Wassily Kandinsky: Synesthesia & Abstraction

kandinsky synesthesiaLong have I appreciated the obfuscation of reality brought forth in abstract art. As a kid, I was drawn to it. It’s careful, but it’s not too careful. The father of abstraction, Wassily Kandinsky, was a synesthete. He, like few before him and John Burke after him, sought to evoke sound through vision – pitch through color. His abstract paintings are pleasantly intricate and (perhaps literally) resounding. He was a pioneer, a teacher, a cellist, a painter – the quintessential artist. And, again, dear Wassily was a synesthete. Above-left is pictured his Composition VII, painted in Munich, Germany in 1913.

Kandinsky’s Synesthetic Experiences

Born in Moscow, Russia in 1866, Kandinsky grew up a boy fascinated by color. Eventually, he would liken the painting process to that of orchestrating a musical composition. He wrote:

Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.

Needless to say, Kandinsky also believed in the spirituality of artwork. It is something that he would write about in length in his 1910 book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art. While skeptics have long debated the legitimacy of Kandinsky’s synesthesia (much as the mere existence of synesthesia has been debated), it seems to have played an undeniable, integral role in his life and artwork. He once described his discovery of the phenomenon – something that occurred during an opera performance in Moscow:

I saw all my colours in spirit, before my eyes. Wild, almost crazy lines were sketched in front of me.

A young Wassily is said to have heard a peculiar hissing sound when mixing different colored paints in his childhood paintbox. From what I can gather, this man was indeed an authentic synesthete. He evidently had quite the imagination; this, however, was not a figment of unreality.

Read more about Kandinsky’s experiences.

The Qualities of a Color

It’s clear that this man saw more in color than the common man or woman. To him, color was more than a quality of an object, more than an adjective. Color had its own meaning, its own depth, its own purpose in our world. His description of his favorite color, blue, included “it calls man towards the infinite” – a spiritual reference, no doubt, but an honest perspective, I believe.

It’s difficult to put yourself in Kandinsky’s frame of mind. It’s neat to think about, though. Let’s give it a try. Think about your favorite color, be it Tomato red, Holly green, Sienna orange, Caribbean blue, etc. Beyond its appearance, or how it appears when manifested physically, what does it mean to you? What does it represent? What is its purpose?

If I get some good responses, I’ll chime in with my thoughts on black, which isn’t as much a color as it is a shade, but it’ll do. Don’t be shy, people. Synesthete or not, I’d love to get some abstract thinking going. Do it for Kandinsky!


Leave your comments below, and I’ll respond promptly. 🙂 Check out some more of Kandinsky’s artwork here.

Investigating Spatial Sequence Synesthesia

spatial sequence synesthesiaDo you visualize numerical sequences in physical space? How ’bout days of the week, months in the year, or years in the past decade? If Wednesday’s floating to your left, and 1999 is situated just above your head, you may be experiencing spatial sequence synesthesia. Since several readers have inquired about this form, I thought it appropriate for a post topic. As far as tests go, there isn’t a whole lot to discuss. This form is relatively self-explanatory. Perhaps some of you, though, who’ve had similar experiences, mightn’t have thought them to be synesthetic. Let’s dive a little deeper!

Sequences in Physical Space

When we talk about visualizing sequences in physical space, we’re not talking about outer space. If you can see that far, you’re dealing with something far more esoteric and mystifying than synesthesia. In fact, we’re talking about the space around you – your “bubble”, if you will. If – when it comes to numbers, dates, and sequences – you visualize entities in your immediate vicinity, there’s a fair chance that you’re familiar with this type.

Spatial sequence synesthetes might have a tough time convincing their friends and family members that they’re seeing what they claim to be seeing. However, Dr. David Eagleman has no trouble believing in this phenomenon; after all, he is a neuroscientist (working at the Baylor College of Medicine, no less). Appropriately enough, Dr. Eagleman’s lab has actually developed a sort of virtual reality, in which synesthetes can map their spatial visualizations. The findings are quite interesting; you can get a quick briefing by reading his abstract. There are several takeaways, of course. What I find most compelling (and in hindsight intuitive) is that the research supported “the possibility that SSS is directly related to the sequence representations in nonsynesthetes” (Eagleman, 2009). Month visualizations, for instance, were generally mapped from left to right, which is consistent with the “directional bias” of Western speakers.

A Memory Advantage?

