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Richard E. Cytowic

Titles by This Author

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. One famous synesthete was novelist Vladimir Nabokov, who insisted as a toddler that the colors on his wooden alphabet blocks were “all wrong.” His mother understood exactly what he meant because she, too, had synesthesia. Nabokov’s son Dmitri, who recounts this tale in the afterword to this book, is also a synesthete--further illustrating how synesthesia runs in families.

In Wednesday Is Indigo Blue, pioneering researcher Richard Cytowic and distinguished neuroscientist David Eagleman explain the neuroscience and genetics behind synesthesia's multisensory experiences. Because synesthesia contradicted existing theory, Cytowic spent twenty years persuading colleagues that it was a real--and important--brain phenomenon rather than a mere curiosity. Today scientists in fifteen countries are exploring synesthesia and how it is changing the traditional view of how the brain works. Cytowic and Eagleman argue that perception is already multisensory, though for most of us its multiple dimensions exist beyond the reach of consciousness. Reality, they point out, is more subjective than most people realize. No mere curiosity, synesthesia is a window on the mind and brain, highlighting the amazing differences in the way people see the world.

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. Extensive experiments with more than forty synesthetes led Richard Cytowic to an explanation of synesthesia--and to a new conception of the organization of the mind, one that emphasized the primacy of emotion over reason.Because there were not enough points on chicken served at a dinner almost two decades ago, Cytowic came to explore a deeper reality that he believes exists in all individuals, but usually below the surface of awareness. In this medical detective adventure, he reveals the brain to be an active explorer, not just a passive receiver, and offers a new view of what it means to be human--a view that turns upside down conventional ideas about reason, emotion, and who we are.* Not for sale in the United Kingdom and Eire

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 this classic text, Richard Cytowic quickly disposes of earlier criticisms that the phenomenon cannot be "real," demonstrating that it is indeed brain-based. Following a historical introduction, he lays out the phenomenology of synesthesia in detail and gives criteria for clinical diagnosis and an objective "test of genuineness." He reviews theories and experimental procedures to localize the plausible level of the neuraxis at which synesthesia operates. In a discussion of brain development and neural plasticity, he addresses the possible ubiquity of neonatal synesthesia, the construction of metaphor, and whether everyone is unconsciously synesthetic. In the closing chapters, Cytowic considers synesthetes’ personalities, the apparent frequency of the trait among artists, and the subjective and illusory nature of what we take to be objective reality, particularly in the visual realm.The second edition has been extensively revised, reflecting the recent flood of interest in synesthesia and new knowledge of human brain function and development. More than two-thirds of the material is new.

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. It provides a clear and coherent introduction to contemporary neurological ideas, carefully contrasting the conventional hierarchical model of brain organization to the newer multiplex model that scientists from biological backgrounds currently use.

Instead of presenting laundry lists of arcane maladies along with a key of "where in the brain the responsible lesion is," or a compendium of tests for a given situation—the received wisdom that students are required to memorize—Cytowic gives students the historical and conceptual tools they need not only to get up to speed regarding present knowledge, but to go forward.