Synesthesia - hearing colours and seeing sounds


Synesthesia - hearing colours and seeing sounds

Synesthesia is a neurological condition where information that should stimulate one sense instead stimulates several senses.

The word “synaesthesia” is derived from the Greek words: “synth” (meaning “together”) and “ethesia” (meaning “perception”). Synesthetes can see music as colours, and taste textures such as “round” or “pointy” when eating food.

It is unsure how common synaesthesia is – in 2006 it was proposed that it occurs in around 2-4% of the population.


Examples of synesthesia


If you have synesthesia, your senses may seem to intertwine. For example, every time you bite into food, you may also feel its geometric shape, such as round, sharp, or square.

If you are feeling emotional, if you close your eyes you may be able to see certain colours playing in your field of vision.

You may read these words with a series of voices in your head, characterising each sentence with an identity of its own.

These are all examples of synesthesia.


Causes of synesthesia


People with synesthesia are generally born with it or develop it early in childhood, although it is possible to develop it later. It can also be genetically inherited.

Each of the senses stimulate a different area of the brain – for example, looking at a bright yellow wall will light up the primary visual cortex. A person with synesthesia may also feel like they can taste the colour of the wall while looking at it.

This means that in addition to the primary visual cortex, the parietal lobe – which is responsible for the sense of taste – is also stimulated. Researchers believe that people with synesthesia have a high level of interconnectedness between the sensory areas of the brain.

Some substances can cause someone to temporarily experience synesthesia, such as the use of psychedelic drugs. However, other stimulants such as cannabis, alcohol, and even caffeine are able to cause temporary synesthesia.


Symptoms of synesthesia


Multiple types of synesthesia exist, and all have different symptoms. Grapheme-colour synesthesia is one of the most well known – people with this type of synesthesia connect letters and days of the week with colours. There is also sound-to-colour synesthesia, number-form synesthesia, and many more. It is possible to have a combination of more than one form of the condition.

Common symptoms of any type of synesthesia include the following:

  • involuntary perceptions that cross over between senses (tasting shapes, hearing colours, etc.)
  • sensory triggers that consistently and predictably cause interplay between senses (e.g., every time you see the letter A, you see it in red)
  • ability to describe their unusual perceptions to other people

People with synesthesia are also more likely to be left handed and have a strong interest in visual arts or music, and it appears to be more common in women than men.


Treatment for synesthesia


There is no treatment for the condition, and many people seem to enjoy perceiving the world in a different way than the general population. However, some synesthetes feel that their condition is isolating – they may have trouble explaining their sensory experiences as they are very different.


Testing for synesthesia


There are free online assessments available to see if you have synesthesia, but this should be approached with caution. You can also ask yourself some questions to begin the diagnosis process if you believe you experience the condition.

When envisioning the letter “A”, does your mind assign a colour to the letter? Go through the entire alphabet and write down the colour of each letter. Repeat the exercise later, and if the letters appear mostly the same colour every time, you may have synesthesia.

Put on classical music and close your eyes. Choose a song that you aren’t familiar with and relax to see what comes into your field of vision. What colour is the music? Do the instruments have different colours? Do you have a strong visual alongside what you’re hearing? If so, you may have synesthesia.


The outlook


You can live a full and normal life with synesthesia. Lots of famous and successful people experience this phenomenon. Examples include:

  • Kanye West
  • Pharrell Williams
  • Mary J. Blige
  • Tori Amos
  • Duke Ellington
  • Lorde
  • Vladimir Nabokov (acclaimed writer; wrote in his autobiography of his “colored hearing”)

Painters Vincent van Gogh and Joan Mitchell are also speculated to have had synesthesia.


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