12 Famous Artists With Synesthesia

Brian Rasic/Getty Images for MTV
Brian Rasic/Getty Images for MTV

Synesthesia

is a condition in which the brain links a person's senses together in a rare manner, prompting unusual sensory responses to stimuli. People with synesthesia, for example, might see a certain color in response to a certain letter of the alphabet. Those who experience synesthesia “hear colors, feel sounds, and taste shapes” in a remarkably consistent fashion. For example, someone who sees "1" as burnt orange will always see "1" as burnt orange—unlike, say, someone who hallucinates colors while on LSD.

Scientists still disagree as to what causes synesthesia. Some claim it is a series of learned responses, but most point to a neurological foundation. Some studies reveal unusual connections in synesthetes' adjacent brain regions, similar to those in babies; in fact, it is believed that all babies have synesthesia until they are about four months old, when the synaptic pruning process normally severs those neural connections.The condition, which occurs in about 4 percent of the population, is more common in women than in men, and appears to be genetic. Though it can manifest in many ways, the most common are grapheme-color, in which numbers or letters produce colors, and chromesthesia (sound-color), in which sounds produce colors or shapes. Unsurprisingly, synesthetes are eight times more likely to work in a creative capacity—and quite a few talented artists through history have had it.

1. VLADIMIR NABOKOV

Occupation:

Author

Type of synesthesia: Grapheme-color


Vladimir Nabokov (right) and his son Dmitri (center) dine out with an unidentified woman after Dmitri's debut as an opera singer at the Communale Theatre, Reggio Emilia, northern Italy, on May 2, 1961. Image Credit: Keystone/Getty Images

 
A writer of novels, poems, and short stories, Nabokov was not the only one in his family to experience synesthesia—his mother and son, Dmitri, also had chromesthesia. Nabokov’s descriptions of his condition are as captivating and well-written as any of his works, and in his memoir Speak, Memory, he describes his condition: “As far back as I remember … I have been subject to mild hallucinations. Some are aural, others are optical, and by none have I profited much … In the brown group, there are the rich rubbery tone of soft g, paler j, and the drab shoelace of h … among the red, b has the tone called burnt sienna by painters, m is a fold of pink flannel, and today I have at last perfectly matched v with ‘Rose Quartz’ in Maerz and Paul’s Dictionary of Color.”

Nabokov even mentions the moment he and his mother learned of their shared synesthesia, writing, “We discovered that some of her letters had the same tint as mine, and that, besides, she was optically affected by music notes.”

2. TORI AMOS

Occupation:

Musician

Type of synesthesia: Unspecified


Tori Amos performs during soundcheck at Radio City Music Hall on August 13, 2009 in New York City. Image Credit: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

 
Amos experiences an unusual type of synesthesia in which sounds produce different images of lights. When commenting on her synesthesia in her book Piece by Piece, Amos said, “The song appears as light filament once I’ve cracked it … I’ve never seen a duplicated song structure. I’ve never seen the same light creature in my life. Obviously similar chord progressions follow similar light patterns, but try to imagine the best kaleidoscope ever.”

3. GEOFFREY RUSH

Occupation:

Actor

Type of synesthesia: Grapheme-color, spatio-temporal synesthesia


Geoffrey Rush arrives at the 4th AACTA Awards Ceremony at The Star on January 29, 2015 in Sydney, Australia. Image Credit: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

 
In an interview, Rush said his synesthesia goes back to his toddler days: “When I was in school, in the very early days, we would learn the days of the week. And for some reason the days of the week just instantly had strong color associations. Monday for me is kind of a pale blue …. Tuesday is acid green, Wednesday is a deep purple-y darkish color. Friday’s got maroon and Saturday is white and Sunday is a sort of pale yellow.

Rush experiences several types of synesthesia, another of which, spatio-temporal, he describes by explaining, “I can say to my wife, ‘That play opened on Tuesday, May the 8th back in 1982.’ I can remember it had a position in my mind where 1982 is and where May is within that. It’s a kind of series of hills and dales so if someone says King Charlemagne lived in 800 A.D., there is a very definite place where I see that.”

