The Frog Who Croaked Blue: Synesthesia and the mixing of the senses


Jamie Ward








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Synesthesia is a condition in which people experience the world in extraordinary ways - words can have tastes, names can have colour and sequences of numbers may glide through space. It is not a disorder, people who have it do not deserve sympathy and it is not a condition that requires treatment. Indeed, most synesthetes regard the condition as an asset and many non-synesthetes aspire to have it.

The author, Dr Jamie Ward, was working as a lecturer in neuropsychology when he first came across the condition of synesthesia in 2000. Since then he has made it his prime area of research, has become one of the world's leading experts on the condition and has written several scientific papers and presented television programmes on behalf of the Discovery Channel and BBC Horizon on the subject. In The Frog Who Croaked Blue Ward pulls together all of is research findings into a single book to provide, arguably, the best guide to the subject that currently exists.

Following some initial 'scene-setting' in which Ward describes the condition and provides a brief history of past research into the subject, he gets down to the task of considering the senses. He begins by asking the question; "how many senses do you have?" It is an intriguing question and one that had not occurred to me before. In Western cultures we would typically respond with the answer "five" - hearing, seeing, smelling, taste and touch. This it transpires that this is because that is the way the Greek philosopher Aristotle categorised them. Cultures that had never heard of Aristotle take a different view. The Cashinahua of Eastern Peru define senses as skin knowledge, hand knowledge, eye knowledge, ear knowledge, genital knowledge and liver knowledge. Furthermore, if you count the senses in terms of the specialised cell receptors in humans you end up with a number of 21 to 33, depending on how they are counted. The retina, for example, has two types of cells that respond to light/dark and colour and the colour receptor can be sub-divided into three further senses.

The relevance of this is that to understand sensory overlap, we need to understand what we mean when we describe the senses. What we then find is that all of us experience some degree of sensory overlap. For example, we find it difficult to identify some foods when we are blindfolded suggesting that taste and vision combine and many of us will visualise a person's face when we hear their name.

So if we all experience multi-sensory perception to some extent, is synesthesia any different? Ward argues that it is although the book does not provide an unequivocal definition. Instead it appears to make the case for the distinction as a result of the degree of difference between normal perception and that of a synesthetes.

For example, some synesthetes associate tastes with words. In the book, the celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal asks whether a person eating strawberries while hearing a word they associate with cream would taste strawberries and cream? They tried this out on a man who said the word 'quiet' tasted of condensed milk, the closest they could get to cream and he confirmed that he did indeed experience the combined tastes. He went on to say that he enjoyed reading the newspaper while easting as the words in the paper threw up lots of interesting flavour combinations. Clearly this goes beyond anything the majority experience from sensory overlap.

Finally Ward goes on to consider the benefits if synesthesia and ask the question why it exists? Unfortunately there is no definitive answer to this question but in Ward's opinion, if there is an answer to this question it is likely to be in the advantage synesthetes have in remembering things. The reason they have an advantage in this area is because human memory is greatly assisted by association. For example, if you can form an association between a person's name and the place where you met them you are far more likely to remember their name in years to come. Synesthetes have an obvious advantage in this department as a lot of their experiences consist of mixed senses. It is therefore no surprise that the person who holds the world record for remembering the digits of the infinite number Pi is a synesthete called Daniel Tammet, who broke the European record by accurately recalling 22,514 digits in 5 hours and 9 minutes. His secret, in his own words: "When I look at a sequence of numbers, my head begins to fill with colours, shapes and textures that nit together to form a visual landscape ... To recall each digit; I simply retrace the different shapes and textures in my head and read the numbers out of them."

In conclusion, The Frog Who Croaked Blue is an interesting book that is written in an accessible and easy to understand style. It will be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in the subject of synesthesia but will also appeal to people who are interested in the neuroscience of sensory perception.