Like the colours of the prism

Image by Flickr user J. Weissmahr. Click for sourceHavelock Ellis is better known as a pioneering sexologist but I’ve just found this account of a young man with striking synaesthesia from a 1904 edition of the British Journal of Psychiatry

Ellis is apparently recounting a case from a Dr. Ulrich of the ‘Asylum for Epileptics at Zurich’, which I suspect is because he is summarising the original French report for the readers of the BJP.

The patient is described as acquiring epilepsy after catching measles at the age of three and having experiencing ongoing neurological impairment as a result, particularly with memory problems.

However, he does have a striking form of synaesthesia, where the senses become crossed, and the description is appropriately vivid:

From his earliest years voices have had colours to him, and he can hear nothing without a definite colour impression. The colours are very delicate, and transparent, like the colours of the prism; he does not actually see them before his eyes, but seems to hear them at the same time as he sees them. The vowel sounds have the most intense colours, which are here fully described, as well as the colours of musical instruments, cries of animals, etc. Colour hearing is, however, by no means the only form of synaesthesia presented by this subject. All the senses are affected. There is optical synaesthesia, whereby geometrical forms, etc., are coloured, and whereby also colours have faintly marked tastes.

There is, again, olfactory synaesthesia, by which odours produce colours; gustatory synaesthesia, by which tastes produce colours; and similarly tactile synaesthesia, and synaesthesia produced by painful impressions. There is finally a reciprocity of synaesthesia, by which colours recall the sensations with which they are associated. Among the points to be noted are that pains produce sensations of taste and also of temperature, while heat sensations produce sensations of vision and also of taste, and olfactory stimuli produce both visual and taste sensations…

The phenomena are most vivid after a quick succession of fits, and at such times it occasionally happens that there is some slight mental disturbance, and the patient fancies he is bewitched by the colours. Ulrich believes that all the synaesthesias so far known are combined in the person of his subject.

Although Ellis is one of the founders of sexology, he admitted in his autiobiography that he was impotent until the age of 60.

Link to entry in the British Journal of Psychiatry archive.

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