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“A Tissue of Signs”: Deproblematizing Synesthesia and Metaphor

Hannah Silverblank's picture

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“A Tissue of Signs”: Deproblematizing Synesthesia and Metaphor


In contemporary studies and essays about synesthesia, researchers and critics collectively, but in varying degrees, have problematized the notion that synesthesia can be understood as metaphor. The condition – discovered in the 1880s by Francis Galton (1) – occurs in individuals for whom “a sensory stimulus presented in one modality evokes a sensation in a different modality” (2). What occurs in synesthetes is a kind of cross-wiring of sensory channels, which – according to Ramachandran – finds its origins in the infant brain. In his TED lecture, Ramachandran suggests, “When we are born, we are born with everything wired to everything else… There’s a gene causing this trimming, and if that gene mutates, then you get deficient trimming between adjacent brain areas” (2). In other words, in the development of the human brain, Ramachandran believes that a specific gene (note: synesthesia is hereditary) engenders the development of a trimming device, which prevents such cross-wiring of neural channels. If the gene is prevented from functioning normally, the channels remain cross-wired, and certain perceptive experiences register within multiple areas of the brain. Ramachandran tells us that “The color area and the number area are right next to each other in the brain… [in synesthetes,] there’s some accidental cross-wiring between color and numbers in the brain, so every time you see a number, you see a corresponding color” (2). Thus, as Vladimir Nabokov – famous author and synesthete – writes in his autobiography, Speak, Memory, the alphabet becomes colored for many synesthetes. Nabokov explains,

In the green group, there are alder-leaf f, the unripe apple of p, and pistachio t. Dull green, combined somehow with violet, is the best I can do for w. The yellows comprise various e's and i's, creamy d, bright-golden y, and u, whose alphabetical value I can express only by 'brassy with an olive sheen.' In the brown group, there are the rich rubbery tone of soft g, paler j, and the drab shoelace of h. Finally, among the reds, b has the tone called burnt sienna by painters, m is a fold of pink flannel, and today I have at last perfectly matched v with 'Rose Quartz' in Maerz and Paul's Dictionary of Color. The word for rainbow, a primary, but decidedly muddy, rainbow, is in my private language the hardly pronounceable: kzspygv. (3)

The synesthetic brain appears to function as a highly poetic one, and the language of many synesthetes, in describing their perceptions, often matches poetic use of metaphor. This leads to the question, asked by author Cretien van Campen among others, “could synesthesia be a kind of metaphor?” (4).

In The Hidden Sense: Synesthesia in Art and Science, van Campen posits that humans use self-referential metaphor as means to understanding and contextualizing concepts, from the statement that “God is love” to the use of computer-related vocabulary to approach the human memory. Van Campen suggests that “these metaphors have a cognitive function in our thought: they help us to understand, organize, and speak about experiences that are not well understood or easy to describe” (4). Campen however, along with many of his peers, sets metaphor in opposition to synesthetic connection: the associations of a synesthete maintain the quality of merely ‘existing’, or ‘being there.’ The synesthetic association is not a construction – in such a way as metaphor – but rather the product of the synesthetically configured mind, of neural “leakings and drafts” that engender synesthetic experience (4).

The language of synesthetes, in describing their experiences, mirrors the language of metaphor: just as “God is love” and “love is a battlefield,” a synesthete named Sharon muses, “I was thinking the other day about my son’s name [Adam]. It is red and yellow like mine. My husband’s name is yellow. There are other names that I considered for my son but in the end I found I just couldn’t have a child with a blue or purple name. It would feel like having a stranger in the family” (5 italics mine). The linguistic parallel between the structure of metaphor and the structure of synesthetic reflections clearly played a role in generating the comparison between the two. Researchers and writers such as van Campen and the webauthor gregdowney respond to Dr. V.S. Ramachandran’s understanding of synesthesia as a kind of neural metaphor by problematizing the concept of synesthesia as the natural/neural generation of metaphor. In this essay, I wish to address the problems in Ramachandran’s “phenomenological examination of a neurological phenomenon,” as presented by Campen and gregdowney and to synthesize the complexities within the concept of synesthesia as metaphor through an examination of the performativity of synesthesia, metaphor, and language under the Barthesian lens.

In gregdowney’s web essay entitled “Synesthesia & metaphor — I’m not feeling it,” (6) the author attempts to systematically untie the notion that synesthesia and metaphor can be, in some ways, paralleled. He claims the synesthetic associations “are cross-modal and unidirectional,” meaning that, while “m is a fold of pink flannel” for Nabokov, a fold of pink flannel is not necessarily “m.” The flaw in this component of gregdowney’s argument lies in the fact that the word “is” in a metaphor does not always function as a precise multidirectional equals-sign. While “Juliet is the sun,” the sun is not intrinsically Juliet, just as the pink flannel might avoid “being m.” Additionally, though, the notion of synesthesia as a simply unidirectional phenomenon is not entirely accurate, as “mounting evidence from neuroimaging and behavioral studies suggest that synesthesia may be partially, if not unconsciously, bidirectional in grapheme-color synesthesia” (Scholarpedia). Because bidirectionality is creeping onto the synesthetic scene as a neural player, and because metaphor does not operate in terms as simple as stated by the author, gregdowney’s problematized segregation of synesthesia and metaphor is able to shed one of its layers of popular tension.

