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All About Synesthesia

A guide by Maya Henderson, author and illustrator of Brainbow.

What is Synesthesia?

Synesthesia (pronounced sin-es-TEE-sha) is a neurological condition in which one sensory input (like sight, smell, or hearing) is simultaneously perceived by more than one sense. For example, someone with synesthesia might claim that the sound of a car horn tastes bitter or that the number four is purple.  

 

Synesthesia is caused when someone has extra connections in the part of their brain that processes senses. Scientists theorize that everyone is born with some degree of synesthesia, but most people lose the neural connections that cause it by age six or seven. A person who retains these connections and experiences synesthesia is called a synesthete.

 

No two synesthetes will have the same exact sensory responses. One person might believe that a certain song is a fuzzy yellow, while another person will insist that it is actually a cold, dense blue. What's important is that a synesthete's personal responses remain consistent. If you asked them a day, a week, or a year later what color a song is, they will always give the same answer. 

Types of Synesthesia

There are many different types of synesthesia. Researchers estimate there are between sixty to eighty different sub types since any combination of senses can trigger a response. However, some types are more common than others. The most common is grapheme color synesthesia. This is when a person associates numbers and letters with colors. They do not actually see the colors in front of them, but visualize them in their mind's eye. Other common forms of synesthesia include:

  • Chromesthesia: when sounds trigger a color response.

  • Lexical gustatory: When words trigger a specific taste.

  • Number form: When numbers trigger a distinct mental map separate from a basic number line.

  • Spatial sequence: When numbers or numerical spaces are associated with specific points in space. (Ex: five is above seven but to the left of ten)

  • Ordinal Linguistic Personification: ordered sequences (Ex: days of the week, numbers) are associated with personalities.

Most people with synesthesia have more than one type. This is called a polymodal synesthete.

Who has Synesthesia?

Researchers have yet to determine just how common synesthesia is because it is still underreported. Unlike a chronic illness or injury, synesthetes don't consult a doctor about their condition because they often don't know that anything is different about them. Many synesthetes can live their entire life not ever learning what synesthesia is or knowing that they have it. It was previously believed that synesthesia occurred once in every 100,000 people, but new data indicates it may be closer to 1 in 5,000. 

While reported cases of synesthesia show that is is most common in white women from English speaking backgrounds, this is not a true representation of the synesthetic community. Since synesthesia data relies primarily on self reporting, data remains skewed. However, there are many well known figures who have synesthesia and do not fit the current stereotype. People such as Billy Joel, Pharrell Williams, Duke Ellington, and Wassily Kandinsky are some examples. 

Myths and Facts

There is much more knowledge and research surrounding synesthesia than there was a few years ago. Even still, some people might misunderstand what it is really like to have it. Here are some common misconceptions.

Myth: Synesthesia isn't real. It's all about memorization.

Fact: Synesthesia is definitely real. The difference between synesthesia and pure memorization is consistency and lack of control. If you asked a non synesthete to assign a color to numbers one through ten, they will not have much success naming the same colors a week later. A synesthete however will name the same colors a week, a month, and even years later. This is because for the synesthete, the associations are automatic and don't rely on memory. 

Myth: Synesthetes are bad at math.

Fact: Just like any other condition, every single person experiences it differently. Some synesthetes find math to be a challenge, but many others find it easy. Everyone has different strengths and skills that don't always tie back to synesthesia. 

Myth: Synesthetes are all quirky artists

Fact: Every synesthete is different and has different interests. While it is true that many people with synesthesia enjoy music and visual arts, there are are also those who enjoy science, math, or a variety of other activities. 

Myth: Synesthesia is distracting, painful, or annoying.

Fact: Synesthesia is harmless and generally doesn't have much negative impact on a person's life. From an outside perspective, always associating colors, tastes, or sensations with words or sounds may be distressing, but to a synesthete, this is a completely normal part of their life. A synesthete may experience the occasional discomfort from tasting a yucky word or hearing a song that creates an ugly color, but these instances are not enough for most to wish away their abilities. Most struggles that come from having synesthesia relate to social ostracism. 


 

Want to Learn More?

 Not all depictions of synesthesia in media are completely accurate, so the best way to learn more is to first seek out nonfiction books and articles or ask your synesthete friends about their experiences. Think you might have synesthesia? Take this test to help you find out!

My Sources: ​

Additional reading: 

  • Tasting the universe : people who see colors in words and rainbows in symphonies

  • Wednesday is Indigo Blue 

  • The Man Who Tasted Shapes

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