4. DUKE ELLINGTON

Occupation:

Musician

Type of synesthesia: Chromesthesia


Duke Ellington, circa 1948. Image Credit: Keystone/Getty Images

 

In Sweet Man: The Real Duke Ellington, author Don George recounts Ellington’s statements on how his synesthesia affected his music: “I hear a note by one of the fellows in the band and it’s one color. I hear the same note played by someone else and it’s a different color. When I hear sustained musical tones, I see just about the same colors that you do, but I see them in textures. If Harry Carney is playing, D is dark blue burlap. If Johnny Hodges is playing, G becomes light blue satin.”

5. BILLY JOEL

Occupation:

Musician

Type of synesthesia: Chromesthesia, grapheme-color


Billy Joel performs in concert at Madison Square Garden on May 27, 2016 in New York City. Image credit: Mike Coppola/Getty Images

 
Joel is fond of his synesthetic experiences, in which songs create worlds of color. As he told Psychology Today writer Maureen Seaberg, “When I think of different types of melodies which are slower or softer, I think in terms of blues or greens … When I have a particularly vivid color, it’s usually a strong melodic, strong rhythmic pattern that emerges at the same time. When I think of (those) certain songs, I think of vivid reds, oranges, or golds.”

On his grapheme-color synesthesia, Joel commented, “Certain lyrics in some songs I’ve written, I have to follow a vowel color." He associates strong vowel endings—such as -a, -e, or -i—with "a very blue or very vivid green … I think reds I associate more with consonants, a t or a p or an s; something which is a harder sound.”

6. DEV HYNES

Occupation:

Singer, composer

Type of synesthesia: Chromesthesia


Recording artist Dev Hynes, a.k.a. Blood Orange, performs onstage during FYF Fest 2016 at Los Angeles Sports Arena on August 28, 2016. Image Credit: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for FYF

 
Though synesthesia can be overwhelming and unpleasant for some, Hynes, a.k.a. Blood Orange, also seems to appreciate his condition. As he told NPR, “When I was younger, I wanted to just, like, throw the whole paint can onto the canvas and just see what would happen … Whereas now, I’m kind of enjoying it and exploring the interesting scientific part of it as much as I can, and trying to celebrate it and invite other people to enjoy it.”

7. ARTHUR RIMBAUD

Occupation:

Poet

Type of synesthesia: Grapheme-color


Portraits of Arthur Rimbaud (left) and his fellow French poet Charles Baudelaire on buildings in Chanteloup-les-Vignes, a Paris suburb, in June 2015. Image Credit: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images

 
It’s not definitively known whether Rimbaud had synesthesia, but his poem Vowels strongly suggests as much, assigning color values to different vowels:

A Black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: vowels,
I shall tell, one day, of your mysterious origins:
A, black velvety jacket of brilliant flies
Which buzz around cruel smells,

Gulfs of shadow; E, whiteness of vapours and of tents,
Lances of proud glaciers, white kings, shivers of cow-parsley;
I, purples, spat blood, smile of beautiful lips
In anger or in the raptures of penitence;

U, waves, divine shudderings of viridian seas,
The peace of pastures dotted with animals, the peace of the furrows
Which alchemy prints on broad studious foreheads;

O, sublime Trumpet full of strange piercing sounds,
Silences crossed by Worlds and by Angels:
O the Omega, the violet ray of Her Eyes!

8. PATRICK STUMP

Occupation:

Musician

Type of synesthesia: Grapheme-color, chromesia


Patrick Stump of Fall Out Boy performs onstage at Madison Square Garden on March 4, 2016 in New York City. Image Credit: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

 
Fall Out Boy's Stump addressed his synesthesia directly in a blog post in 2011. He stated that “most letters and numbers feel like a color. Music also can have colors associated with them (but this is a lot less pronounced than my grapheme-color associations). I’ve talked to a lot of musicians though and the more I talk to [them] the more I’m finding out that this is fairly common.” Stump is right about that—musicians with synesthesia are quite common.

