This month’s Spotlight on Science looks at the intersection of synesthesia and art. Carol Steen discusses her own synesthesia and her journey to understand it, how synesthesia has impacted her art, and the increase in synesthesia awareness and research. Her article, “Visions Shared: A Firsthand Look into Synesthesia and Art” (Leonardo, June 2001) was one of the earliest first-hand accounts of synesthesia and its role in art, and her story helped inspire Wendy Mass's award-winning novel, A Mango-Shaped Space. Steen has since co-written a chapter for the Oxford Handbook of Synesthesia, and continues to create art from her synesthetic visions. Read the article for free on our SOS page.
You write that you first learned about synesthesia in 1993 when Richard E. Cytowic was in the process of bringing it back into mainstream science. Your article was published seven years later, in 2001. In 2003, author Wendy Mass wrote a young adult novel about an artistic and synesthetic girl named Mia, called A Mango-Shaped Space. Ten years later, Oxford University Press published the Oxford Handbook of Synesthesia, and just last year, your article was cited in an extensive paper titled "Color Synesthesia: Insight into perception, emotion, and consciousness," published in the journal Current Opinion in Neurology. How has the rise in awareness of synesthesia, and the accompanying increase in research about it, impacted you? Has it affected your art, or your artistic process, at all?
In 1993, we didn't have computers. Well, a few people did, but for most of us computers didn't exist. More importantly, even if you had a computer, you were still isolated. Early in 1995 I would make long trips by subway to the one branch of my college where they had a computer lab. In a very small dark room on the top floor of an old NYC building were about 20 small screened computers. I could use them if a class was not being held, or if, with permission and providing I was very quiet, there was an available seat. I remember one day I sat in this room and learned I could ask a search engine for information about synesthesia. I did and waited for the answer. It gave me 35 “hits”—seventeen of those were duplicates.