The Philosopher, the Physicist and the Red Paintings

Today’s piece of thematic inspiration comes from David Bowie’s “Sound and Vision” but this time performed by Beck.

Early December in Edinburgh is crisp and humming. Hordes of people in long coats and vibrant scarves, carrying coloured bags, stride purposefully around the central city streets. Everyone moves quickly, leaving a wake of coalescing vapour trails that dance in and out of existence. Bottlenecks of people squeeze through markets full of delectables and desirables. Sweet aromas emanate from every second stall and glasses of warm mulled wine beckon. The art of festive seduction is in full swing.

Edinburgh Castle towers over the city on a large rocky outcrop with an air of majestic permanence. It’s a valuable orientation device when exploring the labyrinth of historic closes and wynds. The comforting echoes of clacking footsteps along these cobblestone  thoroughfares and the perpetual braying of bagpipes in the distance, leaves you in no doubt as to where you are.

We were here, this time, to see the The Red Paintings  – an Australian rock band known for its quirky theatrical and art-sci-fi-themed performances which often include live body painting. One of my daughters, who models/performs as Icy T’Rain, had modelled for them in Melbourne, where she lived, and had contacted them again knowing that her time in Edinburgh would coincide with their gig. It was a great chance to see her on stage as part of the act. It’s a creative and emotionally-charged production incorporating violins and cello and an eccentric array of props.

Some of this creativity has been inspired by lead singer/songwriter, Trash McSweeney, who developed music-colour synesthesia after a life-threatening seizure. He shares that creative vision with the world fuelled by his experiences. Synesthesia is a genetically based neurological phenomenon where the stimulation of one sense (in this case auditory:music) causes another sense to be experienced (visual:colour). The eliciting stimulus is called the inducer and experienced sensation is called concurrent. There are many pairings of these senses but the inducer is often letters, words or numbers (grapheme) and the concurrent is often a visual element.  Those who have this experience (synesthetes) have no control over it. They often possess increased levels of creativity, a propensity towards careers or hobbies in the arts, and enhanced memory. What an amazingly rich experience it must be to see music as colour, or touch or taste!

Neuroimaging provides scientists with a tool to investigate the physical basis for synaesthesia. It appears that there are structural and functional differences detected in the brains of synesthetes. A recent study by Anna Zamm and her colleagues found enhanced white matter connectivity in music-colour synesthetes. White matter is a structural part of the central nervous system that transmits signals from one area of the brain to another.

MRI scan of white matter structure in the human brain    Copyright: 3D Slicer

MRI scan of white matter structure in the human brain Copyright: 3D Slicer

Some famous synesthetes include physicist Richard Feynman and philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. The popular and creative Feynman saw his equations in colour. I definitely would have been more interested in physics at school if the equations were colourful. Especially if the classes had been given by the bongo-playing Nobel laureate! Feynman’s contribution to physics and the popularising of it is monumental and ongoing.

The impact of Wittgenstein’s work is no less expansive and he is considered to be one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century. His legacy around language endures to this day informing a wide variety of social sciences as well as philosophy.

There is scientific resurgence of enthusiasm about what the study of synesthesia can offer to increase understanding of perception and cognition in the fields of neuroscience and psychology. Professor Jamie Ward at the University of Sussex, who is a current synesthesia researcher, has written a book called “The Frog Who Croaked Blue” for those who are interested exploring it further. Public interest in synesthesia is also high – it is certainly a fascinating topic which captures the imagination. Even the London Symphony Orchestra has an upcoming series of concerts, “Music in Colour” celebrating the works of two synesthetic composers: Alexander Scriabin and Olivier Messiaen.

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