Higgins Versus Klosterman XV: Synesthesia

You are forced to give up one of your five senses (smell, sight, taste, touch, or hearing). However, you may choose to compensate for the loss by means of synesthesia–for example, if you give up your sense of sight, you can choose to smell colors instead, or if you give up taste, you could replace this sensation by feeling flavors. Basically, whichever sense you reject you would be able to sense, but through a different medium.

Which of your senses would you surrender, and how would you replace it?


Unlike a lot of the phenomena discussed in Klosterman’s hypotheticals, synesthesia is a real thing.

That’s right. There are people who can taste purple, feel chocolate, and see your farts. The conditions can be congenital (from birth) or adventitious (coming on later in life). They come with fancy names like ordinal linguistic personification, grapheme –> color synesthesia, and ideasthesia.

Among the most famous synesthetes:

  • Duke Ellington, who literally played the blues–seriously, when he heard that certain note, it would appear blue to him
  • Vladimir Nabokov, who describes the discovery of his synesthesia in Speak, Memory
  • Wassily Kandinsky, a pioneer of abstraction in visual art

Whoa. Kandinsky.

In any case, we must move forward. Mr. Klosterman has presented us with options. If we were to lose one of our several methods of accessing the world, but be able to access what the lost method accessed through one of our remaining senses, how would we proceed?

Shall I lose taste? Smell? Sight? Touch? Hearing?

It seems very impractical to have to lose hearing or sight; our daily communication relies upon these. I do not think that a sight –> taste/smell/touch/hearing synesthesia would be very practical; a white wall might elicit a B flat, but what about the depth of field? How am I to know when I am approaching the wall–will the B flat get louder? And what about when I see a rainbow–will that now be some disharmonious chord as all the different colors clash as sound?

The obvious cop-out to me seems to be a smell –> taste synesthesia. Taste and smell are already so closely bound up as to be sometimes inextricable. It is hard to say what red wine tastes like without thinking also of its smell. I have known individuals who have lost their senses of smell, and truly grieved for the loss of that sense; but we must remember that we will not lose the sense, it will only be converted. I think that I could live with that.

However, there are other interesting options. I would love to be able to see sound, but would that interfere with normal vision? When I hear a symphony, would a Fantasia of colors overlay my vision? What about touch–>sound? Touching a cool steel beam could trigger taut synths, sandpaper might sound like a musical saw, and water–what would water sound like? But would I lose my sense of proprioception , which seems related to touch?

It is hard to know how any of these scenarios would actually work out. I think I would immediately take the smell –> taste option. However, if it was only texture that was affected, I might be interested in touch –> sound as well. Think about it–every surface would become an instrument for you to play!


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