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Brian Rasic/Getty Images for MTV
Brian Rasic/Getty Images for MTV

12 Famous Artists With Synesthesia

Brian Rasic/Getty Images for MTV
Brian Rasic/Getty Images for MTV

Synesthesia is a condition in which the brain links a person's senses together in a rare manner, prompting unusual sensory responses to stimuli. People with synesthesia, for example, might see a certain color in response to a certain letter of the alphabet. Those who experience synesthesia “hear colors, feel sounds, and taste shapes” in a remarkably consistent fashion. For example, someone who sees "1" as burnt orange will always see "1" as burnt orange—unlike, say, someone who hallucinates colors while on LSD.

Scientists still disagree as to what causes synesthesia. Some claim it is a series of learned responses, but most point to a neurological foundation. Some studies reveal unusual connections in synesthetes' adjacent brain regions, similar to those in babies; in fact, it is believed that all babies have synesthesia until they are about four months old, when the synaptic pruning process normally severs those neural connections.The condition, which occurs in about 4 percent of the population, is more common in women than in men, and appears to be genetic. Though it can manifest in many ways, the most common are grapheme-color, in which numbers or letters produce colors, and chromesthesia (sound-color), in which sounds produce colors or shapes. Unsurprisingly, synesthetes are eight times more likely to work in a creative capacity—and quite a few talented artists through history have had it.

1. VLADIMIR NABOKOV

Occupation: Author

Type of synesthesia: Grapheme-color

Vladimir Nabokov (right) and his son Dmitri (center) dine out with an unidentified woman after Dmitri's debut as an opera singer at the Communale Theatre, Reggio Emilia, northern Italy, on May 2, 1961. Image Credit: Keystone/Getty Images

 
A writer of novels, poems, and short stories, Nabokov was not the only one in his family to experience synesthesia—his mother and son, Dmitri, also had chromesthesia. Nabokov’s descriptions of his condition are as captivating and well-written as any of his works, and in his memoir Speak, Memory, he describes his condition: “As far back as I remember … I have been subject to mild hallucinations. Some are aural, others are optical, and by none have I profited much … In the brown group, there are the rich rubbery tone of soft g, paler j, and the drab shoelace of h … among the red, b has the tone called burnt sienna by painters, m is a fold of pink flannel, and today I have at last perfectly matched v with ‘Rose Quartz’ in Maerz and Paul’s Dictionary of Color.”

Nabokov even mentions the moment he and his mother learned of their shared synesthesia, writing, “We discovered that some of her letters had the same tint as mine, and that, besides, she was optically affected by music notes.”

2. TORI AMOS

Occupation: Musician

Type of synesthesia: Unspecified

Tori Amos performs during soundcheck at Radio City Music Hall on August 13, 2009 in New York City. Image Credit: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

 
Amos experiences an unusual type of synesthesia in which sounds produce different images of lights. When commenting on her synesthesia in her book Piece by Piece, Amos said, “The song appears as light filament once I’ve cracked it … I’ve never seen a duplicated song structure. I’ve never seen the same light creature in my life. Obviously similar chord progressions follow similar light patterns, but try to imagine the best kaleidoscope ever.”

3. GEOFFREY RUSH

Occupation: Actor

Type of synesthesia: Grapheme-color, spatio-temporal synesthesia

Geoffrey Rush arrives at the 4th AACTA Awards Ceremony at The Star on January 29, 2015 in Sydney, Australia. Image Credit: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

 
In an interview, Rush said his synesthesia goes back to his toddler days: “When I was in school, in the very early days, we would learn the days of the week. And for some reason the days of the week just instantly had strong color associations. Monday for me is kind of a pale blue …. Tuesday is acid green, Wednesday is a deep purple-y darkish color. Friday’s got maroon and Saturday is white and Sunday is a sort of pale yellow.

Rush experiences several types of synesthesia, another of which, spatio-temporal, he describes by explaining, “I can say to my wife, ‘That play opened on Tuesday, May the 8th back in 1982.’ I can remember it had a position in my mind where 1982 is and where May is within that. It’s a kind of series of hills and dales so if someone says King Charlemagne lived in 800 A.D., there is a very definite place where I see that.”

4. DUKE ELLINGTON

Occupation: Musician

Type of synesthesia: Chromesthesia

Duke Ellington, circa 1948. Image Credit: Keystone/Getty Images

 

In Sweet Man: The Real Duke Ellington, author Don George recounts Ellington’s statements on how his synesthesia affected his music: “I hear a note by one of the fellows in the band and it’s one color. I hear the same note played by someone else and it’s a different color. When I hear sustained musical tones, I see just about the same colors that you do, but I see them in textures. If Harry Carney is playing, D is dark blue burlap. If Johnny Hodges is playing, G becomes light blue satin.”

