Synesthesia: What Does that Word Taste Like to You?

What color is the number 5?

What does yellow smell like?

If you are a synesthete, these questions make perfect sense to you.

An estimated 5-10% of the population is blessed with this unique merging of senses known as synesthesia. Often referred to as an “extra sense,” those with synesthesia experience a combination of the senses in a unified fashion, resulting in some interesting perceptions and internal experiences.

In the article Everyday Fantasia, linguistics professor Sean Day describes his experience of the flavor of beef as being deep blue. He further describes the flavor of mango sherbet as producing the visual of “a wall of lime green with thin wavy strips of cherry red.”In the same article, Carol Crane expresses the physical sensations she feels when hearing violins and trumpets; guitar music “brushes softly against her ankles.”

There is a genetic component to synesthesia that scientists continue to examine, as it often runs in families. For reasons yet undiscovered, synesthesia is more common in women than in men. Scientists have theorized that synethesia is caused by an overabundance of neural connections in the brain. They believe that these connections carry high-level input from sensory experiences that are normally linked to one sense, but inexplicably merge for synethetes into a multi-sensory extravaganza.

Synesthesia is experienced differently for each person. Synesthete’s perceptions may involve two seemingly disconnected senses or concepts, such as texture and numbers, or taste and sound, or any variation imaginable. Because of this variability, no two synesthetes are exactly alike. Generally two senses are merged, but in rare cases, three or more senses can be linked. “Conceptual synesthesia” is a variation of the experience in which abstract concepts such as time can appear in the minds eye as a shape or can be linked to other ideas such as distance or measurements. Those who experience conceptual synesthesia may envision the months of the year as a color wheel, with each month representing a different color, or may link money concepts to measurements of shape. Some synesthetes actually see their combined sensory experiences visually. These experiences differ from hallucinations, but scientists are studying the origins of  both phenomenon to discover whether the mechanisms in the brain have similar origins.

If you are wondering whether you might have synesthesia, there is something called the Synesthesia Battery, which is a series of questions that can help you figure it out. Universally, those who experience synesthesia consider it a gift and report that if they were offered a way to rid themselves of it, would chose not to, as it is a unique part of their experience that they would miss.

There is much to be learned about synesthesia. Scientists continue to explore the origins, implications and potential avenues of study that the synesthete brain offers.

The human mind is a fascinating place, isn’t it?

Sources

Synesthesia. (Phillips, M.L). Retrieved from  https://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/syne.html

What is Synesthesia? (n.d.) In Synesthesia.com. Retrieved from http://synesthesia.com/library/index.php/what-is-synesthesia/

Carpenter, S. (2001, March). Everyday Fantasia: The World of Synesthesia. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/mar01/synesthesia.aspx

The Synesthesia Battery. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.synesthete.org/index.php

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