Episode 9 of the series in enjoyable interdisciplinary discourse:
“Applied Science: Theories, Principles and Axioms turned onto Commercial Aviation”:
Today: On Synaesthesia.
A while ago, a scholar in musicology asserted that the sense of hearing would be the one sense finest graduated and developed in human beings (which was supported by argumentation). But how can this possibly be true? Parents instruct kids to mind their eyesight, more than anything else, and blindness (even over the combined deaf-muteness) has been considered the saddest handicap since the beginning of time.
Most of us would claim to be able to distinguish between hundreds of colours, or at least fifty shades of, well, grey, to serve the contemporary joke. In contrast, few people bother about the difference between C sharp (C#) and D flat (Db), and are perferctly happy with the well-tempered tuning (554.365 Hz for both C#5 and Db5), which is only a fair approximation of both tones, however the design of most stringed and keyboard instruments, and therefore audible in the majority of music played anywhere. – Colours and tones have one thing in common: they’re waves, with a discreet wavelength and frequency.
The average human will be able to hear tones within the rather low frequency range from 20 Hz to 15kHz. But isn’t it amazing – and hard to understand – that we’re able to see hundreds of shades of colour at the same time, or, merely the six colours of the rainbow, all of these within a frequency band that’s extremely high but also sharply bordered (3.8 to 7.9 x 10^14 Hz)? An amazing performance of the brain by all means. With tone frequencies and music, I would argue that the brain’s performance when hearing harmonies (or, disharmony, intervals, keys), usually without any delay, promptly, is astonishing in the same way, proof of its capability to compute frequencies and to detect whole-number ratios between these instantly, and – in the case of chords or orchestrated music – dozens of these ratios at the same time. Well, yes, the professor might be right.
The phenomenon synaesthesia could help us addressing the problem and even linking this pair, simply over the measure frequency, defining both. Numerous accounts exist on famous cases of synaesthesia, where one saw colours or pictures when listening to music. All the same, however with less empiric data, people heard music when looking at something, usually a painting (most famous result: Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” dated 1874, based on his sensation of Victor Hartmann’s watercolours and drawings). Harmony between tones and colours could easily explain synaesthesia, given the impressive abilities of our brain in this field, as already mentioned.
Let’s check the octave interval, with any of these overtones having a frequency of f(n)=f*2^n. As it turns out, the colour red is the 42nd octave of the standard pitch A (A4 = 440Hz), and orange/yellow, green and blue are the 42nd octave to D, E, and G respectively. Is it really possible that our brain computes the 42nd power, with obviously so little effort? Something even contemporary IT seems to require milliseconds for?
Also a good testing ground is “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes“, with five of the six guitar strings tuned to the bottom E and its first two octaves (the B-string remains as dominante). Indeed someone claimed chromesthesia when listening to the song, and drew his train of thought predominantely in yellow (overtone to D, E’s seventh). One would have expected green instead. Before, also Newton (as did Goethe) mulled over colours and tones sharing common frequencies.
Synaesthesia is the term describing the stimulation of two (or even more) senses after the perception of an experience commonly associated with just one particular sense. In contrast to hallucinations, synaesthesia marks the perception of real phenomena. It’s neither widespread not totally uncommon, with the tone-colour synaesthesia described before being quite prominent. The phenomenon can be triggered or intensified by strong feelings, such as anger and fright, or linked to specific sounds. The common fear of flying and the sound of aircraft engines leap into our minds here. Other synaesthetic combinations of the senses are rather rare: auditory-tactile, and auditory-gustatory or tactile-gustatory – but the latter two could serve to explain the in-flight tomato juice mystery.
So, if synaestesia is a rather unexceptional phenomenon, could it really help us understanding some of the peculiar effects associated with flying?
You didn’t consume tomato juice for quite a while, and you didn’t miss it all that much. But today, seated in row 5 of a network carrier’s aircraft who is still offering complimentary soft drinks, you feel this sudden craving for … tomato juice! No, it isn’t just because two thirds of the passengers sitting in front of you did already order the juice, with or without salt and pepper (otherwise it would be hard to explain why the very first passenger asked for the juice on that flight), your appetite is irresistible. According to “Zeit Wissen” (17 Dec. 2003), the average German drinks 0.97 litres of tomato and vegetable juice a year, three percent of which on board of airplanes, which really is way above average drink consumption pattern. The journal then speculated whether the appetite for tomato juice could stem from the widespread collywobbles associated with (the fear of?) flying, or whether it’s simply a contagious wave of consumer imitation or herd instinct (again, this wouldn’t explain the very first consumer on any given flight).
A few years later, Lufthansa initiated a test series carried out by the Fraunhofer Institut, with the aim to study the possible causes of the particularly high inflight consumption of tomato juice (see “Zeit Online” from 11 Feb. 2010). According to this, the reason is down to the varying taste of tomato juice under deviations of pressure. Repeatedly, probands described the juice’s taste as “musty” under normal pressure, against “kindly”, “fruity”, “refrigerant” and “sweetish” in a pressurised cabin. The assumed effect of the lower pressure in the cabin is that of a reduced threshold for the senses of smell and taste, and probands rated various other dishes offered as “stale”. Especially the perception of salt, sugar and herbs is lower inflight, whereas sourness suffers less.
Well then, pressure-induced tactile-gustatory synaesthesia, the input or even the cause of the in-flight tomato juice mystery?!
“What wouldest thou! She thinks you’ve taken flight; it seems, she’s partly in the right.” (Mephistopheles, Faust I)
“One must ask children and birds how cherries and strawberries taste.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)