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Synesthesia: Why Some of Us Can Taste Music and Hear the Rainbow

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In recent years, you might’ve heard artists like Pharrell Williams and Kanye West self-identifying as having synesthesia—something that West says has allowed him to make "sonic paintings” and “see sound.”

But just how common is synesthesia? What is it? How does it happen? Due to synesthesia’s relative newness as an area of study, researchers are still working to find answers. 

WHAT IS SYNESTHESIA, EXACTLY?

Synesthesia is a brain condition that may link a person’s senses together in an uncommon manner. For example, sounds might be heard but also seen, or flavors that can be tasted are also visualized. As the inimitable Dr. Oliver Sacks explained to American Public Media in 2009, the effect is “almost as if there's some excessive connection, or abnormal connection between sensory areas which are normally separate.”

Every synesthete’s experience is different, but they generally fall into one of two types: projective or associative. Projective sensory experiences seem to present tangibly—say, a blob of red appears in the room, or the skin grows hot. Associative experiences draw to mind other concepts, moods, or memories.

The possible combinations of senses and stimuli are endless, but the most common types of synesthesia include grapheme-color synesthesia, in which numbers or letters bring about certain colors; chromesthesia, in which sounds (and often music) bring about colors; spatial sequence synesthesia, in which a person’s sense of a number is aligned in their sense of surrounding space; and number form synesthesia, which can bring up a mental map of numbers.

HOW DOES IT HAPPEN, AND WHY?

According to research [PDF], synesthesia is a familial trait that can skip generations, and synesthetic experiences are "automatic." Consistencies in this research area suggest there “is some difference between synesthetes and nonsynesthetes," but that difference is still unclear. According to the 2015 research wrap-up "Developing synesthesia: a primer," there’s a widening spectrum of possible causes for it.

For example, the immune hypothesis, first introduced in 2013, suggests that "the interaction between the central nervous system and the immune system during early life may play a pivotal role in the development of synaesthesia." On the other hand, the neonatal hypothesis argues that synesthetic associations "between basic shapes and colors may be present already early in childhood" (formed, say, when you were learning the ABCs on colored blocks as a child while your brain was still developing its sensory pathways), and that "even when these associations can be refined by experience," they can still "interfere with learning novel shape-color associations later."

According to Sean Day, president of the American Synesthesia Association (ASA), that excessive connection might be a result of small but significant anatomical differences in synesthetic brains. Research has recently indicated that fatty nerve insulation called myelin in the brains of synesthetes seems to be more developed along pathways between sensory areas.

Day told NPR, "Because the myelination is different, the interaction between certain parts of the brain is different.” And since this myelin sheath is good for rapid conduction of electronic impulses in neurons, it seems likely that the extra-smooth pathways between sensory areas in a synesthetic brain make for interesting perceptual collaborations between two (or more) of our many senses.

WHO HAS IT?

Estimates about how common synesthesia is vary, though current opinion favors the figure of around four percent of the population. Because research into the subject is limited (but increasing) and we lack a catch-all diagnostic test, we don’t know exactly how many of us are experiencing stimuli extraneously, or how common each variety of synesthesia may be.

BBC News points out that the synesthesia roster includes the abstract painter and art theorist Wassily Kandinsky, who communicated “his experience of seeing music in color, line, and form." Vincent Van Gogh and David Hockney are also among the ranks of visual artists who’ve explored the potential realms and representations of their perception in their work (and who, like Kandinsky, weren't shy about vivid colors). Plenty of noteworthy musicians are synesthetes, too, including Tori Amos, Jean Sibelius, Eddie Van Halen, Itzhak Perlman, and Leonard Bernstein.

WHAT’S SYNESTHESIA LIKE?

Whether it’s seeing a patch of mauve hanging in the air during a Metallica encore or simply knowing that the number 12 is green, each synesthete’s special sensory link is different. Pitchfork explains that, in the mind of Duke Ellington, “a D note looked like dark blue burlap [and] a G was light blue satin,” while a young Pharrell Williams saw baby blue and burgundy hues when he first heard the music of Earth, Wind & Fire.

