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Richard E. Cytowic

Richard E. Cytowic, M.D., MFA, a pioneering researcher in synesthesia, is Professor of Neurology at George Washington University. He is the author of Synesthesia: A Union of the Senses, The Man Who Tasted Shapes, The Neurological Side of Neuropsychology and (with David M. Eagleman) the Montaigne Medal–winner Wednesday Is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia, all published by the MIT Press.

Titles by This Author

One in twenty-three people carry the genes for the synesthesia. Not a disorder but a neurological trait—like perfect pitch—synesthesia creates vividly felt cross-sensory couplings. A synesthete might hear a voice and at the same time see it as a color or shape, taste its distinctive flavor, or feel it as a physical touch. In this volume in the MIT Press Essential Knowledge series, Richard Cytowic, the expert who returned synesthesia to mainstream science after decades of oblivion, offers a concise, accessible primer on this fascinating human experience.

Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia

A person with synesthesia might feel the flavor of food on her fingertips, sense the letter “J” as shimmering magenta or the number “5” as emerald green, hear and taste her husband's voice as buttery golden brown. Synesthetes rarely talk about their peculiar sensory gift—believing either that everyone else senses the world exactly as they do, or that no one else does. Yet synesthesia occurs in one in twenty people, and is even more common among artists.

In 1980, Richard Cytowic was having dinner at a friend's house, when his host exclaimed, "Oh, dear, there aren't enough points on the chicken." With that casual comment began Cytowic's journey into the condition known as synesthesia.The ten people in one million who are synesthetes are born into a world where one sensation (such as sound) conjures up one or more others (such as taste or color). Although scientists have known about synesthesia for two hundred years, until now the condition has remained a mystery.

A Union of the Senses

For decades, scientists who heard about synesthesia hearing colors, tasting words, seeing colored pain just shrugged their shoulders or rolled their eyes. Now, as irrefutable evidence mounts that some healthy brains really do this, we are forced to ask how this squares with some cherished conceptions of neuroscience. These include binding, modularity, functionalism, blindsight, and consciousness. The good news is that when old theoretical structures fall, new light may flood in. Far from a mere curiosity, synesthesia illuminates a wide swath of mental life.

In 1980, Richard Cytowic was having dinner at a friend's house, when his host exclaimed, "Oh, dear, there aren't enough points on the chicken." With that casual comment began Cytowic's journey into the condition known as synesthesia.The ten people in one million who are synesthetes are born into a world where one sensation (such as sound) conjures up one or more others (such as taste or color). Although scientists have known about synesthesia for two hundred years, until now the condition has remained a mystery.

Neurologists, neuropsychologists, and cognitive scientists work with many of the same problems and patients and yet know little about the literature and approaches of the other disciplines. The Neurological Side of Neuropsychology is a primer for neurology residents, graduate students, and established professionals from other fields who wish to enter behavioral neurology.