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Hearing Colour / Seeing Sounds with Clare Jonas

As part of our upcoming Gallery Late: Colour on Friday 16 March, Clare Jonas will be giving an interactive talk on synaesthesia, where you'll learn how gunge (that favourite of kids' TV), can help us understand the links between touch and vision, how Kandinsky could hear his artworks, and how you can fool wine buffs with food dye!

An expert on human perception with a PhD in psychology, Clare is a science communicator on the subjects of cancer research and psychology, and publishes a fortnightly newsletter, That Thinking Feeling, about the everyday questions that psychology can answer. Ahead of her appearance at the Gallery we caught up with Clare to find out more about her fascinating research.

How did you get started as a science communicator?

I used to be a psychology lecturer and researcher, so I spent a lot of time communicating science to a very limited audience - psychology undergraduates, other psychology researchers, and people who asked me what my job was at parties! A few years ago I was contacted by Steph Singer, the creative director of Bittersuite. Bittersuite make multisensory music performances, and Steph needed someone - me! - with expertise in the psychology of sensory perception, so I got to tell a whole new audience about psychology. This helped me realise that I wanted to spend more time on science communication with the general public, so I changed career and I now spend my days communicating the science of cancer for a cancer research charity. While my job is really fulfilling, I do miss talking about psychology, so I also run a blog about the everyday questions that psychology can answer, called That Thinking Feeling. That Thinking Feeling has been particularly fun for me because it's let me learn how to write about psychology in a much more relaxed way than I used to be able to when I was writing journal articles!

With new technological developments like social media, do you think communicating about science is getting easier or more difficult?

A little of both, I think. On the one hand, being able to talk informally and in public about science on platforms like Twitter and Facebook does a lot to democratise it - it's no longer locked behind the (expensive) doors and paywalls of academia, and I think science is something that can and should belong to us all. However, especially on Twitter, having to be brief can sometimes mean that we lose the nuance of research. For example, in psychology most people who take part in experiments are WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic - in global terms) because a lot of researchers test the people who are most readily available: university students. This is a known problem for psychologists; we are often extrapolating "what humans are like" from "what university students are like" and we may be making some unwarranted assumptions in doing so. But if you want to talk about psychology on Twitter, you can't attach that disclaimer to every piece of research it applies to because you just don't have enough space.

Your research interests include multisensory perception and synaesthesia. Could you tell us what these are?

When information comes into our brains from the world, it has to come in via the senses - touch, taste, sight and so on. We use different sensory organs for different senses, which means that somehow we have to glue the information back together in our brains to form a coherent understanding of the world: how do we know this dog is barking and not that one? How do we know that the red strawberry is sweeter than the green strawberry? How do we know that the small cat is fluffy and the large cat has smooth fur? This is multisensory perception. My research on this topic largely explored crossmodal correspondences, which are things that 'go together' across the senses, e.g. small objects 'go with' quiet sounds and large objects 'go with' loud sounds. We'll be talking about this during my event at the Gallery Lates on colour!

Synaesthesia is a special case of multisensory perception that only a small percentage of the population have. Essentially, the senses become entangled, so you might taste words or see music. Synaesthesia is not a 'disorder' but just a difference in the way that people process sensory information. It can often be beneficial - for example, synaesthetes tend to have more vivid mental imagery than other people, which is really helpful if you're trying to put together flatpack furniture because you can easily figure out whether you should put a piece this way or that way. 

Do you think that looking at paintings in a gallery involves more than just your eyes?

For sure! I like abstract paintings as an example of this, because they make it very obvious that you're putting your own interpretation on what's there. Josef Albers' Homage To The Square series is a particular favourite of mine because he essentially painted the same shapes over and over again, but varied the colours. Homage to the Square: With Rays feels like a windy spring day that is warm at noon but chilly as it turns to evening, while Homage to the Square: Apparition feels like coming out of a cool green pine forest into a bright sunlit day.

Are there any artists  or artworks that you find particularly useful for communicating about synaesthesia?

There are lots of artists who are synaesthetes, so they are often my first port of call. Wassily Kandinsky could hear his paintings, while Carol Steen has painted the colours that she sees during acupuncture sessions. Lots of musicians are also synaesthetes. Pharrell Williams, Lorde, Mary J. Blige and Charli XCX all see colours when they're listening to music.

Can you tell us an interesting fact about synaesthesia, as a taster for your talk?

Somewhere in the world, there is someone whose synaesthesia temporarily disappeared when she was struck by lightning [read the full article here].

Come along to the Gallery Late: Colour (Friday 16 March) to hear more from Clare, and to enjoy talks, colour experiments, collage-making, a chance to make your own notebook, see work by Jack Coulter, a young artist with synaesthesia, and enjoy a drink or two from Gimlet Bar >> Book your tickets here