“It was red and yellow and green and brown and scarlet and black and ochre and peach. And ruby and olive and violet and fawn and lilac and gold and chocolate and mauve. And cream and crimson and silver and rose and azure and lemon and russet and grey and purple and white and pink and orange … and blue.” (Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat)
In the production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat I saw, Joseph spins round the stage in the most dazzling of coats while the chorus sings these lyrics. As he turns, the folds of the cloak separate to reveal even more radiant stripes of color, gleaming into a single blur as the fabric fans out around him. Color after color pummels my eyes, lighting up rods and cones and transmitting signals from retinal neurons to the primary visual cortex and leaving me in a state of shocked wonder.
But for Neil Harbisson, the coat would have been black and white and grey. It would have been black and white and grey, that is, before he started wearing an antenna atop his head that converts color into sound by vibrating his skull. It would have been black and white and grey, that is, before he started hearing color.
Harbisson’s condition is called achromatopsia, and instead of being unable to distinguish certain colors – as is the case for many colorblind individuals – Harbisson was unable to see any color at all. But color, after all, is a human construction, the words we have chosen to describe the brain’s interpretation of the wavelength of light reflected by certain objects. Unable to visually perceive these wavelengths, Harbisson decided over a decade ago to wear a device he calls an ‘eyeborg,’ which correlates these wavelengths of light into wavelengths of sound. Those of us with chromatic vision are bombarded by colors as we walk through the world – the brown of a table, the green of the trees, the gleaming yellow of the sun – but Harbisson is bombarded with sound.
Those of us with chromatic vision are bombarded by colors as we walk through the world – the brown of a table, the green of the trees, the gleaming yellow of the sun – but Harbisson is bombarded with sound.
And he has become so accustomed to hearing color that he wears his eyepiece at all times (he even included it in his most recent passport photo.) He has worn it to the extent that it now feels like a part of his body, an organ located just between the eyes. He calls himself a cyborg, and recently decided to undergo skull surgery to permanently implant the antenna onto his head. If this permanent antenna were not enough to merit the cyborg title – or sonochromatic cyborg artist to be precise – Harbisson explains how the device actually enables him to see more colors than any other human: his machine can distinguish more wavelengths of light than the eye, and thus generates a whole range of audible colors that no one else is able to experience.
Harbisson’s example might seem like an extreme case, but another amazing blurring and combining of senses exists in millions of people. Harbisson converts color into sound, shifting from a sense he cannot perceive into one that he can. These individuals, however, have synesthesia, a linking of two different sensory modalities such that perception of one stimulus activates both neuronal pathways. For these individuals, looking at the shades of blue in the sky might sound like plunking around on the piano, the name Sarah might taste like cheddar biscuits, or the number eight might be an abhorrent shade of puce. Suddenly, the splendid array I see and the magnificent symphony Harbisson hears when Joseph twirls in his coat seem insufficient when there are those who get both.