Image by Alexandr Ivanov
Synaesthesia is a condition in which one type of sensory stimulus triggers an involuntary stimulus of another sense. Being able to hear colour or taste numbers might seem like a unique party piece, but some research indicates it’s an ability we’re all born with.
In 2004, Daphne Maurer of McMaster University published a study that suggested all toddlers display synaesthetic traits. It is apparently something which all but 1 percent of us grow out of. But it seems that this multi-sensory crossover subconsciously lingers on.
A designer might tell a scientist how an environment’s colour palette has a significant effect on its inhabitants. The industry has spent years recommending that hospitals use green spaces to promote a sense of peace, rest, and healing.
It’s a factor which is scientifically confirmed by the discovery and subsequent research into intrinsically-photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs). These catchily named cells live at the back of the eye, where they send information on to the brain for processing.
Intriguingly, not all of the information ends up at the part of the brain which deals with visual processing. IpRGCs dispatch visually-received information to the hypothalamus.
The hypothalamus tells the body which hormones to release, in turn generating a physical response which we often interpret emotionally. This might be an elevated heartbeat creating a feeling of excitement or fear, for example. Usually context will tell us which of these is correct, but for a non-visual processing area to be stimulated by visual means, it can be more difficult for us to interpret.
IpRGCs are incredibly sensitive to shortwave (blue) light, such as found in sunlight. As such, they play a major role in Seasonal Affective Disorder. Sufferers will experience a feeling of low mood, without ever realising what the physical trigger is; an absence of the correct colour of light.
Proper lighting at the proper time
In October 2019 the International Commission on Illumination released new guidance on the use of lighting. Not only does it set out the relationship between human productivity and environmental lighting in the workplace, it considers the well-being of those human inhabitants.
After all, we are not robots, and to be relentlessly stimulated to work by glaring lights can become exhausting. Given that the appearance of colour is driven by the wavelength of light it absorbs, it stands to reason that certain colours and tones will have a similar effect.
Therefore, the use of colour for particular times of day could be just as important as the deployment of appropriate lighting.
Spatial experience and multi-sensory processing
Humans process their environment based on information received via multiple senses. We usually interpret and take action on this stimulus based on previous experience. Avoiding the visible steam cloud because we know it will be hot, or sniffing the flower we expect to smell pleasant.
When the senses don’t agree on how to interpret information, it can cause considerable stress. Motion sickness is a fine example of this. In such cases though, sufferers understand the source of their discomfort which can at least make it less emotionally disturbing.
In a workplace where lighting, colours, acoustics and so on are conflicted, occupants may feel disconnected, without really understanding why. It’s not a happy state for mental wellness, let alone productivity and creativity.
Synaesthesia in office design
Office design must serve the function of a space just as much as it satisfies a need for visual appeal. There’s a relationship between senses, innate in synaesthetes, which designers could learn a lot from.
Artist Neil Harbisson cannot see colours visually. Instead, he hears them through a device designed especially for him by cybernetics expert Adam Montandon. The gadget reads the colour, and converts it into a sound.
Montandon realised there are physical similarities between light and sound. “Light is a wavelength that moves very fast,” he says. “Slow it down enough, it stops becoming visible. It starts becoming audible.”
Harbisson, previously only able to see in greyscale, found some unexpected sounds. Aubergine, for example, wasn’t the low-pitched black he expected, and instead was a much higher-pitched violet or purple. Spatial designers could use this sort of information to ensure that the information they are trying to convey, does so for all of the senses, not just a select few.