Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which information meant to stimulate one of your senses stimulates several of your senses. People who have synesthesia are called synesthetes.
The word “synesthesia” comes from the Greek words: “synth” (which means “together”) and “ethesia” (which means “perception). Synesthetes can often “see” music as colors when they hear it, and “taste” textures like “round” or “pointy” when they eat foods.
Researchers are still unsure about how common synesthesia is. One 2006 study proposed that it occurs in 2 to 4 percent of the population.
If you have synesthesia, you might notice that your senses tend to intertwine, giving your perceptions of the world an additional dimension. Perhaps every time you bite into a food, you also feel its geometric shape: round, sharp, or square.
Maybe when you’re feeling emotional over a person you love, you can close your eyes and see certain colors playing at your field of vision.
You may be reading these words with a series of accompanying voices in your head, characterizing each sentence with an identity of its own as you would a person you were speaking to on the street.
All these experiences are examples of synesthesia.
People who experience synesthesia are usually born with it or develop it very early in childhood. It’s possible for it to develop later. Research indicates that synesthesia can be genetically inherited.
Each one of your five senses stimulate a different area of your brain. Looking at a bright neon yellow wall, for example, will light up the primary visual cortex, at the rear of your brain. If you have synesthesia, you may also feel like you can taste the color of the wall while you look at it.
So not only will your primary visual cortex be stimulated by the color, your parietal lobe, which tells you what something tastes like, is stimulated, too. That’s why researchers believe that people who have synesthesia have a high level of interconnectedness between the parts of the brain that are tied to sensory stimulus.
Some substances can cause you to temporarily experience synesthesia. The use of psychedelic drugs can heighten and connect your sensory experiences. Mescaline, psilocybin, and LSD have been studied for their ability to induce this phenomenon. But other stimulants, like cannabis, alcohol, and even caffeine, have also been shown to cause temporary synesthesia.
There are multiple types of synesthesia, all with different symptoms. Grapheme-color synesthesia, where you connect letters and days of the week with colors, may be the most well-known. But there’s also sound-to-color synesthesia, number-form synesthesia, and many others. You may have only one type of synesthesia, or a combination of a few kinds.
People who have any type of synesthesia tend to have these common symptoms:
- involuntary perceptions that cross over between senses (tasting shapes, hearing colors, 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
If you have synesthesia, you may be more likely to be left-handed and have a strong interest in visual arts or music. It would appear that synesthesia is more common in women than in men.
There’s no treatment for synesthesia. Anecdotally, many people seem to enjoy perceiving the world in a different way than the general population.
On the other hand, some synesthetes feel that their condition isolates them from others. They may have trouble explaining their sensory experiences because they are very different. Finding communities of other synesthetes online may help ease this feeling of isolation.
Speaking with a mental health professional may also help you to see the value synesthesia can add to your life. Instead of having a dominant side of your brain — right or left — you may find that both sides of your brain harmonize nicely as you pursue work you’re passionate about.
You can take a free online assessment to see if you have synesthesia, but this should be approached with caution. You can also ask yourself a few questions to begin the diagnosis process if you believe you experience the condition.
When you envision the letter “A”, does your mind assign a color to the letter? Go through the entire alphabet, envisioning each letter, observing the color it appears to you in your mind and writing it down. Repeat the exercise an hour or two later. Do the individual letters appear to be mostly the same color every time you envision them? If they are, you could have synesthesia.
Put on classical music and close your eyes. Choose a song that you aren’t familiar with before you relax and see what comes into your field of vision. What color is the music? Do the instruments each seem to have a different color? Do you have a strong visual component alongside what you’re hearing? If you do, you could have synesthesia.
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
- 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.
Hearing in color and reading colors into words on a page adds a level of dimension to life that many of us can only dream of.