Synesthesia researcher Dr. Carol Crane feels guitar music “[brush] softly against her ankles” and hears trumpets as they “make themselves known on the back of her neck,” she told Monitor on Psychology. Day, the ASA president, who is also a linguistics professor in Taiwan, told the publication that, for him, the taste of steak incites “a rich blue,” while steamed gingered squid “produces a large glob of bright orange foam, about four feet away, directly in front of me."

According to Simon Baron-Cohen, a University of Cambridge synesthesia researcher (and Borat’s real-life cousin), most people with synesthesia are quite content with the way they experience the world. “If you ask synesthetes if they'd wish to be rid of it, they almost always say no," Baron-Cohen told Monitor on Psychology. "For them, it feels like that's what normal experience is like. To have that taken away would make them feel like they were being deprived of one sense."

The benefits of the condition might actually be measurable now, too, according to the results of a preliminary exploration by the British Psychological Association published this year. Seeking out possible correlations between synesthesia and certain personality traits and abilities, the study found that in comparison to non-synesthetic or "control" participants, "synesthetes showed (by decreasing order of estimated effect size) greater absorption, verbal comprehension, visual convergent thinking, openness to experience, originality of verbal divergent thinking, and usage of mental imagery."

For synesthetes, that's music to their eyes.

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15 Subatomic Word Origins
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In July 2017, researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) found evidence for a new fundamental particle of the universe: Ξcc++, a special kind of Xi baryon that may help scientists better understand how quarks are held together. Is that Greek to you? Well, it should be. The names for many of the particles that make up the universe—as well as a few that are still purely theoretical—come from ancient Greek. Here’s a look at 15 subatomic etymologies.

1. ION

An ion is any atom or molecule with an overall electric charge. English polymath William Whewell suggested the name in an 1834 letter to Michael Faraday, who made major discoveries in electromagnetism. Whewell based ion on the ancient Greek verb for “go” (ienai), as ions move towards opposite charges. Faraday and Whewell had previously considered zetode and stechion.

2. ELECTRON

George Stoney, an Anglo-Irish physicist, introduced the term electron in 1891 as a word for the fundamental unit of charge carried by an ion. It was later applied to the negative, nucleus-orbiting particle discovered by J. J. Thomson in 1897. Electron nabs the -on from ion, kicking off the convention of using -on as an ending for all particles, and fuses it with electric. Electric, in turn, comes from the Greek for “amber,” in which the property was first observed. Earlier in the 19th century, electron was the name for an alloy of gold and silver.

3. PROTON

The electron’s counterpart, the positively charged proton in the nuclei of all atoms, was named by its discoverer, Ernest Rutherford. He suggested either prouton or proton in honor of William Prout, a 19th-century chemist. Prout speculated that hydrogen was a part of all other elements and called its atom protyle, a Greek coinage joining protos ("first") and hule ("timber" or "material") [PDF]. Though the word had been previously used in biology and astronomy, the scientific community went with proton.

4. NEUTRON

Joining the proton in the nucleus is the neutron, which is neither positive nor negative: It’s neutral, from the Latin neuter, “neither.” Rutherford used neutron in 1921 when he hypothesized the particle, which James Chadwick didn’t confirm until 1932. American chemist William Harkins independently used neutron in 1921 for a hydrogen atom and a proton-electron pair. Harkins’s latter application calls up the oldest instance of neutron, William Sutherland’s 1899 name for a hypothetical combination of a hydrogen nucleus and an electron.

5. QUARK

Protons and neutrons are composed of yet tinier particles called quarks. For their distinctive name, American physicist Murray Gell-Mann was inspired in 1963 by a line from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake: “Three quarks for Muster Mark.” Originally, Gell-Mann thought there were three types of quarks. We now know, though, there are six, which go by names that are just as colorful: up, down, charm, strange, top, and bottom.

6. MESON

Made up of a quark and an antiquark, which has identical mass but opposite charge, the meson is a short-lived particle whose mass is between that of a proton and an electron. Due to this intermediate size, the meson is named for the ancient Greek mesos, “middle.” Indian physicist Homi Bhabha suggested meson in 1939 instead of its original name, mesotron: “It is felt that the ‘tr’ in this word is redundant, since it does not belong to the Greek root ‘meso’ for middle; the ‘tr’ in neutron and electron belong, of course, to the roots ‘neutr’ and ‘electra’.”

