A Beautiful Mind: The Reality of Synesthetes
by Reyna Jones
“Our brains are not passive receivers of energy flux, but dynamic explorers that actively seek out the stimuli that interest them and determine their own contexts for perception.” ~ Richard E. Cytowic
What is Synesthesia?
The term “synesthesia”, which is derived from the Greek words syn (together) and aesthesis (perception), denotes the neurological phenomenon of blended senses: the activation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to accompanying, involuntary experiences in a second pathway. For example, individuals with the common form of synesthesia, grapheme-color synesthesia, perceive numbers and letters with colors. The letter “A” may be red, or the number “5” the color green. Any two individuals with grapheme-color synesthesia perceive letters and numbers in different color combinations. The perception of no two individuals is exactly alike.
Although the reality of a synesthete, an individual with synesthesia, seems to be unique and extraordinary, little is known about the condition as, historically, many synesthetes were afraid to reveal their uncommon perceptions of the world. In the past, synesthetes were considered ill and fanciful. It was not until the 1980’s when Richard E. Cytowic started extensively researching synesthesia and published a book about a man who tasted shapes (which was, in fact, entitled “The Man Who Tasted Shapes”), that scientists became intrigued by the condition and began additional research on the phenomenon.
Researchers estimate that approximately one in 2,000 people have synesthesia. In fact you probably know a synesthete, even if you do not realize it! Current research on synesthesia focuses on understanding the neurophysiology and biological basis of this condition.
Synesthesia is largely genetic and subsequently present within families. However, the type of synesthesia that one may have is non-genetic. This means that, one family member could associate numbers with colors and another family member could experience tactile perceptions to sound. Synesthetes within a family could all have different types of synesthesia!
Infants may experience the world like a synesthete. Researchers know that babies are multisensory so that when one sensory region is activated in the brain, another region can also be activated. Since researchers cannot fully understand how babies experience the world it remains unclear as to whether all humans were once synesthetes as babies. However, early research on the infant-synesthesia hypothesis which specifically studied shape-color preferences in infants and adults found that two and three-month-old babies showed stronger preference for certain shape-colors associations compared to eight-month-old infants (little preference) and adults (no notable preference). As the brain develops in early childhood, synaptic pruning, the elimination of neuronal connections, normally separates some of the multisensory pathways in infants. However, researchers believe that the multiple genes responsible for synesthesia may allow the brain to maintain some of its multisensory streams which cause the phenomenon.
Types of Synesthesia
There are dozens of different types of synesthesia currently known and additional types continue to be discovered.
Synesthetes often show increased creativity, so it is no surprise that people with synesthetic experiences are more likely to work in creative fields such as art or music. This certainly applies to Pharrell Williams who is known to have chromesthesia. Pharrell and some other chromesthetes see colors when they hear music. He is very open about his gift and claims, “It’s the only way that I can identify what something sounds like. I know when something is in key because it either matches the same color or it doesn’t.” Other individuals with chromesthesia experience color with all sounds, not solely music.
People with mirror-touch synesthesia feel the sensations of others. For example, in Liverpool, a woman saw one man punch another person in a fight. She was later found unconscious. She claimed, “I felt the punch.” This type of synesthesia is actually a heightened form of a rudimentary human characteristic. People normally experience the firing of mirror neurons when they perform an action and watch others perform an action. For instance, mirror neurons respond when you pick up a cup of coffee as well as when you watch someone else pick up a cup of coffee. However, in individuals with mirror-touch synesthesia, the response to visualizing others’ sensations is so strong that it causes tactile sensations. Naturally, people with this form of synesthesia are often highly empathetic towards people.
Does hearing the word “east” taste like cornflakes? Does the word “marble” taste like chocolate? People with lexical-gustatory synesthesia often associate flavors with spoken and written language. Dave Evans, a London social media manager claims, “People think I'm crazy, as I will sometimes wince when I hear certain words which taste horrible…When I asked my friends if they could taste words, though, they had no idea where I was coming from.” Lexical-gustatory synesthesia is exceedingly rare, affecting only about 0.2 percent of the population.
Ordinal-Linguistic Personification (Personification)
Ordinal-linguistic personification, more simply called personification, is a type of synesthesia in which people relate ordered sequences (e.g. letters, numbers, days, and months) with personalities. For example, an individual with personification synesthesia may consider the number one as being childish or the number four as being honest. Likewise, they may identify the letter “U” as insensitive or the letter “T” as crabby.
What Does Being a Synesthete Feel Like?
Synesthetes can taste shapes, smell colors, or experience a variety of different sensory combinations. According to Simon Baron-Cohen, a synesthesia researcher at the University of Cambridge, “If you ask synesthetes if they'd wish to be rid of it, they almost always say no. For them, it feels like that's what normal experience is like. To have that taken away would make them feel like they were being deprived of one sense." Although the world of a synesthete is unlike anything we can imagine, their reality is truly the workings of a beautiful mind.