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Zack Lynch is author of The Neuro Revolution: How Brain Science Is Changing Our World (St. Martin's Press, July 2009).
He is the founder and executive director of the Neurotechnology Industry Organization (NIO) and co-founder of NeuroInsights. He serves on the advisory boards of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies, Science Progress, and SocialText, a social software company. Please send newsworthy items or feedback - to Zack Lynch.
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Brain Waves

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November 12, 2003

Yes, Your Brain is Very Complex

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Posted by Zack Lynch

Today's pharmacological solutions for mental illnesses fall short because we still don't grasp the true complexity of the human brain. Synesthesia research highlights this point perfectly.

Until fairly recently, many scientists (not Richard Cytowic) believed that the information gathered by each of the senses — touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste — was processed in separate areas of the brain. However, new research from Yale on synesthesia is now revealing that there is a complex interaction between the senses in the brain—an interaction that enables us to understand the world in a unified way.

From Yale: "A common type of synesthesia is “colored-hearing.” People with this condition see specific colors in their “mind’s eye” when they hear words, letters or numbers spoken out loud. For the blind people with colored hearing, the meaning of a word, rather than its sound alone, seems to be important. For example, when the word “March” was used in a sentence to mean a particular month of the year, one volunteer saw a “dark greeny blue” color. But when he heard the same word used as a verb (“The soldiers march across the bridge.”) he did not see a color."

Highlighting the brain's complexity more, Sandra Blakesly in "How Does the Brain Work?" describes the complexity of just the neocortex...."Stretched flat, the human neocortex — the center of our higher mental functions — is about the size and thickness of a formal dinner napkin. With 100 billion cells, each with 1,000 to 10,000 synapses, the neocortex makes roughly 100 trillion connections and contains 300 million feet of wiring packed with other tissue into a one-and-a-half-quart volume in the brain.

She goes on, "But how to put it back together? How to understand something so complex by examining it piecemeal? Even harder, how to integrate the different levels of analysis? Some brain events occur in fractions of milliseconds while others, like long-term memory formation, can take days or weeks. One can study molecules, ion channels, single neurons, functional areas, circuits, oscillations and chemistry."

It is for this reason that the Human Brain Project remains a critical component in helping us understand how all of these different pieces fit together, giving rise to consciousness itself.

Comments (9) | Category: Mental Health Issues


1. Chris Furmanski on November 13, 2003 4:43 PM writes...

By most accounts, synesthesia appears to be an anomalous miswiring of sensory systems. Saying that synesthesia should change how we think about modularity and sensation is like saying color blindness should change how we think the visual system processes color.

I think neuroscientist and showman VS Ramachandran (MD,PhD) has the best handle on synesthesia: the disorder seems to occur for physically adjacent brain areas that process normally process different sensations (in ~>99.5% of people). However, occasionally, cortical connections get miswired or these distinct brain areas don't separate correctly during development. See:

Taking a step back, to say that sensation in the brain is strictly modular is a broad [and incorrect] overgeneralization. There are plenty of cortical areas strictly dedicated to multisensory fusion. Most of the time, talk about modularity really has to do with the primary sensory cortex (the first cortical stop for sensed inputs); Rama's view that it is these primary sensory areas that are miswired.

Philosophical arguements about qualia aside, studying synesthesia may picque the public's fascination, but IMHO, it certainly doesn't do much for "enabl[ing] us to understand the world in a unified way."

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2. coolmel on November 13, 2003 5:05 PM writes...


Thanks for bringing up this topic. I've been intrigued with Synesthesia eversince
I've heard about it. In fact, it even inspired me to write a poem.

Artsy-fartsy cheesiness aside, I think Synesthesia merits more research. And although I somewhat agree that it won't do much for the majority of us who are not "suffering" from this neurological haywire, the fact that "it" exists tells us something that "reality" is more than meets the eye.

I believe that Synesthesia should not only be analyzed using the monological gaze of science but moreso, should be explored using the inner eye of subjectivity. The book The Mind of a Mnemonic by Aleksandr R. Luria is a good start.

- Rommel (aka coolmel)

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3. Rob on November 13, 2003 7:08 PM writes...

the fact that "it" exists tells us something that "reality" is more than meets the eye.

Sorry Rommel, but I have to disagree with your statement above. I think synesthesia is fully explainable scientifically. The inner eye of subjectivity won't do anything, that I can think of, to help us better understand this condition.

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4. coolmel on November 13, 2003 7:43 PM writes...


thanks for the comment. i'm not here to debate about this. but i invite you to check out my self-serving blogsite:

i'm sure there's a lot in there that you may not agree with but still, in my opinion, not everything can be comprehended by just the flesh.

in the meantime, i just love to hang out in this kick-ass blogsite. don't you agree? :)

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5. Paul D on November 14, 2003 4:27 PM writes...

I have a form of synesthesia - my mind sees specific colours associated with individual letters and numerals. When I think of the letter A, I see a red A. I've even verbally mixed up colours and numbers before, saying "yellow" when I meant to say "three".

Words and number strings possess have more complicated colour patterns. I remember phone numbers by their colours.

I started learning Japanese several years ago, and I'm starting to see colours for Japanese characters as well.

I remember finding it odd to discover, as I was growing up, that others didn't see letters and numbers like I did. :)


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6. Douglas Galbi on November 16, 2003 11:34 AM writes...

Evidence of interactions among sense at a phlyogentically early level of sense goes far beyond synesthesia. For example, VS Ramachandran, mentioned in the first comment, has written about mirror neurons, which associate the sight of an action with the performance of the same action.

You can find much additional information about interactions between senses in my work "Sense in Communication," available at

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7. Consuelo on November 17, 2003 5:02 PM writes...

Rob (BussinessPundit),

Regarding your comment:

"I agree that not everything can be comprehended by the "flesh". But, I would say that we should always
look for a rational scientific explanation for things, even in neuroscience."

I don't think these two statements are mutually exclusive of “rational scientific explanation.”
It is just that we have not developed a systematic matrix, language or senses for explaining “reality”
beyond scientific analysis. Rational analytical thinking is necessary, but not sufficient for this endeavor.

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8. Aimee on August 19, 2004 2:21 PM writes...

I've always "seen/heard" very specific colors for words, letters, and numbers. I thought everyone was this way! This is fascinating!

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9. Roemer Jessi on September 30, 2004 4:07 PM writes...

Truth is a kind and gentle lie.

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