7., 8., AND 9. BOSON, PHOTON, AND GLUON

Mesons are a kind of boson, named by English physicist Paul Dirac in 1947 for another Indian physicist, Satyendra Nath Bose, who first theorized them. Bosons demonstrate a particular type of spin, or intrinsic angular momentum, and carry fundamental forces. The photon (1926, from the ancient Greek for “light”) carries the electromagnetic force, for instance, while the gluon carries the so-called strong force. The strong force holds quarks together, acting like a glue, hence gluon.

10. HADRON

In 2012, CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) discovered a very important kind of boson: the Higgs boson, which generates mass. The hadrons the LHC smashes together at super-high speeds refer to a class of particles, including mesons, that are held together by the strong force. Russian physicist Lev Okun alluded to this strength by naming the particles after the ancient Greek hadros, “large” or “bulky,” in 1962.

11. LEPTON

Hadrons are opposite, in both makeup and etymology, to leptons. These have extremely tiny masses and don’t interact via the strong force, hence their root in the ancient Greek leptos, “small” or “slender.” The name was first suggested by the Danish chemist Christian Møller and Dutch-American physicist Abraham Pais in the late 1940s. Electrons are classified as leptons.

12. BARYON

Another subtype of hadron is the baryon, which also bears the stamp of Abraham Pais. Baryons, which include the more familiar protons and neutrons, are far more massive, relatively speaking, than the likes of leptons. On account of their mass, Pais put forth the name baryon in 1953, based on the ancient Greek barys, “heavy” [PDF].

13. AXION

Quirky Murray Gell-Mann isn't the only brain with a sense of humor. In his 2004 Nobel Prize lecture, American physicist Frank Wilczek said he named a “very light, very weakly interacting” hypothetical particle the axion back in 1978 “after a laundry detergent [brand], since they clean up a problem with an axial current” [PDF].

14. TACHYON

In ancient Greek, takhys meant “swift,” a fitting name for the tachyon, which American physicist Gerald Feinberg concocted in 1967 for a hypothetical particle that can travel faster than the speed of light. Not so fast, though, say most physicists, as the tachyon would break the fundamental laws of physics as we know them.

15. CHAMELEON

In 2003, the American physicist Justin Khoury and South African-American theoretical physicist Amanda Weltman hypothesized that the elusive dark energy may come in the form of a particle, which they cleverly called the chameleon. Just as chameleons can change color to suit their surroundings, so the physical characteristics of the chameleon particle change “depending on its environment,” explains Symmetry, the online magazine dedicated to particle physics. Chameleon itself derives from the ancient Greek khamaileon, literally “on-the-ground lion.”

For more particle names, see Symmetry’s “A Brief Etymology of Particle Physics,” which helped provide some of the information in this list.

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Look Up! The Orionid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend
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October is always a great month for skywatching. If you missed the Draconids, the first meteor shower of the month, don't despair: the Orionids peak this weekend. It should be an especially stunning show this year, as the Moon will offer virtually no interference. If you've ever wanted to get into skywatching, this is your chance.

The Orionids is the second of two meteor showers caused by the debris field left by the comet Halley. (The other is the Eta Aquarids, which appear in May.) The showers are named for the constellation Orion, from which they seem to originate.

All the stars are lining up (so to speak) for this show. First, it's on the weekend, which means you can stay up late without feeling the burn at work the next day. Tonight, October 20, you'll be able to spot many meteors, and the shower peaks just after midnight tomorrow, October 21, leading into Sunday morning. Make a late-night picnic of the occasion, because it takes about an hour for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. Bring a blanket and a bottle of wine, lay out and take in the open skies, and let nature do the rest.

Second, the Moon, which was new only yesterday, is but a sliver in the evening sky, lacking the wattage to wash out the sky or conceal the faintest of meteors. If your skies are clear and light pollution low, this year you should be able to catch about 20 meteors an hour, which isn't a bad way to spend a date night.

If clouds interfere with your Orionids experience, don't fret. There will be two more meteor showers in November and the greatest of them all in December: the Geminids.

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