One study, conducted by Julia Simner of the University of Edinburgh in the UK, found that spatial sequence synesthetes have a built-in and automatic mnemonic reference. In other words, where the nonsynesthete needs to create a mnemonic device to remember a sequence (like “Please excuse my dear Aunt Sally.”), the synesthete can simply reference their spatial visualizations. Read the full coverage of this study on ScienceMag.org. It’s worth the five minutes it takes to peruse. So, really, there is a subtle memory advantage. It isn’t eidetic (or photographic), though.


This is certainly one of the most interesting forms of synesthesia that I’ve written on, and I’d love to learn more. Feel free to share your experiences anonymously, if you’d like! I’ve been tossing around the idea of publishing a collection of anonymous synesthetic experiences, with the thought that it might be beneficial for others to reference. Of course, all experiences published would be with the permission of the sharer, and (as I mentioned) each synesthetic experience would be published anonymously. Do share your thoughts on this, loyal readers!

That’s all for now, though! Whether tomorrow’s on your left or on your right, make it a fabulous day!

Credit for this image goes to People.Brunel.Ac.Uk

The Synesthesia Battery – Test & Research Center

synesthesia battery

When it comes to standardized testing for synesthesia, you won’t find a more well developed, comprehensive collection of questions and tasks than the Synesthesia Battery. Developed in the laboratory of neurologist, Dr. David Eagleman, at the Baylor College of Medicine, the Battery provides individuals with a secure experience that fosters education and research on synesthesia. If you’re unfamiliar with Dr. Eagleman’s work, I recommend reading his and Richard E. Cytowic’s book – Wednesday Is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia. It’s a great read and provides some awesome insights into the mind of a synesthete. So, yeah, read it! 🙂

Testing for Synesthesia

Since most of you are here to find a test for synesthesia, I’ll first direct you to the Battery’s preview questionnaire, which should give you a general idea of whether or not you’re a synesthete. It consists of seven relatively straightforward questions, so don’t be intimidated. Just answer to the best of your ability. After you’ve answered the questions, click ‘Continue’ to see your results! If it turns out that your answers indicate that you might experience some forms of synesthesia, you’ll be greeted with a form through which you can sign up (for free) for the full battery of tests.

Wondering what the tests are like? You’re in luck! The Battery provides a pretty extensive preview of the questions/tests that you’ll encounter once you sign up, along with some demos to try out. The demos are pretty simple, but they give you a good idea of how things operate within the actual battery of tests. This grapheme-color demo, for instance, only illustrates the first portion of a multi-faceted test – but it does a good job of introducing the user to the general testing process.

Synesthesia Research

Testing is one thing, and it’s great for you – the user – but it’s all the more awesome when the results are used responsibly for research and development. The Synesthesia Battery provides researchers with secure standardized testing for their synesthetic subjects. All information, including test results, is kept private for each subject. Those being tested can specify an additional email (in most cases, the email of the researcher) to which they would like to grant access. This way, the researcher can log into synesthete.org (using the credentials that are emailed to him/her), and access the results of the test subject. Pretty cool, right?

Want to learn more about synesthesia research and the Synesthesia Battery? Check out this article/video from the Huffington Post, in which researcher Steffie Tomson talks about her research on synesthesia in Dr. Eagleman’s lab. It’s well worth a read/watch!


That’s all for now, everyone! Remember, if you have a vested interest in synesthesia, you might consider checking out Dr. Eagleman’s (and Richard Cytowic’s) book: Wednesday is Indigo Blue. It’s a great way to develop a more comprehensive understanding of synesthesia. Thanks, as always! See you next time! 🙂

What are your thoughts on synesthesia research? What tendencies might you explore if you had access to synesthetic test subjects? Let us know in the comments section!

John Burke’s Synesthesia – Musical Colors Test

synesthesia music john burkeOne of the forms of synesthesia that I’ve always found to be particularly interesting and interestingly romantic is sound to color synesthesia. Whether it’s the fictitious visions of legendary composers crafting their greatest works in dancing colors or the common allure of synesthesia, there’s something there that tickles my fancy. So, when I came across solo pianist John Burke’s website, with his album – titled Synesthesia – I knew I had to share. What’s more is that he’s actually provided all of you sound (or music) to color synesthetes with a cool little test involving songs from his album. Let’s take a look!

First off, I have to say that I love the album’s song nomenclature for its simplicity alone. Each song, as you may have guessed, is named with a color. When you consider the actual naming convention, the album takes a completely different life. In composing each piece, Burke set out to tap into the listener’s subconscious, meticulously manipulating his hammers and strings in such a way that would actually invoke a sense of a given color in the listener’s mind. The color? The composition’s title, of course. Cobalt. Sage. Crimson. Violet. Take your pick. There are 10 compositions in total.

