but Ms. Steen was inspired to paint the colors she saw when the friend was howling. He howled green and red, and that's what she painted.
"Artistically, it's a wonderful thing," she says. "It's an internal landscape."
But Ms. Steen's hope is that everyone not only synesthetes can benefit from further knowledge of the condition. She says she hopes that will lead to a broadening of emotional and scientific horizons.
"Many people assume that we perceive the world the exact same way," Ms. Steen says. "But we don't, and here's a great way for people to see the diversity of perception."
For more information on the Smithsonian lecture, call 202/357-3030. Tickets cost $33.


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