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What happens when you smell colour and see music?

By Jim Holt   November 2001

What do Vladimir Nabokov, Richard Feynman, Olivier Messiaen, Wassily Kandinsky and Nikola Tesla have in common? They all were, or at least claimed to be, synaesthetes. Each experienced sensory crossovers. Nabokov had “coloured hearing”; the sounds associated with letters of the alphabet evoked for him specific hues (the “b” sound, he wrote in Speak, Memory, was “burnt sienna,” whereas “s” was “a curious mixture of azure and mother-of-pearl”). Tesla, a pioneer in the field of electricity, could discern flavour in certain sights; looking at small squares of paper in a dish of liquid would fill his mouth with a horrible…

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