5. BILLY JOEL

Occupation: Musician

Type of synesthesia: Chromesthesia, grapheme-color

Billy Joel performs in concert at Madison Square Garden on May 27, 2016 in New York City. Image credit: Mike Coppola/Getty Images

 
Joel is fond of his synesthetic experiences, in which songs create worlds of color. As he told Psychology Today writer Maureen Seaberg, “When I think of different types of melodies which are slower or softer, I think in terms of blues or greens … When I have a particularly vivid color, it’s usually a strong melodic, strong rhythmic pattern that emerges at the same time. When I think of (those) certain songs, I think of vivid reds, oranges, or golds.”

On his grapheme-color synesthesia, Joel commented, “Certain lyrics in some songs I’ve written, I have to follow a vowel color." He associates strong vowel endings—such as -a, -e, or -i—with "a very blue or very vivid green … I think reds I associate more with consonants, a t or a p or an s; something which is a harder sound.”

6. DEV HYNES

Occupation: Singer, composer

Type of synesthesia: Chromesthesia

Recording artist Dev Hynes, a.k.a. Blood Orange, performs onstage during FYF Fest 2016 at Los Angeles Sports Arena on August 28, 2016. Image Credit: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for FYF

 
Though synesthesia can be overwhelming and unpleasant for some, Hynes, a.k.a. Blood Orange, also seems to appreciate his condition. As he told NPR, “When I was younger, I wanted to just, like, throw the whole paint can onto the canvas and just see what would happen … Whereas now, I’m kind of enjoying it and exploring the interesting scientific part of it as much as I can, and trying to celebrate it and invite other people to enjoy it.”

7. ARTHUR RIMBAUD

Occupation: Poet

Type of synesthesia: Grapheme-color

Portraits of Arthur Rimbaud (left) and his fellow French poet Charles Baudelaire on buildings in Chanteloup-les-Vignes, a Paris suburb, in June 2015. Image Credit: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images

 
It’s not definitively known whether Rimbaud had synesthesia, but his poem Vowels strongly suggests as much, assigning color values to different vowels:

A Black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: vowels,
I shall tell, one day, of your mysterious origins:
A, black velvety jacket of brilliant flies
Which buzz around cruel smells,

Gulfs of shadow; E, whiteness of vapours and of tents,
Lances of proud glaciers, white kings, shivers of cow-parsley;
I, purples, spat blood, smile of beautiful lips
In anger or in the raptures of penitence;

U, waves, divine shudderings of viridian seas,
The peace of pastures dotted with animals, the peace of the furrows
Which alchemy prints on broad studious foreheads;

O, sublime Trumpet full of strange piercing sounds,
Silences crossed by Worlds and by Angels:
O the Omega, the violet ray of Her Eyes!

8. PATRICK STUMP

Occupation: Musician

Type of synesthesia: Grapheme-color, chromesia

Patrick Stump of Fall Out Boy performs onstage at Madison Square Garden on March 4, 2016 in New York City. Image Credit: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

 
Fall Out Boy's Stump addressed his synesthesia directly in a blog post in 2011. He stated that “most letters and numbers feel like a color. Music also can have colors associated with them (but this is a lot less pronounced than my grapheme-color associations). I’ve talked to a lot of musicians though and the more I talk to [them] the more I’m finding out that this is fairly common.” Stump is right about that—musicians with synesthesia are quite common.

9. PHARRELL WILLIAMS

Occupation: Musician

Type of synesthesia: Chromesthesia

Pharrell Williams on stage during the MTV EMA's 2015 at the Mediolanum Forum on October 25, 2015 in Milan, Italy. Image Credit: Brian Rasic/Getty Images for MTV

 
Perhaps one of today’s most well-known synesthetes, Williams is a firm believer that synesthesia isn’t a disorder but an asset—he implores an NPR interviewer to “dispel the connotation behind the phrase ‘medical condition.’” He explained, “If I tell everyone right now to picture a red truck, you’re gonna see one. But is there one in real life right there in front of you? No. That’s the power of the mind. People with synesthesia, we don’t really notice until someone brings it up and then someone else says, ‘Well, no, I don’t see colors when I hear music,’ and that’s when you realize something’s different.”

Williams relies on his chromesthesia when making music, saying, “It’s the only way that I can identify what something sounds like. I know when something is in key because it either matches the same color or it doesn’t. Or it feels different and it doesn’t feel right.”

