HuffPost science correspondent Cara Santa Maria talks to neuroscientist (and synesthete) Steffie Tomson about synesthesia, a perceptual condition that blurs the line between the five senses.
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STEFFIE TOMSON: B is orange whether you say it to me or whether you show it to me. It's just B itself is orange like a banana is yellow. It just is, no matter how you say it. CARA SANTA MARIA: Hi everybody. Cara Santa Maria here. And that's Steffie Tomson. She's a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine. And she studies synesthesia, a perceptual condition that blurs the lines between sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. Some synesthetes taste sounds. Others smell shapes. Steffie studies these types and one that's more personal. You see, she also has synesthesia. More specifically. she's a grapheme-color synesthete, meaning that when she sees numbers and letters, they're associated with highly specific colors. ST: There are ots of types of synesthesias. So there's music-color synesthesia, there's pain-color, there's sound-to-taste synesthesia, there's many different pairings. I think there are about 100 types. So there are many different forms that come in all kinds of different flavors, I guess. CSM: And some of those flavors are, well, not terribly appetizing. ST: One synesthete that we know associates the name Eric with the taste of earwax. So he doesn't really like people named Eric because of that. So yeah, it can be any pairing really. CSM: And if that isn't bizarre enough... ST: There is a form of synesthesia that has been claimed where people associate colors with orgasm, so that's different. I've not studied that myself, but apparently that does exist. CSM: Alright. Synesthesia affects an estimated 4% of the population, but many people who have it don't even realize it. In fact, Steffie didn't know she was a synesthete the whole time she was growing up. ST: I first learned that I have synesthesia when I was an undergraduate at Rice and I was walking by a signpost or something and there was a flier that had 'synesthesia' spelled in big, all cap letters, and every single letter was a different color and all the colors were wrong. And so it kind of took me aback and I thought, well that's bizarre. Who would write that sign? And it turns out that it was actually my current mentor, my current boss right now, was advertising for his studies on synesthesia. And so I tore off one of the fliers and I called him and you know, turned out I had synesthesia which I never knew. CSM: Synesthesia is thought to have a genetic component, since around 40% of synesthetes have a direct relative with the condition. And German scientists claim that even chimpanzees experience synesthesia. But Steffie and her major professor, Dr. David Eagleman, are studying the neural basis of synesthesia by peering into the brains of people who have it. ST: We don't actually know what the brain of a synesthete looks just yet. There are several studies that have looked at the structural differences between synesthetes and controls, and there are some differences that come about. Namely in the fusiform gyrus as far as structurally concerned and that particular area is sort of in the occipital lobe in the back of your head. One thing that we have pretty regularly found in studies is that synesthetes, when you show them a number or a letter on a screen that's in black and white let's say, for synesthetes they have activity in the region of their brain that processes color when you show them these black and white numbers and letters, and several studies have found this now. I'm pretty confident in saying that synesthetes experience color in their brain when they're not actually seeing color. CSM: Learning about the brains of synesthetes may shed light on how some of our most creative minds functioned. Synesthesia has been seen in musicians, artists, authors, mathematicians, and scientists. Did you know that Richard Feynman, one of the best-known physicists of the last century had synesthesia? In his memoir, he wrote: "When I see equations, I see the letters in colors - I don't know why. As I'm talking, I see vague pictures of Bessel functions...with li

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