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Paperback | $19.95 Trade | £13.95 | ISBN: 9780262514071 | 200 pp. | 6 x 9 in | 44 b&w illus.| February 2010

The Hidden Sense

Synesthesia in Art and Science


What does it mean to hear music in colors, to taste voices, to see each letter of the alphabet as a different color? These uncommon sensory experiences are examples of synesthesia, when two or more senses cooperate in perception. Once dismissed as imagination or delusion, metaphor or drug-induced hallucination, the experience of synesthesia has now been documented by scans of synesthetes' brains that show "crosstalk" between areas of the brain that do not normally communicate. In The Hidden Sense, Cretien van Campen explores synesthesia from both artistic and scientific perspectives, looking at accounts of individual experiences, examples of synesthesia in visual art, music, and literature, and recent neurological research.

Van Campen reports that some studies define synesthesia as a brain impairment, a short circuit between two different areas. But synesthetes cannot imagine perceiving in any other way; many claim that synesthesia helps them in daily life. Van Campen investigates just what the function of synesthesia might be and what it might tell us about our own sensory perceptions. He examines the experiences of individual synesthetes—from Patrick, who sees music as images and finds the most beautiful ones spring from the music of Prince, to the schoolgirl Sylvia, who is surprised to learn that not everyone sees the alphabet in colors as she does. And he finds suggestions of synesthesia in the work of Scriabin, Van Gogh, Kandinsky, Nabokov, Poe, and Baudelaire.

What is synesthesia? It is not, van Campen concludes, an audiovisual performance, a literary technique, an artistic trend, or a metaphor. It is, perhaps, our hidden sense—a way to think visually; a key to our own sensitivity.

A Leonardo Book

About the Author

Cretien van Campen is a Senior Researcher at the Social and Cultural Planning Office of the Netherlands. He is the author of two books on perception and visual art.


"In The Hidden Sense, Cretien van Campen, a self-styled naturalist of synaesthesia, explores this ground, providing a gentle, insightful, often personal, account of coloured words, smells, tones, pains, even orgasms, that will fascinate scientists, artists, synaesthetes and others. Slowly, this deep, seemingly intractable, subjectivity yields to some phenomenology, simple questionnaires, elegant experiments, a dash of neuroimaging, and much thought and reflection.", Chris McManus, Professor of Psychology and Medical Education at University College London, Nature

"Van Campen is a social scientist with some synaesthesia, who has thought deeply about the phenomenon, read widely, consulted leading scientists, and interviewed and tested ordinary and artistic people with many types of synaesthesia. 'Cases have been reported of synaesthetes who feel coloured pain, hear odours, hear tastes, taste sounds, feel sounds on their skin, hear images, and taste images', van Campen explains. He delves into this complexity with authority, subtlety, and charm, and the result is a generally accessible, concisely written, and thought provoking read.", Andrew Robinson, The Lancet

"Strongly relying on the latest scientific experiments (brains scans) as well as on a lifelong personal research on and with synesthetes (persons being able of synesthetic perception), the author manages to offer a discussion of synesthesia that is of interest for the specialists as well as for the broader public.... The author's way of arguing finds always a good balance between direct experience (the testimonies of the many synesthetes with whom he has been working for many years now) and the scientific results of cognitive and neuroscientific research (of which he is able of giving very clear and readable reports and syntheses).", Jan Baetens, Professor of Literary Studies at the Leuven University, Belgium, Leonardo Reviews

"This slim volume provides a good introduction to the fascinating phenomenon of synesthesia in art and science.... A welcome addition to the growing literature on the subject.", Simon Shaw-Miller, The Art Book


"Even readers already familiar with synesthesia will find much to learn from Cr

"This is an extremely interesting, current, and well-written book thathighlights a fascinating topic in synaesthesia research, namely thetranslation of synesthetes' experiences into art."
Hinderk Emrich, Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, Hannover University, Germany

"This slim, sparkling, sonorous volume is wonderfully rich and attention-holding. The Hidden Sense will be of profound interest to cognitive scientists, musicians, and other artists for the dialogue it enjoins between their respective domains of expertise. But it will especially appeal to the general reader for the lucidity of its exposition of the art and science of synesthesia, and the lively accounts it contains of the everyday experience of synesthetes in their own words."
David Howes, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Concordia University