10. FRANZ LISZT

Occupation: Pianist, composer

Type of synesthesia: Chromesthesia

Hungarian composer Franz Liszt at age 30. Original artwork reproduced from a daguerreotype. Image Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

 
It must have been interesting to be a musician in one of Liszt’s orchestras. He would reportedly use his synesthesia to help with his orchestrations, telling the musicians, “O please, gentlemen, a little bluer, if you please! This tone type requires it!” Or, “That is a deep violet, please, depend on it! Not so rose!” Apparently, the orchestra initially thought Liszt was just being funny, but over time they realized he really was seeing colors in the sounds.

11. CHARLI XCX

Occupation: Singer

Type of synesthesia: Chromesthesia

Charli XCX performs during the Red Bull Studios Future Underground at Collins Music Hall on September 10, 2015 in London, England. Image Credit: Samir Hussein/Getty Images

 
Like many musicians, Charli embraces her synesthesia and uses it to make her music: “I see music in [colors]. I love music that’s black, pink, purple or red—but I hate music that’s green, yellow or brown.” From her perspective, Charli says, the Cure’s music is “all midnight blue or black, but with twinkly pink stars and baby pink clouds floating around it.”

12. VINCENT VAN GOGH

Occupation: Artist

Type of synesthesia: Chromesthesia

Screens displaying part of a painting by Vincent van Gogh at the 'Van Gogh Alive' multimedia exhibition in Warsaw on November 13, 2015. Image Credit: AFP Photo/Wojtek Radwanski

 
Poor van Gogh. He seems to have been one of those synesthetes who was more impaired than empowered by his condition. One paper highlighted the negative effect of his chromesthesia, noting that when van Gogh took piano lessons in 1885, his teacher realized he was associating the different notes with specific colors. Unfortunately for van Gogh, the teacher took this as a sign of insanity and forced him to leave.

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USPS Is Issuing Its First Scratch-and-Sniff Stamps This Summer
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Summertime smells like sunscreen, barbecues, and—starting June 20, 2018—postage stamps. That's when the United States Postal Service debuts its first line of scratch-and-sniff stamps in Austin, Texas with perfumes meant to evoke "the sweet scent of summer."

The 10 stamps in the collection feature playful watercolor illustrations of popsicles by artist Margaret Berg. If the designs alone don't immediately transport you back to hot summer days spent chasing ice cream trucks, a few scratches and a whiff of the stamp should do the trick. If you're patient, you can also refrain from scratching and use them to mail a bit of summer nostalgia to your loved ones.

Since it was invented in the 1960s, scratch-and-sniff technology has been incorporated into photographs, posters, picture books, and countless kids' stickers.

The first-class mail "forever" stamps will be available in booklets of 20 for $10. You can preorder yours online before they're unveiled at the first-day-of-issue dedication ceremony at Austin's Thinkery children's museum next month.

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15 Things You Didn't Know About The Persistence Of Memory

Salvador Dalì's The Persistence of Memory is the eccentric Spanish painter's most recognizable work. You have probably committed its melting clocks to memory—but you may not know all that went into its making.

1. THE PERSISTENCE OF MEMORY WAS PAINTED IN THE MIDST OF A HALLUCINATION.

Around the time of the painting’s 1931 creation, Dalì perfected his "paranoiac-critical method." The artist would attempt to enter a meditative state of self-induced psychotic hallucinations so that he could make what he called "hand-painted dream photographs."

“I am the first to be surprised and often terrified by the images I see appear upon my canvas," Dalì wrote, referring to his unusual routine. "I register without choice and with all possible exactitude the dictates of my subconscious, my dreams.”

2. IT'S SMALLER THAN YOU MIGHT EXPECT.

The Persistence of Memory is one of Dalì's philosophical triumphs, but the actual oil-on-canvas painting measures only 9.5 inches by 13 inches.

3. THE PAINTING MADE THE 28-YEAR-OLD ARTIST FAMOUS.

Dalì began painting when he was 6 years old. As a young man, he flirted with fame, working with Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel on his groundbreaking shorts Un Chien Andalou and L'Age d'Or. But Dalì’s big break didn’t come until he created his signature surrealist work. The press and the public went mad for him when The Persistence of Memory was shown at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York City in 1932.

4.THE PERSISTENCE OF MEMORY STAYED IN NEW YORK THANKS TO AN ANONYMOUS DONOR.

After its gallery show, a patron bought the piece and donated it to the Museum of Modern Art in 1934. It’s been a highlight of MoMA's collection for more than 80 years.