The Music to Color Test

Alright, you’re here for a test, so a test you shall get. The premise behind sound to color synesthesia is that certain sounds invoke a given color in the synesthete’s mind. Typically, we might say that the sounds (or triggers) are more generic and defined, rather than multiple-minute compositions, but for our purposes, Burke’s compositions will be a bit more compelling. Just a bit.

Anyways, on this page, where Burke describes his idea for the album, you can listen to three of the selections. The challenge, as Burke has prescribed on the page, is to listen to the compositions and then compare any color visualizations that you may have to the piece’s title. Now, obviously, you’ll see the title first. However, the exact colors won’t be immediately recallable. Give the songs a listen, and if you have any sound to color experiences, find an exact representation of the title color and compare. Who knows; you might surprise yourself!

More Music & Testing

If you have any synesthetic experiences with the three available selections, you might consider purchasing the album and experimenting with the other compositions. Another option is trying individual pieces. Even if your perceived colors don’t match up with the song titles, it might be interesting to compare them with those of other users. So, yeah, I strongly encourage sharing. 🙂

Results or not, I do recommend adding the album to your collection. Not only is it a great example of synesthesia as an artform, but it’s also quite enjoyable. I’m partial to ‘Indigo’, in particular. Very relaxing music, all around. Take a listen and let me know what you think!

That’s all for now! Again, if you get a chance to listen to John Burke’s free selections, let us know which colors, if any, you involuntarily visualize. We’re eager to hear from you! See you next time! Happy listening!

Experiment: Try Lumosity’s Online Brain Games!

synesthesia Lumosity Brain GamesHave you ever talked to a friend or family member and realized that your brain activity is – to some degree – atypical? Don’t fret; you’re not alone. Whether your experiences are synesthetic in nature or related to something entirely different, it’s always interesting to learn more about what’s going on inside our brains and how it affects our mental capacities. While we try to explore the former as much as possible on the Synesthesia Test blog, this post will address the latter. How do my abnormal perceptions and/or thought processes affect the way I react to different stimuli? More specifically, when faced with a game that’s designed to stimulate my brain, do my tendencies aid or hinder my ability to perform well? We’ll need your help here a little, of course, as well as that of Lumosity – an awesome suite of online games and exercises designed to engage, challenge, and ultimately improve your brain function.

The Game: Speed Match

Lumosity has a boatload of great games for boosting your memory and mental fortitude, but for our purposes (and largely in the spirit of this blog and its topic of synesthesia), I chose to use the Speed Match game. Not only is it pretty simple, but it also reminds me of some of the things we discussed when talking about the high-functioning savant, Daniel Tammet. Anyways, the objective of this game is to indicate whether or not the symbol or shape matches the one that appeared immediately before it. There is a time stipulation of 45 seconds, so you’ll want to hurry! That’s the gist of it, though.

While this game is free to play, you can gain access to a personalized set of brain exercises by signing up for a 14-day free trial. It’s not required, obviously, but if you find yourself having fun and being challenged by some of the free games, I think it’s a must-try. Plus, the trial is completely free, and you can opt out at any time, free of charge. Back to Speed Match, though! Give it a try! The first round is for practice. On your second run, record your score (or take a screenshot). We’ll need your results to make this a success!

Comparing Results

So, it’s the moment of truth. How did you do? Were you impressed with your performance on the second try, as opposed to the first? Does that old brain need a little dusting off? Don’t sweat it. This is mostly for fun. Anyways, I’ll share my results below. On my first play, I think I scored somewhere in the 540-560 point range. Interestingly enough, my results seemed to improve drastically with just one try under my belt. Here are the stats from trial two:

Category: Non-synesthete
Reaction Time: 1036 ms
Accuracy: 100%
Total Correct: 36
Points: 940

Not too shabby, eh? Well, who knows, really. Until we see some of your results, we won’t know how well I did (relatively speaking). The more, the better – obviously. You can submit your results in the comments of this post using your first name, a nickname, or completely anonymous. We’re not so much concerned with who is contributing as we are with what is being contributed. That said, I’ll go ahead and thank all of those who do contribute in advance :). Remember, when you post your results, if you’d be so kind as to include which category you fall into: non-synesthete, synesthete, unsure, or some abnormal brain function. No personal information will be published in my follow-up – only inferences from the overall data set! Does it sound like a plan? Good! I look forward to hearing from some of you soon!

If it’s more convenient, you can use our contact form to submit your results. Just put “Speed Match” in the subject line! Thanks for reading! Again, if you enjoyed the free game from Lumosity, chances are that you’ll love the personalized trial program! Sign up while it’s free! See you soon!