Synthesia

by Stephanie Chasteen on May 23, 2008

I’ve always been sort of fascinated by synthesia. A brain with a predilection to mix colors and letters and days and feelings and smells sounds kinda trippy. I’ve always thought (and I think I may have read somewhere) that it seems like a very rich way to experience life. I mean, confusion is orange? I don’t even have a way to relate to what that means, except through certain experiences from my college days. A recent web article writes about synthesia and some current theories (they still don’t really know what causes it). One interesting theory

All of us are able to perceive the world as a unified whole because there is a complex interaction between the senses in the brain, the thinking goes. Ordinarily, these interconnections are not explicitly experienced, but in the brains of synesthetes, “those connections are ‘unmasked’ and can enter conscious awareness,” said Megan Steven, a neuroscientist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Because this unmasking theory relies on neural connections everyone has, it may explain why certain drugs, like LSD or mescaline, can induce synesthesia in some individuals.

One thing I’m curious about is how different (and how similar) the experiences of different “synthetes” is. The article mentions this a little bit. For example, a lot of synthetes associate colors with letters. But for some, they see the color in their minds’ eye. Others see the color sort of painted onto the physical letter. One synthete responded via a comment to the article above that the colors he sees associated with letters are completely different from those for others.

One synthete writes:

Not only do the colors vary from person to person, but the associations too. I see not only colors for letters and numbers, but gender too, which isn’t something I’ve seen discussed in articles like these. The letter “A” is not only red for me, but also very strongly female. Also, I see the year as a kind of pie chart around me (its orientation is synchronous), and numbers, especially the first 10 integers, have a very particular spacial position.

And another replies:

For me the colour is only the start – there’s a whole complex series of moods and associations that follow on from the first ‘hit’ of colour. This is particularly strong with peoples names.
An additional observation – often the colour of the word id bizarrely out of whack with the real colour of the object. So, for me, ‘tree’ has no trace of green or brown or any other ‘tree’ colour – it’s a soft grey, fading to creamy yellow at the end.

Interesting stuff, but hard (though not impossible) to study, being based on subjective experience.

{ 5 comments }

DavidCL May 23, 2008 at 2:09 pm

Hey Steph,

I’ve always been fascinated by Synesthesia. I want to draw your attention to three things about this amazing condition:

1) the spelling (and pronunciation) of the word: synesthesia or synaesthesia– the middle part of the word comes from the same root as aesthetic.

2) There’s a wonderful song about synesthesia by the Bobs; you can hear it and read the lyrics from links at the bottom of this page:

3) An article from one of my favorite blogs on this topic:

http://cabinet-of-wonders.blogspot.com/2007/10/synesthesia-flavor-of-music-color-of.html

Among other things, she goes into one of the ways it’s possible to test for the existence of this highly subjective phenomenon– by asking the subject to imagine contrasting associations and observing a change in reaction time.

I’ve read a few things recently which suggest that mild forms of synesthesia may be more common than previously believed– which is pretty cool, actually.

DavidCL June 3, 2008 at 9:23 am

Did I forget to include the link to the Bobs song?

http://home.comcast.net/~sean.day/Synesthesia.htm

sciencegeekgirl June 6, 2008 at 8:00 am

Thanks David! (Somehow your comments are *still* going to spam). I enjoyed the blog post from Cabinet of Wonders. And hooray for getting to hear a Bobs song I didn’t know before. Delightful. “A box of crayolas in my ear”!

Interested December 2, 2008 at 7:32 pm

This is an amazing ‘condition’ a part of me wishes that i could experiece it. If you would like to read about it. Read ‘The Mango-Shaped Space’ This book is amazing and it really shows thei POV!!

Ahhh…..colors

Chuck December 3, 2008 at 12:17 pm

Took 15 years, but my synthesia has mostly gone away – A long strange trip indeed.

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