5. OTHER SURREALISTS PUT HIM ON TRIAL.

Though Dalì had become the most famous surrealist painter in the world, André Breton, the founder of surrealism, gave him the boot over concerns about Dalì’s alleged support of fascism. At his ousting from the Bureau for Surrealist Research, the loose network of surrealist artists and philosophers headed by Breton, Dalì declared, "I myself am surrealism."

6. EINSTEIN'S THEORIES MAY HAVE INFLUENCED DALÌ.

The Persistence of Memory has sparked considerable academic debate as scholars interpret the painting. Some critics believe the melting watches in the piece are a response to Albert Einstein's theory of relativity. In her book Dalì and Surrealism, critic Dawn Ades writes, "the soft watches are an unconscious symbol of the relativity of space and time."

7. DALÌ'S EXPLANATION WAS CHEESIER.

Dalì declared that his true muse for the deformed clocks was a wheel of Camembert cheese that had melted in the sun. As Dalì considered himself and his persona an extension of his work, the truthfulness of his response is also up for debate.

8. ITS LANDSCAPE COMES FROM DALÌ'S CHILDHOOD.

Dalì's native Catalonia had a major influence on his works. His family's summer house in the shade of Mount Pani (also known as Mount Panelo) inspired him to integrate its likeness into his paintings again and again, like in View of Cadaqués with Shadow of Mount Pani. In The Persistence of Memory, the shadow of Mount Pani drapes the foreground, while Cape Creus and its craggy coast lie in the background.

9. THE PAINTING HAS A SEQUEL (SORT OF).

In 1954, Dalì revisited the composition of The Persistence of Memory for a new work, The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory. Alternately known as The Chromosome of a Highly-coloured Fish's Eye Starting the Harmonious Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory, the oil-on-canvas piece is believed to represent Dalì's prior work being broken down to its atomic elements.

10. BETWEEN PAINTING THESE TWO WORKS, DALÌ'S OBSESSIONS SHIFTED.

Though the subjects of The Persistence of Memory and The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory are the same, their differences illustrated the shifts that took place between periods of Dalì's career. The first painting was created in the midst of his Freudian phase, when Dalì was fascinated by the dream analysis pioneered by Sigmund Freud. By the 1950s, when the latter was painted, Dalì's dark muse had become the science of the atomic age.

"In the surrealist period, I wanted to create the iconography of the interior world—the world of the marvelous, of my father Freud," Dalì explained. "I succeeded in doing it. Today the exterior world—that of physics—has transcended the one of psychology. My father today is [theoretical physicist] Dr. Heisenberg."

11. FREUD RECIPROCATED DALÌ'S ADMIRATION.

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, was not a fan of the surrealists, whom he felt were too conscious of the art they were making and didn't understand his theories. Dalì was the exception. When the two met in 1938, Dalì was giddily sketching a portrait of his 82-year-old idol when Freud whispered, "That boy looks like a fanatic." The comment delighted Dalì, as did Freud's suggestion that his The Metamorphosis of Narcissus would be of value to the study of psychoanalysis. Freud later said, "I have been inclined to regard the surrealists as complete fools, but that young Spaniard with his candid, fanatical eyes and his undeniable technical mastery, has changed my estimate."

12.THE PERSISTENCE OF MEMORY MAY BE A SELF-PORTRAIT.

The floppy profile at the painting's center might be meant to represent Dalì himself, as the artist was fond of self-portraits. Previously painted self-portraits include Self-Portrait in the Studio, Cubist Self-Portrait, Self-Portrait with "L' Humanité" and Self-Portrait (Figueres).

13. THERE WERE MORE MELTING CLOCKS TO COME.

In the 1970s, Dalì revisited his squishy timepieces in sculptures like Dance of Time I, II, & III; Nobility of Time, and Profile of Time. He also included them in lithographs.

14. THE PERSISTENCE OF MEMORY HAS ALIASES.

The masterpiece is also known as Soft Watches, Droopy Watches, The Persistence of Time, and Melting Clocks.

15. THE PAINTING HAS BECOME INGRAINED IN POP CULTURE.

The Persistence of Memory has been referenced on television in The Simpsons, Futurama, Hey Arnold, Doctor Who, and Sesame Street. Likewise, it's been alluded to in the animated movie Looney Tunes: Back in Action, in the comic strip The Far Side, and in videogames like EarthBound and Crash Bandicoot 2: N-Tranced. It was even parodied to mock the NFL’s DeflateGate scandal.

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