British Universities Film & Video Council

moving image and sound, knowledge and access

Hearing Colours, Eating Sounds

A two part series exploring the condition of synaesthesia and the impact it is having on the way in which scientists understand perception. Recent scientific research shows that the synaesthesia can take a variety of forms. Some people see colours and patterns when they hear music or words. Others ‘taste’ words. People with the most common form of synaesthesia perceive words, letters and numbers as distinct colours. Each programme features people who live with this condition, as well as psychologists and neuroscientists. Modern technology is at last making it possible to study synaesthesia, and revealing in the process a great deal about how the brain processes sensory information.
Great Britain
Year of production
Broadcast in 2 weekly parts on BBC Radio 4, from 12/11/02
Arts and Humanities; Psychology
artists; neuro-linguistic programming; sensory perception; synaesthesia

Online availability

free online


Pale yellow Cs, turquoise Thursdays and wine-flavoured Vs
This programme explores the range of synaesthetic characteristics revealed by current case studies of people with the condition. It looks at the different forms which synaesthesia takes and examines the wealth of sensory data now accessible to scientists.

Studies reveal that there is a high ratio of women to men with synaesthesia and that the condition may be inherited. - one famous instance of this was the writer Vladimir Nabokov. He married a fellow synaesthete and their son Dimitri also has synaesthesia. He’s one artist who is now thought to have been a genuine synaesthete, but there are many who deliberately cultivated a heightened perception for extra artistic effect: our culture is littered with poets, artists and musicians, including Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Kandinsky, Messaien and Scriabin who have claimed to have synaesthesia. Today, thanks to fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging), neuroscientists are able to prove that synaesthetic experience is a genuine phenomenon. What’s more, this new evidence is allowing the scientific community to explore the implications for the way all of our brains work
30 mins

Mixed feelings
This second programme examines the mounting evidence that we all start life with the potential for synaesthesia. The sensory pathways are ill-defined in infants, and it is only later in a child’s development that the senses are parcelled out. Scientists are coming to the realisation that we may all have the capacity for vestigial synaesthesia, even if our sensory pathways have been separated out as normal. They are finding evidence for this through the experiences of synaesthetes such as teacher and translator Patricia Duffy who sees coloured letters and numbers and believes that synaesthesia can be harnessed as a memory aid. Results from drug tests show that a synaesthetic experience can actually be manufactured with the help of artificial stimulants. In some of us, head trauma or blindness can trigger synaesthetic experiences. Certainly, there is now evidence that in all of us, the same parts of the brain are stimulated by seeing something and by thinking about it. The study of synaesthesia is providing a combination of results that is pushing the boundaries of neuroscience. Evidence from the most recent research is being used to illuminate the acquisition and processing of language, and may also give answers to one of the biggest questions of all - the nature of meaning as it is represented in the human brain.
30 mins



BBC Radio 4

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