9. PHARRELL WILLIAMS

Occupation:

Musician

Type of synesthesia: Chromesthesia


Pharrell Williams on stage during the MTV EMA's 2015 at the Mediolanum Forum on October 25, 2015 in Milan, Italy. Image Credit: Brian Rasic/Getty Images for MTV

 
Perhaps one of today’s most well-known synesthetes, Williams is a firm believer that synesthesia isn’t a disorder but an asset—he implores an NPR interviewer to “dispel the connotation behind the phrase ‘medical condition.’” He explained, “If I tell everyone right now to picture a red truck, you’re gonna see one. But is there one in real life right there in front of you? No. That’s the power of the mind. People with synesthesia, we don’t really notice until someone brings it up and then someone else says, ‘Well, no, I don’t see colors when I hear music,’ and that’s when you realize something’s different.”

Williams relies on his chromesthesia when making music, saying, “It’s the only way that I can identify what something sounds like. I know when something is in key because it either matches the same color or it doesn’t. Or it feels different and it doesn’t feel right.”

10. FRANZ LISZT

Occupation: Pianist, composer

Type of synesthesia: Chromesthesia


Hungarian composer Franz Liszt at age 30. Original artwork reproduced from a daguerreotype. Image Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

 
It must have been interesting to be a musician in one of Liszt’s orchestras. He would reportedly use his synesthesia to help with his orchestrations, telling the musicians, “O please, gentlemen, a little bluer, if you please! This tone type requires it!” Or, “That is a deep violet, please, depend on it! Not so rose!” Apparently, the orchestra initially thought Liszt was just being funny, but over time they realized he really was seeing colors in the sounds.

11. CHARLI XCX

Occupation: Singer

Type of synesthesia: Chromesthesia


Charli XCX performs during the Red Bull Studios Future Underground at Collins Music Hall on September 10, 2015 in London, England. Image Credit: Samir Hussein/Getty Images

 
Like many musicians, Charli embraces her synesthesia and uses it to make her music: “I see music in [colors]. I love music that’s black, pink, purple or red—but I hate music that’s green, yellow or brown.” From her perspective, Charli says, the Cure’s music is “all midnight blue or black, but with twinkly pink stars and baby pink clouds floating around it.”

12. VINCENT VAN GOGH

Occupation: Artist

Type of synesthesia: Chromesthesia


Screens displaying part of a painting by Vincent van Gogh at the 'Van Gogh Alive' multimedia exhibition in Warsaw on November 13, 2015. Image Credit: AFP Photo/Wojtek Radwanski

 
Poor van Gogh. He seems to have been one of those synesthetes who was more impaired than empowered by his condition. One paper highlighted the negative effect of his chromesthesia, noting that when van Gogh took piano lessons in 1885, his teacher realized he was associating the different notes with specific colors. Unfortunately for van Gogh, the teacher took this as a sign of insanity and forced him to leave.

10 Products for a Better Night's Sleep

Amazon/Comfort Spaces
Amazon/Comfort Spaces

Getting a full eight hours of sleep can be tough these days. If you’re having trouble catching enough Zzzs, consider giving these highly rated and recommended products a try.

1. Everlasting Comfort Pure Memory Foam Knee Pillow; $25

Everlasting Comfort Knee Pillow
Everlasting Comfort/Amazon

For side sleepers, keeping the spine, hips, and legs aligned is key to a good night’s rest—and a pain-free morning after. Everlasting Comfort’s memory foam knee pillow is ergonomically designed to fit between the knees or thighs to ensure proper alignment. One simple but game-changing feature is the removable strap, which you can fasten around one leg; this keeps the pillow in place even as you roll at night, meaning you don’t have to wake up to adjust it (or pick it up from your floor). Reviewers call the pillow “life-changing” and “the best knee pillow I’ve found.” Plus, it comes with two pairs of ear plugs.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Letsfit White Noise Machine; $21

Letsfit White Noise Machine
Letsfit/Amazon

White noise machines: They’re not just for babies! This Letsfit model—which is rated 4.7 out of five with nearly 3500 reviews—has 14 potential sleep soundtracks, including three white noise tracks, to better block out everything from sirens to birds that chirp enthusiastically at dawn (although there’s also a birds track, if that’s your thing). It also has a timer function and a night light.

