Listen With Your Eyes

You might have come across the term synaesthesia. This is when your brain wires together two of your senses so, for example, you smell colours or see music. It seems to be quite common in artists.  One member of our writers’ group has color-graphemic synaesthesia, and sees words and letters in colour, even if the text is printed or displayed in black and white.

The interesting thing is, language seems to have some synaesthesia built in. For example, there’s the bouba/kiki effect. Take a look at this picture:

Which one of these two objects is a “bouba” and which one is a “kiki”? Most people will label the curvy, rounded shape “bouba” and the spiky shape “kiki”. And it doesn’t matter what your native language is either.  According to Wikipedia:

In 2001, Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard repeated Köhler’s experiment using the words “kiki” and “bouba” and asked American college undergraduates and Tamil speakers in India “Which of these shapes is bouba and which is kiki?” In both groups, 95% to 98% selected the curvy shape as “bouba” and the jagged one as “kiki”, suggesting that the human brain is somehow able to extract abstract properties from the shapes and sounds. Recent work by Daphne Maurer and colleagues shows that even children as young as 2.5 (too young to read) may show this effect as well.

If you find yourself agreeing with the majority on this test, a type of synaesthesia has happened for you. You’ve associated a sound with an image.  If, like me, you find this kind of thing fascinating,  you can find more information on the bouba/kiki effect here.

Different sounds have different effects on a reader, even when he or she is reading the words silently. Now we know this, can we use it in our writing? It’s something I’m considering as I struggle with my rather pedestrian descriptions.  I need a way to bring them to life without making them longer. I need my words to work harder.

So, say I’m writing about a beach. I can say it’s a big curved bay with sand like sugar. Or I can say it’s a wide, white arc. Those words “wide” and “white” and “arc” are stretched-out words, with long vowel sounds that make your mouth widen as you say them. For me, they help to give a sense of space.

I came across a writing exercise that suggests you write out a list of nouns, and a list of verbs that go with them, for example: “knife slices”, “bird sings”, “colour glows”.  Then try mixing the nouns and verbs up for more exciting results.  So, if you write something like the “the red of the girl’s coat sings in the grey day” or “the blackbird’s warning chirps sliced the early morning silence”, you get something that’s still descriptive, but unexpected. (As opposed to “It is a dull day. She wears a bright red coat,” and “The blackbird’s warning chirps were loud in the early morning silence.”) In these examples I’ve given sound to a colour and action to a sound.  Ok, it’s not deathless prose, but you get the general idea. I’m sure you could go too far with this, but I like the exercise as a potential way of shaking me up, and stopping me from reaching for habitual phrases.

There’s one other related trick I’ve come across in writing, although it’s not actually synaesthesia. It’s used in a poem,  and would be particularly hard to pull off in a novel.  Here’s the first verse of “Timothy Winters” by Charles Causley:

Timothy Winters comes to school
With eyes as wide as a football pool,
Ears like bombs and teeth like splinters:
A blitz of a boy is Timothy Winters.

So why a “football pool”? Well, according to Hearts and Minds*, because the two “O”s in “pool” look like a pair of eyes. Maybe you could do this if you were writing in Egyptian hieroglyphs. Or maybe some alien language would be all about the visual puns.

Do you know of other ways to use synaesthesia in writing? Do you use it in your art? I’d love to hear.

*A TV series about a teacher, starring Christopher Eccleston. I never saw all of it but this bit stuck in my mind.


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