Phnom Penh Dermatologist Demystifies a ‘Marvelous Disease’

There may be nothing unusual in the fact that the simple mention of a favorite dish or drink can make a person virtually taste its flavors on his tongue.

However, some people constantly experience tastes upon hearing ordinary words while others actually see colors whenever they hear certain sounds. And they have no control over the sensations they experience.

This condition is called synesthesia, a neurologically-based phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway, said Dr Christoph Bendick who gave a talk on the subject in Phnom Penh on Saturday. A German dermatologist living in Cambodia since the mid-1990s, Bendick teaches at the University of Health Sciences.

“People affected by this-let’s call it disorder-mix up senses…. They see something but this impression, which is perceived by the eye, is not decoded as an impression for the eye but decoded as an impression for the ear or a gustatory nerve,” he explained in an interview on Monday.

“Instead of seeing this very thing, they hear something or they taste something. And this mixing-up of sensory and cognitive pathways can happen with all senses [vision, hearing, touch, taste and smell]. So all combinations are possible,” Bendick said.

His talk was part of the series of events held at the Art CafŽ to mark the 100th birthday of Olivier Messian. This French music composer had become fascinated with the disorder after meeting Swiss painter Charles Blanc-Gatti who was a synesthete.

“Messiaen was not a synesthete but he would have liked to be one,” said Bendick.

Although there have been rare cases of individuals who developed the disorder through drug abuse or strokes, he said, “Most people are born with this disorder…. It’s part of their normal lives. Some see it as a disturbance, others see it as an enrichment in their lives.”

Since the condition can take so many forms and people may have it in various degrees, it is difficult to evaluate how many may be affected, Bendick said. Data at the synesthesia Web site of the US’ Boston University show that their numbers may vary from 1 person per 5,000 to 1 person per 100,000.

Among those with the disorder were Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, pop-art giant David Hockney and jazz legend Duke Ellington.

People with the disorder live normal lives even though they have experiences that other people don’t have, such as a person with gustatory synesthesia who got tastes on his tongue each time he heard or read words, Bendick said. Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov associated colors with letters.

Numerous artists such as Messiaen who called synesthesia a “marvelous disease,” were captivated by the idea of mixing senses that could lead to unique visions, and tried to apply the process, Bendick said.

Messiaen wrote, he said, that as he composed, he intellectually saw colors corresponding to sounds that he tried to incorporate into his music, fleeting ones that would have been impossible to reproduce, as they were musician’s colors-not painter’s colors.

Synesthesia has attracted a great deal of attention in medical circles over the last 100 years, maybe due to the progress made in neurology and psychiatry in the 20th Century, Bendick said.

Moreover synesthesia societies and associations have multiplied, from Australia to Germany, Belgium and the US, and works for the general public such as the books of noted neurologist Oliver Sacks have helped make the disorder better understood, he added.

The Messiaen series, whose next event will be held June 28, run through mid-October.

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