Buy it: Amazon

3. ECLIPSE Blackout Curtains; $16

Eclipse Black Out Curtains
Eclipse/Amazon

According to the National Sleep Foundation, too much light in a room when you’re trying to snooze is a recipe for sleep disaster. These understated polyester curtains from ECLIPSE block 99 percent of light and reduce noise—plus, they’ll help you save on energy costs. "Our neighbor leaves their backyard light on all night with what I can only guess is the same kind of bulb they use on a train headlight. It shines across their yard, through ours, straight at our bedroom window," one Amazon reviewer who purchased the curtains in black wrote. "These drapes block the light completely."

Buy it: Amazon

4. JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock; $38

JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock
JALL/Amazon

Being jarred awake by a blaring alarm clock can set the wrong mood for the rest of your day. Wake up in a more pleasant way with this clock, which gradually lights up between 10 percent and 100 percent in the 30 minutes before your alarm. You can choose between seven different colors and several natural sounds as well as a regular alarm beep, but why would you ever use that? “Since getting this clock my sleep has been much better,” one reviewer reported. “I wake up not feeling tired but refreshed.”

Buy it: Amazon

5. Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light; $200

Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light
Philips/Amazon

If you’re looking for an alarm clock with even more features, Philips’s SmartSleep Wake-Up Light is smartphone-enabled and equipped with an AmbiTrack sensor, which tracks things like bedroom temperature, humidity, and light levels, then gives recommendations for how you can get a better night’s rest.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Slumber Cloud Stratus Sheet Set; $159

Stratus sheets from Slumber Cloud.
Slumber Cloud

Being too hot or too cold can kill a good night’s sleep. The Good Housekeeping Institute rated these sheets—which are made with Outlast fibers engineered by NASA—as 2020’s best temperature-regulating sheets.

Buy it: SlumberCloud

7. Comfort Space Coolmax Sheet Set; $29-$40

Comfort Spaces Coolmax Sheets
Comfort Spaces/Amazon

If $159 sheets are out of your price range, the GHI recommends these sheets from Comfort Spaces, which are made with moisture-wicking Coolmax microfiber. Depending on the size you need, they range in price from $29 to $40.

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8. Coop Home Goods Eden Memory Foam Pillow; $80

Coop Eden Pillow
Coop Home Goods/Amazon

This pillow—which has a 4.5-star rating on Amazon—is filled with memory foam scraps and microfiber, and comes with an extra half-pound of fill so you can add, or subtract, the amount in the pillow for ultimate comfort. As a bonus, the pillows are hypoallergenic, mite-resistant, and washable.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Baloo Weighted Blanket; $149-$169

Baloo Weighted Blanket
Baloo/Amazon

Though the science is still out on weighted blankets, some people swear by them. Wirecutter named this Baloo blanket the best, not in small part because, unlike many weighted blankets, it’s machine-washable and -dryable. It’s currently available in 12-pound ($149) twin size and 20-pound ($169) queen size. It’s rated 4.7 out of five stars on Amazon, with one reviewer reporting that “when it's spread out over you it just feels like a comfy, snuggly hug for your whole body … I've found it super relaxing for falling asleep the last few nights, and it looks nice on the end of the bed, too.” 

Buy it: Amazon 

10. Philips Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band; $200

Philips SmartSleep Snoring Relief Band
Philips/Amazon

Few things can disturb your slumber—and that of the ones you love—like loudly sawing logs. Philips’s Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band is designed for people who snore when they’re sleeping on their backs, and according to the company, 86 percent of people who used the band reported reduced snoring after a month. The device wraps around the torso and is equipped with a sensor that delivers vibrations if it detects you moving to sleep on your back; those vibrations stop when you roll onto your side. The next day, you can see how many hours you spent in bed, how many of those hours you spent on your back, and your response rate to the vibrations. The sensor has an algorithm that notes your response rate and tweaks the intensity of vibrations based on that. “This device works exactly as advertised,” one Amazon reviewer wrote. “I’d say it’s perfect.”

