Wednesday Is Indigo Blue

Wednesday Is Indigo Blue

Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia

Book - 2009
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In 'Wednesday is Indigo Blue', pioneering researcher Richard Cytowic and distinguished neuroscientist David Eagleman explain the neuroscience and genetics behind synesthesia's multisensory experiences.
Publisher: Cambridge, MA : MIT Press, c2009
ISBN: 9780262012799
Characteristics: viii, 309 p. : ill. (chiefly col.), music ; 24 cm
Additional Contributors: Eagleman, David


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Nov 26, 2018

A fascinating account of a sensory phenomenon experienced by a minority of people, and the elucidation of a controversial theory concerning it. Before continuing, however, I should mention that there are a couple of passages that make me wonder about the veracity of this “scholarly” work: there is an illustration that seems to be mislabeled (though proofreading could fix that), a comment about the “bad attitude” of schizophrenics (!), and a related statement that schizophrenics tend to take metaphors literally (which is common in autism, not schizophrenia). However, neither author is a psychiatrist and the book is about synesthesia, not schizophrenia, so I suppose these errors (bizarre though they may be) can be overlooked at least until another edition comes out.

After describing quite a number of extremely varied cases, the authors present their theory: all of us are latent synesthetes, though the crossing of the senses occurs below the conscious level. There are several chapters on experiments, genetics, results of brain scans, and the like, explaining how this is so. My initial reaction, though, was, “Nonsense! If the perception occurs below consciousness, then it is not really perception!” But my hasty dismissal was in itself nonsense – as the authors explain, most mental activity (including perception) is subconscious first, before being admitted into awareness. Also, while reading, I couldn’t help but remember certain traits of my own mind that may indicate traces of synesthesia. For one, I tend to picture large-scale musical compositions as textured shapes, with the louder (not faster or slower) parts as a rougher texture. The shapes are vague (I can’t really say whether they are angular or round, 2-d or 3-d), and imagining them is a deliberate act (not automatic like “true” synesthesia) but this visualization is at least a related phenomenon. Many of these imagined shapes are beautiful, but at least one – the first symphony of Mahler – seems ungainly and awkward. It is my least favorite of Mahler’s pieces for that reason! (I might add that I have always thought the textures are the result of childhood familiarity with how vinyl records look – and the authors mention synesthetic imprinting, which would “work” in this case.) In another music-related incident, I remember once being taken aback that the label of a CD of Messiaen’s “Turangalila Symphony” was pastel green – the piece is loud and delightfully clattery, and as I commented in a blog, “I’m no synesthete but I know the Turanganlila Symphony isn’t pastel green – it’s day-glow orange and red-pink with flashes of ultraviolet!” In yet another example, not musical this time, I (and apparently a lot of people) tend to visualize numbers in a line proceeding in the direction of the language that I read (the so-called “SNARC effect”).

So am I really a closet synesthete? Are you? Are we all? The answer is up in the air, and the authors comment that metaphors such as “up in the air” also indicate a mixing of senses (in fact they trace metaphors and language itself to older, no longer extant, forms of synesthesia). The question is worth pondering, and the book is worth a read. If one ignores those aforementioned mistakes.


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