David Eagleman
Director, Laboratory for Perception and Action at Baylor College of Medicine
02:32

Seeing Sound, Tasting Color: Synesthesia

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Neuroscientist David Eagleman explains how tiny variations in genetics impact the way we perceive reality. In the rarest of cases, they can actually cause us to see sound, taste color, or feel taste.

David Eagleman

David Eagleman is a neuroscientist and a New York Times bestselling author. He directs the Laboratory for Perception and Action at the Baylor College of Medicine, where he also directs the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law. He is best known for his work on time perception, brain plasticity, synesthesia, and neurolaw.

He is the writer and presenter of the PBS epic series, The Brain with David Eagleman, and the author of the companion book, The Brain: The Story of You.

Beyond his 100+ academic publications, he has published many popular books. His bestselling book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, explores the neuroscience "under the hood" of the conscious mind: all the aspects of neural function to which we have no awareness or access. His work of fiction, SUM, is an international bestseller published in 28 languages and turned into two operas. Why the Net Matters examines what the advent of the internet means on the timescale of civilizations. The award-winning Wednesday is Indigo Blue explores the neurological condition of synesthesia, in which the senses are blended. 

Eagleman is a TED speaker, a Guggenheim Fellow, a winner of the McGovern Award for Excellence in Biomedical Communication, a Next Generation Texas Fellow, Vice-Chair on the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council on Neuroscience & Behaviour, a research fellow in the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, Chief Scientific Advisor for the Mind Science Foundation, and a board member of The Long Now Foundation. He has served as an academic editor for several scientific journals. He was named Science Educator of the Year by the Society for Neuroscience, and was featured as one of the Brightest Idea Guys by Italy's Style magazine.  He is founder of the company BrainCheck and the cofounder of the company NeoSensory.  He was the scientific advisor for the television drama Perception, and has been profiled on the Colbert Report, NOVA Science Now, the New Yorker, CNN's Next List, and many other venues. He appears regularly on radio and television to discuss literature and science.


Transcript

David Eagleman: One of the things I study in my lab is called synesthesia, and it represents a blending of the senses.  So we’ve all heard the anesthesia, which means no feeling.  Synesthesia means joined feeling.  So somebody with synesthesia, they might hear music and it causes them to see colors physically, or they might hear something and it puts a taste in their mouth, physically they’re experiencing that, or they might eat something and it puts a feeling on their fingertips.  The most common forms of synesthesia have to do with over-learned sequences, like letters or numbers or weekdays or months, triggering a color experience.  So somebody might look at the number six and that's red to that synesthete, or they look at the letter J and that's purple.  And it’s an internal experience, it’s automatic, it’s involuntary and it’s unconscious, and to a synesthete it’s just self-evidently true that J is purple.  

It used to be thought this was very rare.  The original estimates were 1 in 20,000, but we now know it’s quite common. It’s probably up to 4 percent of the population has some form of synesthesia.  There are many different forms.  Essentially, any cross-blending of the senses that you can think of, my colleagues and I have found a case somewhere, so we now know it’s very common.  And the reason it’s so interesting to me is because it’s a very good inroad into understanding how different brains can be perceive reality differently, so you’re sitting here, your neighbor is sitting here and you’re both looking at the same thing and yet you’re seeing the world very differently.  

And it turns out synesthesia is heritable, so my lab is pulling the genes for it right now.  And the reason that's so interesting is because it’s what I’m calling perceptual genomics, which is to say how do little genetic changes change the way we perceive reality. And, of course, most synesthetes, historically, have lived their whole lives and they may even die without ever suspecting that they’re seeing reality differently than someone else because we all accept the reality presented to us.  So synesthesia is a really direct way to look at how individual changes can lead to different beliefs about reality.

Directed / Produced by Elizabeth Rodd and Jonathan Fowler

 

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