Buy it: Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

17 Surprising Facts About Frida Kahlo

Guillermo Kahlo, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Guillermo Kahlo, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The life and work of Frida Kahlo—one of Mexico's greatest painters—were both defined by pain and perseverance. Getting to know how Kahlo lived provides greater insight into her masterful paintings, which are rich with detail and personal iconography.

1. Frida Kahlo was born in the same house she died.

Frida Kahlo was born on July 6, 1907, in a building nicknamed “La Casa Azul” for its vivid blue exterior. There, she was raised by her mother, Matilde, and encouraged by her photographer father, Guillermo. Years later, she and her husband, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, made it their home as well. And on July 13, 1954, Kahlo died there at age 47.

2. Frida Kahlo's beloved home is now a museum.

Casa Azul is also known as The Frida Kahlo Museum. As a tribute to Kahlo, Rivera donated the house in 1958 as well as all of the artwork, created by both him and Kahlo, that it contained. Much of the interior has been preserved just the way Kahlo had it in the 1950s, making the space a popular tourist attraction that allows visitors a look at her work, life, and personal artifacts, including the urn that holds her ashes.

3. A third of Frida Kahlo's paintings were self-portraits.

Kahlo folded in symbols from her Mexican culture and allusions to her personal life in order to create a series of 55 surreal and uniquely revealing self-portraits. Of these, she famously declared, "I paint myself because I am so often alone, because I am the subject I know best."

4. A surreal accident had a big impact on Frida Kahlo's life.

On September 17, 1925, an 18-year-old Kahlo boarded a bus with her boyfriend Alex Gómez Arias, only to be forever marred when it crossed a train's path. Recalling the tragedy, Arias described the bus as "burst(ing) into a thousand pieces," with a handrail ripping through Kahlo's torso.

He later recounted, "Something strange had happened. Frida was totally nude. The collision had unfastened her clothes. Someone in the bus, probably a house painter, had been carrying a packet of powdered gold. This package broke, and the gold fell all over the bleeding body of Frida. When people saw her, they cried, ‘La bailarina, la bailarina!’ With the gold on her red, bloody body, they thought she was a dancer."

5. Frida Kahlo’s path to painting began with that collision.

The accident broke Kahlo's spinal column, collarbone, ribs, and pelvis, fractured her right leg in 11 places, and dislocated her shoulder. Those severe injuries left her racked with pain for the rest of her life, and frequently bedbound. But during these times, Kahlo picked up her father's paintbrush. Her mother helped arrange a special easel that would allow her to work from bed. Of her life's hardships, Kahlo once proclaimed, “At the end of the day, we can endure much more than we think we can.”

6. Frida Kahlo once dreamed of being a doctor.

As a child, Kahlo contracted polio, which withered her right leg and sparked an interest in the healing power of medicine. Unfortunately, the injuries from the train accident forced the teenager to abandon her plans to study medicine.

7. Frida Kahlo’s poor health shaped her art.

In the course of her life, Kahlo would undergo 30 surgeries, including the eventual amputation of her foot due to a case of gangrene. She explored her frustrations with her body's frailty in paintings like The Broken Column, which centers on her shattered spine, and Without Hope, which dramatically depicted a period where her doctor prescribed force-feeding. On the back of the latter, she wrote, "Not the least hope remains to me ... Everything moves in time with what the belly contains."

8. Frida Kahlo didn’t view herself as a surrealist.

She rejected the label, saying, "They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality."

9. Frida Kahlo’s tumultuous marriage sparked more pain and paintings.

Frida Kahlo with Diego Rivera and a pet dog, Mexico City, 1940s
Frida Kahlo with Diego Rivera and a pet dog, Mexico City, 1940s
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Kahlo met Rivera, she was a student and he was already a father of four and on his way to his second divorce. Despite a 20-year age difference, the pair quickly fell for each other, spurring Rivera to leave his second wife and wed Kahlo in 1929.

From there, they were each other's greatest fans and supporters when it came to their art. But their 10-year marriage was wrought with fits of temper and infidelities on both sides. They divorced in 1939, only to remarry a year later. Paintings like Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, The Two Fridas, and The Love Embrace of the Universe boldly illustrated their relationship from Kahlo's perspective.

