Epilepsy Talk

What do Frankenstein, David Hockney and Duke Ellington Have in Common? | January 17, 2021

A friend of mine with TLE, told me he had synesthesia and I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. And so, I set to find out exactly what this mysterious sounding condition was…

First of all, Epileptic Synesthesia is pretty rare.

It occurs in 4% of temporal lobe seizures and is theoretically caused by the actual electric discharge or abnormal stimulation of the brain in a seizure.

Sight, sound, touch, taste (and, much less often, your sense of smell) sensations can occur simultaneously and also involve involuntary movement.

An example is the sensation of flashing lights, a taste, a feeling of heat rising, and a high-pitched whine.

Here are three other (rather alarming) examples:

You might taste bile, along with tingling in the left wrist, twitching of the left corner of the mouth, and muscular contractions on the left side of the body…

Or you could feel like you have a lump in your the throat, accompanied by mouth and tongue movements, flashing lights in the right upper fields and a bitter taste…

Hearing the word “five,” you might see the number “5” projected on a gray background. Letters turn into colors…colors turn into light.

It’s sort of like a bad acid (LSD) trip. Or more simply, it can feel like a cascade of different auras occurring in tandem, just before a seizure.

However, it’s important to note that just as few people with epilepsy have synesthesia, many people with synesthesia do NOT have epilepsy.

Although medicine has known of synesthesia for almost three hundred years, after interest peaked between 1860 and 1930, it was forgotten, remaining unexplained not for lack of trying, but simply because psychology and neurology were premature sciences.

Now, after decades of neglect, it’s a hot topic of interest.

And neuroscience is particularly interested in synesthesia because it might lead to a better understanding of consciousness, the nature of reality, and the relationship between reason and emotion.

On the other hand, for over a century, synesthesia has also been used to refer to artistic and poetic sensitivities.

Dozens of novels featuring synesthete-characters have been published, like Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley.

In Frankenstein, the creature says “It is with considerable difficulty that I remember the original era of my being: all the events of that period appear confused and indistinct. A strange multiplicity of sensations seized me, and I saw, felt, heard, and smelt, at the same time…”

Sort of like a twisting of the senses or crossed wires.

But believe me, you don’t have to be Frankenstein to have synesthesia!

The famous artist David Hockney, perceives music as color, shape, and configuration, and uses these perceptions when painting opera stage sets but not while creating his other artworks.

Russian painter Kandinsky combines color, hearing, touch, and smell.

Composers include Duke Ellington, Franz Liszt and Korsakov,

Harpist and fiddler Tina Larkin experiences music/color synesthesia.

And, although it hasn’t been verified, Pharrell Williams, of the groups The Neptunes and N.E.R.D., claims to experience synesthesia and to have used it as the basis of the album Seeing Sounds.

And this was news to me: Billy Joel and Itzhak Perlman have synethesia!

Plus, Syd Barrett, founder of Pink Floyd, is thought to have had synesthesia.

In closing, I’d like to write down some thoughts that my friend with TLE Synesthesia wrote:

“To explain seems senseless, but I was able to feel the sounds, the senses are so ENHANCED that the waves became focused confusion.

The edge is an odd place. A date, time, SURE, will say goodbye and check in no sweat and lol at ‘IT’ But the unknown is my demon now…

Losing time in large blocks is something we joke with UNTIL it happens. It’s like having a stroke but then recovering 100′s of times.”

— Rick Wichitarick

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  1. A few years after a stroke in my right occipital lobe I was diagnosed with occipital lobe epilepsy (OLE). I often experience flashing lights, high pitched sounds in my head, twitching in face and muscle groups in body. I often have wondered if this is a form of synesthesia

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by spiritualwisdoms — January 17, 2021 @ 11:03 AM

    • I’m sorry, but it seems to lack the sensory attributes of synesthesia.

      Whatever it is, I’m stumped. But it sure doesn’t sound very pleasant.


      Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — January 17, 2021 @ 11:07 AM

  2. I have it mildly (or maybe everyone has this?) Numbers have colors. At my job, I have three phone extensions: 3160, 3152, and 3165.

    3160: I can’t quite distinguish the 3 and 1 but the 0 is white and the 6 is red. In 3152, 5 is blue and 2 is light yellow. In 3165, 6 is red and 5 is blue. (Typing that out I see the colors are consistent, although 3152 is a softer palette whereas 3165 is dark.)