Next, gregdowney posits the claim against the notion of synesthesia as metaphor in the suggestion that “synesthetic associations are idiosyncratic.” He argues, “even if we’re both color synesthetes, you and I will associate different sensory qualities to letters or words,” all of which can be evidenced in the disparities between alphabets like Nabokov’s and those of other synesthetes. Metaphor, however, maintains no poetic absolute: Juliet may be the sun, but the sun may also fertility, and Juliet herself may be infertility; while I may metaphorically envision that water is life, gregdowney himself might argue that water is death. The idiosyncrasy of synesthesia occupies an equally strong position in metaphor, and while this feature seems to be a problem for many authors and researchers, gregdowney’s sentiment that “T is not lavender, it’s mauve!” can find a home within metaphorical context as well.

The next objection on gregdowney’s list maintains that, “synesthesia, by definition, associates sensations from different sensory channels.” But since gregdowney also offers no understanding of the neural geography of metaphor, the author’s statement of synesthesia’s architecture does not run in opposition to synesthesia as metaphor. A more interesting claim from gregdowney’s argument – which is supported by Dr. Ramachandran – is that “synesthesia is a perceptual effect, not a memory association, a symbolic link, or an analogy” (6). Where metaphor is creative, generative, and artificial (in the sense that it is charged with artifice, or construction), synesthetic association is incidental, perceptual, and “natural.” No artistic or individual agency contributes to the synesthetic association – which is, what’s more, involuntary – the way it applies to metaphor. There is no synesthetic author, but for the brain.

            But who really is the author of metaphor? Since metaphor is not as simply a result of cross-activation in the brain, what does it signify? What is the locale of its nascence within the brain? Is it fair to assume that the essence of the problem of synesthesia and metaphor is that synesthesia lacks the author that metaphor possesses?

            In his 1968 essay entitled “The Death of the Author,” literary theorist and semiologist Roland Barthes addresses the identity, agency, and eventual disappearance of authorship (7). In his claim that “writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin,” he asserts that “writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing” (7). According to Barthes, the author only lives while his statement is being “narrated… with a view to acting directly on reality.” Since it seems that both synesthetic associations and metaphor do not “act directly on reality” but rather act “intransitively, that is to say, finally outside of any function other than that of the very practice of the symbol itself” – they are internally and textually bound, respectively – synesthesia and metaphor equally “intransitive”. I believe that, according to Barthes’ argument, synesthesia and metaphor both exist within “that point where only language exists, ‘performs’, and not ‘me’ [an author]” (7). The author of a metaphor, like the activity of the brain, is never more than what Barthes names “the instance of writing, just as I is nothing other than the instance saying I: language knows a ‘subject’, not a ‘person’, and defines it, suffices to make language ‘hold together’, suffices, that is to say, to exhaust it” (7).

            The brain occupies the same authorial position for synesthesia and the “author” or “poet” assumes for metaphor. Barthes’ authorial model suggests that the author is not an identity but an instance of performance and activity, and where this exists in metaphor, it also clearly exists in the brain. The brain functions as a performer for the synesthete: it cedes to its language, its connections, and its generations. To pursue Barthes’ thesis, though, we would have to approach the concept of the reader, who – Barthes claims –  “is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination” (7). So where is the reader in synesthesia? I’d like to argue that the brain – which authors synesthetic associations through its structure and functions – also serves as a reader. Where the synesthetic metaphor is inscribed, it is also read. From critics such as Baudelaire and Barthes, from historians/anthropologists such as E.H. Carr and Clifford Geertz, and from neurobiologists such as Anthony Damasio and V.S. Ramachandran, we are repeatedly bludgeoned over the head with the message that perception is a form of reading, as the brain registers the external into the internal, in the company of Interpretation, Hermeneutic, and Reading. Synesthesia then, along with metaphor, surpasses the narrative dichotomy of the invisible/dead author and the reader, as the brain serves as both writer and reader for synesthetic associations and metaphors. Where the author’s sense of life, or his “present tense” shifts from himself toward his narrative, the language – or the synesthetic association reigns – as “life never does more than imitate the book, and the book itself is only a tissue of signs, an imitation that is lost, infinitely deferred” (7).



  1. “VS Ramachandran on your mind,” TED Talks: Ideas Worth Spreading. Filmed March 2007. Posted October 2007. Accessed February 15 2010.
  1. “Synesthesia,” Scholarpedia. Curator: Prof. Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, Center for Brain and Cognition, University of California, San Diego, CA and Mr. David Brang, Department of Psychology, University of California, San Diego, CA, USA, 2008. Accessed February 20, 2010.
  2. Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory (New York: Vintage International, 1967).
  3. Cretien van Campen, The Hidden Sense: Synesthesia in Art and Science (London: Cambridge Press, 2008). Pages 91-96.
  4. Jamie Ward, The Frog Who Croaked Blue: Synesthesia and the Mixing of the Senses (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2008). p. 6, italics mine
  6. Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author.” Image/Music/Text (New York: Hill and Wang Publishing, 1977). Translated by Stephen Heath. Pages 142-148.




Paul Grobstein's picture

Synesthesia, metaphor, and the brain

Are synesthesia and metaphor understandable in the same terms?  Are they the same thing as far as the brain is concerned?  Very interesting questions.

I like your notion that synesthesia and metaphor similarly require both an author and a reader, and that the brain could serve both functions in both.  I'm still, though, inclined to think there is a difference between the two.  Metaphor "surprises," noticing the oddity of the proposed equivilence is, I think, part of the power of metaphor.  So one needs for metaphor not only an author and reader who create/see the association but also an author and reader who can evaluate it in some broader context of understanding.  Synesthetic assocations occur entirely unconsciously; my guess is that metaphors don't. 

For another context where I think "metaphor" is overgeneralized to encompass all associations, those that are fully unconscious as well as those in which conscious processing plays some role, see George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought