Vilayanur S. Ramachandran is a neuroscientist known primarily for his work in the fields of behavioural neurology and visual psychophysics. Performance artist and contributor Marcos Lutyens talks to Ramachandran ahead of his lecture at the Istanbul Biennial about Synesthesia and why it is commonly found within the arts.



I’m very honoured to have you participating in this interview, and am particularly interested in your research in Synesthesia and how it is related to art.

Vilayanur S. Ramachandran: And why should that be? Here we have a little mystery waiting to be solved. The first thing we wanted to see was if Synethesia was real, or if people were making it up. Exactly what do people mean when they say five is blue and six is green? It doesn’t make any sense. Many theories have been proposed to explain Synesthesia, so we devised some simple tests to show that they were seeing colours when they saw numbers. The process is too complicated to explain but we know that the phenomenon is real. But, why does it happen and why does it run in families? It turns out that inside the brain of the fetus and the brain of the infant, every area is connected to another area within it.

There is a tremendous redundancy of connections, and there are pruning genes which come along to prune away the excess connections. This creates the characteristic modular architecture of the adult brain. There are separate brain areas for colour, number, tone and so on. And it so turns out that my student at Harvard and I were struck by the fact that in the brain, the colour area which processes colour, is directly next to the number area which processes the visual appearance of numbers. Both of them are tucked away in the inner side of the temple. So you have a number area and a colour area which are right next to each other. What is the likelihood that this is a coincidence? Most common types of Synesthesia are colour and number Synesthesia, which gave us a clue.

We then said that maybe we can check for a cross connectivity that brings these two areas together in some people, and the main reason for his would be a defect in the pruning gene. Ordinarily, the number and colour area would be clearly segregated, so there is a defected pruning gene in these Synthetic people. It fails to prune the connectivity of these brain areas. If these genes are expressed selectively, which means there is a flaw in the circuitry, then there are excess connections between the colour and number area, which linger on from early fetal life, explaining the crossing over between colour and number. Synesthesia is then due to the cross wiring in the brain. A cross activation.

We then addressed the question of why it is more common in artists, poets and novelists. What do these people have in common? Metaphor. When they say that ‘It is east, and the Juliet is the sun.’ What do they mean by Juliet is the sun” She isn’t a burning ball of fire, no, but Juliet is radiant like the sun, warm like the sun, nurturing, and so on. Shakespeare, is of course the master of these many layers of metaphor, and a single metaphor can have many layers of meaning. Looking at this in relativity to Synesthesia, a metaphor is linking two seemingly correlated things. A celestial body like the sun, and a young lady like Juliet. It is finding links between two seemingly and utterly dissimilar entities – a young lady and part of the central solar system.

Defective pruning is expressed throughout the brain and you get a greater perplexity that links seemingly unrelated concepts, in other words you are going to get a greater perplexity of the metaphor. You get this quirky form of cross sensitivity, Synesthesia, and if it is expressed throughout the brain, you’ll get a greater perplexity of linking seemingly unrelated concepts, making you more prone to creating new metaphors, which is the basis of artists, of creativity. You can start with Synesthesia, and trace its growth from the genes to link separate parts of the brain, depending on the type and which can be  shown to be a real phenomena through perceptual experiments. Then it travels all the way to Shakespeare and metaphor, which all starts with this really simple little phenomenon.

It is really fascinating and amazing to think of the defective pruning, to think that artists have this and that it would give them this creative skill.

Vilayanur S. Ramachandran: Absolutely. Another question is why do we not all have this gene? To make us all metaphorical and creative. The problem is that evolution takes time, give it another 50,000 years maybe and we’ll all be more artistic and the world would be a better place. However, I think the real answer is that you don’t want everyone being artists. You need engineers, you need brain surgeons. When a surgeon is performing on your brain you don’t want him getting creative and metaphorical.

You’ve seen the Thought Forms book by Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater: would you say that it would be related to the Kiki Bouba experiment?

Vilayanur S. Ramachandran: Yes. Indeed. It is really about cross-sensory association. Thinking about it in general, not as a pathological condition, there is one that we all do. It is called the Kiki Bouba effect, which was not discovered by us, but by psychologist Wolfgang Köhler . Essentially you take two shapes, one sort of amoeba shape and one star-like shape. They’re both nonsense shapes and obviously don’t mean anything. When you give them to normal people, you tell them one is a Kiki and the other one is a Bouba.

These are letters of the alphabet (talking while drawing), the letter A, B: each grapheme or each shape has a particular sound associated with it in English. I then tell them that this is a martian alphabet where one shape is Bouba and one is Kiki. 98% of people pick the rounded shape as Bouba and the star shape as Kiki, even though they have never seen the shape before. It’s really astonishing if you think about it.

It has been pointed out as potential relevance for understanding the evolution of language, proto-language rather than deep structural language. All the theory of early language development is that there is no similarity between the correspondence between and object and the sound, or the words that represents the object, it is completely arbitrary. Between three languages, the word ‘dog’ has no similarity or anything in common except for the shape and appearance of a dog. This is held to be true of all languages, and we claim that it may be true currently, but not when language first emerged. People didn’t sit around and say “this is a pig”, everybody just said “pig”, “pig” and you learnt words like that. How did that happen” We think there is an innate perplexity to link certain shapes with certain sounds. So here for example, most people say this curved shaped is Bouba, and the jagged shape is Kiki. Why would that be” Well I said that it’s really astonishing because when you hear the sound of the word KiKi, a bunch of hair senses in your ear are being excited sequentially. That stimulates internal cortex activity: in the auditory cortex, the neuron is triggered, corresponding to the sound you’re playing while the visual shape, excites the visual areas in the brain. The pattern of activity evoking the neurons, are sequentially activating senses in the ear. Others are activating parts of the retina, yet the brain immediately says there is something in common.

Looking at the angulation of the tongue on the palette in pulling the ‘Ki’ ‘Ki’, versus the amoeba shape, it is ‘Boo’ ‘Ba’, which is a gentle angulation of the tongue. Again, they have nothing in common except the property of angulation. The brain is somehow able to extract this metaphor, in a sense, similarly with the metaphor ‘Juliette and the Sun’, they have hundreds of things not in common, but they do have something in common, they are both radiant, nurturing, and warm. The two overlapping meanings, which have two penumbras of meanings, are overlapped zones, called a metaphor. Similarly, in the Kiki shape, the sound has nothing in common except for the jaggedness, so you could say it’s a metaphor of sorts.




And would you say you that this extends to the emotion shapes discussed in Annie Besant’s book?

Vilayanur S. Ramachandran: Yes, I am very intrigued by that. It would be very interesting to test it on a systematic basis, by giving people who have never seen these shapes or colours before, to pick the right one, and to see if they get the Bouba Kiki phenomenon.

Another question I had was the ten principles of art that you developed. Because you’ve always had a strong interest in art, would you say that they still hold true, or would you say that there needs to be some kind of re-framing of those principles that take into account cultural or social conditions.

Vilayanur S. Ramachandran: Well, I’ve always said right from the beginning, that you’re not dealing with the art as culture, as most of art is cultural, and influenced by arbitrary things like the auctioneer and of course culture plays a tremendous role. But as a scientist I’m interested in what’s not influenced by culture, the core of it, as it may have a genetic basis and may cut across cultural boundaries.

And, of course even across species boundaries. For example, why do we find butterflies attractive? It isn’t because butterflies evolved to be attractive to us, not because of culture. We’re interested in general principles that cut across genetic boundaries. Species boundaries. Butterflies evolved to be beautiful to butterflies, not to us, but we do find them beautiful. There are aesthetic principles like symmetry and grouping, which I think are universal and not based on culture. To answer your question, I think yes, it does require reformulating and reframing. Not in terms of culture, but just a first pass attempt to come up with some laws of aesthetics which nobody had attempted before.

In terms of the transition from first pass to future projects, what’s your upcoming focus of research?

Vilayanur S. Ramachandran: We’ll we’re interested in all sorts of things. We’re interested in aspects of Synesthesia that have never been explored before. Also the Savant syndrome, where somebody has a knock on their head or a stroke and suddenly develops islands of talent, which this person  didn’t know they had it. Extraordinary blossoming of new talent is very intriguing. These are the kinds of phenomenon we often focus on and solve.

And in terms of the Savant Syndrome, would you say that most artists have some aspect of this syndrome in them?

Vilayanur S. Ramachandran: We all do to some extent, but in it’s heightened form is extremely puzzling and intriguing. We’d like to study that, and understand the diversity of talent we see in savant and non-savant people.

And this is always caused by an accident?

Vilayanur S. Ramachandran: Yes. It claims that someone is struck by lightening, or perhaps suffers a stoke and then it unleashes hidden potential which he or she never knew existed before. To me, that is intriguing. There is a chap called Allan Snyder in Australia (Center for the Mind, University of Sydney) who is also interested in this topic.

Is there anything you can recommend to people to become more creative?

Vilayanur S. Ramachandran: We are not there yet. I mean, I would say its common sense to hang on to people who are creative and passionate, and avoid borers. Borers, are the great enemy of civilisation. Hang on to passion and passionate people who enjoy what they do. Passion is contagious, and there is nothing more contagious. Read widely. That is the catalyst of creativity.

Is there a way to train the brain to find these connections between the different brain sections to become Synesthetic in a way?

Vilayanur S. Ramachandran: If there is one I don’t know about it. Teaching people humour, because humour often involves numerous juxtapositions in many ways. Poetry and humour are both extremely important and should be taught early in schools. Visual art of course. It isn’t done very often and has been taken over by science unfortunately. Science is important but not at the expense of the humanities.



Vilayanur S Ramachandran
Interview by Marcos Lutyens