UCL News


The artist who painted music reveals secrets of the senses

5 September 2006

Vision and hearing are inextricably linked in everyone's brain, but this is only really apparent to the one or two per cent of us who are synaesthetes - those with a rare condition in which the senses consciously mingle.

Scientists at UCL, attempting to recreate what synaesthetes experience, have now concluded that beauty is not in the eye of the beholder: we all rate certain combinations of vision and music as more beautiful than others.

Dr Jamie Ward [UCL Psychology] told the British Association yesterday that this fact has implications for how we understand art forms that combine visual images with sound, such as ballet and opera. …

To study if synaesthetes can detect the more appealing combinations of sight and sound, Dr Ward asked six synaesthetes to draw and describe their visual experiences of music played by the New London Orchestra. A control group of six people without the condition were asked to do the same.

These drawings, set to the music that inspired them, were then shown to a test audience. Respondents consistently chose the images drawn by synaesthetes over control images. …

Wassily Kandinsky - thought to have been a synaesthete - was one artist who hoped to exploit our mixed-up senses with paintings such as Composition VIII, which was supposed to be "visual music".

Dr Ward said: "Kandinsky wanted to make visual art more like music - more abstract. He also hoped that his paintings would be 'heard' by his audiences.

"This seems more achievable now that we have found such a strong link between vision and hearing. Although information from the world enters our heads via different sensory organs, once they are in the brain they are intimately connected with each other." …

The next stage of Dr Ward's research will use brain scans to look at what happens in the brain of synaesthetes when Kandinsky triggers sound or when sound triggers a Kandinsky-like vision.

Roger Highfield and Nic Fleming, 'The Daily Telegraph'