VSL:SCIENCE // What motion sounds like

Melissa Saenz, a neuroscientist at Cal Tech, was showing a visitor around her lab when she was asked a funny question about her screen saver: Why was it making so much noise? At first, Saenz assumed the question was a joke. Her screen saver of moving dots was utterly silent. But when the visitor didn’t crack a smile, Saenz realized that something else was going on: The visitor had synaesthesia.

Synaesthesia is a crossing of the senses, so that, for instance, a particular letter always appears brightly colored, or a certain musical note tastes salty. Until recently, synaesthesia was considered extremely rare. However, the most recent survey found that nearly 5 percent of people have some variant of the condition, even though most aren’t aware of it. (They think their hallucinations are normal.) After being tipped off by her visitor, Saenz went on to discover a previously unknown form of synaesthesia, in which a particular kind of motion triggers sound. She has since released a video, based on her screen saver, that allows other people to see whether they might also be closet synaesthetes.

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