    Music has some colors too. For example, 80s synth pop is dark blue and silver. 90s are orange-yellow.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Hetty Eliot — January 17, 2021 @ 5:02 PM

    • How very neat. Do you like it or does it scare you? I would consider it a gift. Just like I used to be prescient when I had grand mals.

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — January 17, 2021 @ 7:48 PM

      • I do like it, except when the colors don’t go together and I get dyslexic with it 😆. In high school I was so into these colors in my head, especially when listening to music. I’d get this thing in my stomach and I’d have to go try to draw it or depict it somehow.

        What was your prescience like? Now that sounds interesting.

        Liked by 1 person

        Comment by Hetty Eliot — January 17, 2021 @ 9:53 PM

  3. RE: Prescience…seeing into the future can be great, if you get your timing right.

    For instance, when I was young, my boyfriend was scheduled to go skiing with a friend. For some reason, in my sleep (???), I saw disaster. I begged him not to go. I begged his friend not to go. As it turned out, his friend backed out. Marshall was in a car crash and the passenger side was demolished. If his friend had gone along, he would have been chopped meat.

    On the other hand, I’ve had prescience of events, not knowing when or if they would happen. Sometimes it was days, weeks, months, or never.

    You just never can tell.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — January 17, 2021 @ 10:43 PM

    • I wish your boyfriend listened to you too! It’s such a weird thing, I wonder how it actually works. I believe in it. Sometimes it’s completely useless, like knowing that when you turn the radio dial, the next station is playing a specific song you haven’t heard in five years. The WORST is when you conjure someone up you don’t want to hear from but you know that by the end of the day you will. For some reason it’s always bad stuff you know is going to happen.

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Hetty Eliot — January 18, 2021 @ 9:17 PM

    • I’ve had both kinds of prescience. The morning of 9/11 I woke bolt upright out of a sound sleep, terrified that something terrible was about to happen. As it turns out, other people had similar experiences.

      But also once (to name the most bizarre occurrence) knowing my date would bring a wedge of bleu cheese, though I hadn’t asked for it nor had we ever discussed it. And yesterday, doing an I Ching reading, I knew how it would come out.

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by HoDo — January 19, 2021 @ 12:20 AM

      • WOW. The 9/11 vision must have been terrible in its truth.

        Isn’t doing an I Ching reading “cheating”? 🙂


        Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — January 19, 2021 @ 9:44 AM

      • In what way, cheating with the I Ching? I meant, this was the first time I knew, partway through, what the final reading would be.

        I think Rupert Sheldrake has written up premonitions people had of 9/11. Some saw visions, but I just had a sense of enormous dread at about the time the perps were boarding the planes.

        Liked by 1 person

        Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — January 19, 2021 @ 12:28 PM

  4. One of my friends recently has been diagnosed with the condition and I can’t stand watching him suffer day by day. I know things will get hard. By the way, thank you for your valuable pieces of advice and blog posts. Hope that I can see you more around.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Wyatt — January 18, 2021 @ 2:05 AM

    • Hi Wyatt, I’m here every day and on Facebook every day. So you sure can see plenty of me.

      I know that while synesthesia is considered by many to be a gift, for others it can be downright scary. Getting the signals and not being able to interpret them. Or the sheer confusion of cognitive dissonance.


      Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — January 18, 2021 @ 10:13 AM

  5. I seem to recall that Vladimir Nabokov had synesthesia.

    Liked by 2 people

    Comment by HoDo — January 18, 2021 @ 12:01 PM

  6. Hi Phylis. Please unfollow me from this blog. Thanks, Laura McGaffey.


    Comment by Laura McGaffey — January 18, 2021 @ 4:09 PM

    • Hi Laura, I don’t know how to do that. I think you have to put in your email address under follow to “un-follow”. I know that sounds a little retarded, but I think that’s the way it works. Anyway, good luck!


      Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — January 18, 2021 @ 4:37 PM

  7. Thanks for the article. A couple of days ago I had two seizure without loss of consciousness. On the second I heard a song I had played earlier that day, very clearly, and saw patches of very bright colours in my upper field of vision. I already experienced similar issues and regular olfactive hallucinations, but never such strong visual and auditiveme hallucinations. It surely felt like synesthesia. I had no idea my epilepsy could produce that.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Wow — September 15, 2022 @ 10:28 AM

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    About the author

    Phylis Feiner Johnson

    Phylis Feiner Johnson

    I've been a professional copywriter for over 35 years. I also had epilepsy for decades. My mission is advocacy; to increase education, awareness and funding for epilepsy research. Together, we can make a huge difference. If not changing the world, at least helping each other, with wisdom, compassion and sharing.

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