10. Frida Kahlo grieved privately and publicly for the children she never had.

Modern doctors believe that the bus accident had irreparably damaged Kahlo's uterus, which made pregnancies impossible to carry to term. In 1932, she painted Henry Ford Hospital, a provocative self-portrait that marks one of several devastating miscarriages she suffered.

The piece would be displayed to the world in a 1938 gallery show. But Kahlo kept private personal letters to her friend, Doctor Leo Eloesser, in which she wrote, "I had so looked forward to having a little Dieguito that I cried a lot, but it's over, there is nothing else that can be done except to bear it.'" This letter, along with others from their decades-long exchange, were released in 2007, having been hidden for almost 50 years by a patron worried about their contents.

11. Frida Kahlo once arrived to an art show in an ambulance.

In 1953, toward the end of her short life, the painter was overjoyed about her first solo exhibition in Mexico. But a hospital stay threatened her attendance. Against doctors' orders, Kahlo made an incredible entrance, pulling up in an ambulance as if in a limousine.

12. Frida Kahlo is rumored to have had several famous lovers.

When she wasn't recovering from surgery or confined to a recuperation bed, Kahlo was full of life, relishing the chance to dance, socialize, and flirt. While American sculptor Isamu Noguchi was in Mexico City for the creation of his History as Seen from Mexico in 1936, he and Kahlo began a passionate affair that evolved into a life-long friendship.

Three years later, while visiting Paris, the bisexual painter struck up a romance with the city's "Black Pearl" entertainer Josephine Baker. And many have speculated that the artist and activist also bedded Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky, while he and his wife Natalia stayed in Kahlo's family home after they were granted asylum in Mexico in 1936.

13. Frida Kahlo was fiercely proud of her heritage.

Though she'd lived in New York, San Francisco, and Paris, Kahlo was always drawn back to her hometown, Mexico City. She favored traditional Mexican garb, the long colorful skirts she was known for, and the Huipile blouses of Mexico’s matriarchal Tehuantepec society. Perhaps most telling, she told the press she was born in 1910, cutting three years off her age so she could claim the same birth year as the Mexican Revolution.

14. Frida Kahlo had several exotic pets.

Casa Azul boasts a lovely garden where Kahlo had her own animal kingdom. Along with a few Mexican hairless Xoloitzcuintli (a dog breed that dates back to the ancient Aztecs), Kahlo owned a pair of spider monkeys named Fulang Chang and Caimito de Guayabal, which can be spotted in Self Portrait with Monkeys. She also cared for an Amazon parrot called Bonito, who would perform tricks if promised a pat of butter as a reward, a fawn named Granizo, and an eagle nicknamed Gertrudis Caca Blanca (a.k.a. Gertrude White Shit).

15. Frida Kahlo has emerged as a feminist icon.

Though in her time some dismissed this passionate painter as little more than "the wife of Master Mural Painter (Diego Rivera)," Kahlo's imaginative art drew acclaim from the likes of Pablo Picasso and film star Edward G. Robinson. After her death, the rise of feminism in the 1970s sparked a renewed interest in her work. Kahlo's reputation eclipsed Rivera's, and she grew to become one of the world's most famous painters.

Feminist theorists embrace Kahlo's deeply personal portraits for their insight into the female experience. Likewise, her refusal to be defined by others' definitions and the self-love shown in her proud capturing of her natural unibrow and mustache speak to modern feminist concerns over gender roles and body-positivity.

16. Frida Kahlo’s personal style has become a vibrant part of her legacy.

Frida's art and its influence were not simply spawned from the paint she put to canvas. Her distinctive personal style has proved influential in the world of fashion, inspiring designers like Raffaella Curiel, Maya Hansen, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Dolce & Gabbana. (In 2019, Vans even launched a collection of shoes featuring her work.)

17. Frida Kahlo's work is record-breaking.

On May 11, 2016, at the first auction to put a major Frida work up for sale in six years, her 1939 painting Dos desnudos en el bosque (La tierra misma) sold for over $8 million—the highest auction price then paid for any work by a Latin American artist.

This story was updated in 2020.