In 1984 there were six reported cases of synesthesia in the United States. Today this condition is thought to be more widespread. The following is a small excerpt from a book in progress that deals with cognition and the propensity for Visions. Although synesthesia is certainly not a prerequisite for visions, it is an interesting element that may contribute to the mix.

“Soft colors.”

“Dark sounds.”

“When I hear the name Derek it tastes like earwax.”

“Five. That number is hunter green and it is masculine. Very masculine.”

“The two o’clock sun in January is the metal silver—on the inside of my front teeth.”

What do all these quotes have in common? They are expressions generated from the minds of synesthetes, people with a condition often known as synesthesia. Neuroscientist David Eagleman notes: “There are many different forms of synesthesia, but what they all have in common is that they represent a blending of the senses.”

If I were seated at a piano and hit a high note then a very low note, which one would you say is brighter? Which one is more heavy? If you are like most people, the high note is brighter and the low note is heavy. Brighter is an optical measurement and heavy is a spatial or tactile one; there is no reason why an auditory sound should neurologically excite visual or weight sensations—or is there? Before we answer that question lets get a better sense of what it is, how it feels, to have this condition.

Take a look at the two figures below and decide which one is “kiki” and which one is “bubbu.”



Research shows that 99 percent of people identify the left figure as “kiki” and the right figure as “bubbu.” This would suggest a kinesthetic value to spoken or written words. Gobbledygook is defined as language that is meaningless or is made unintelligible by excessive use of abstruse technical terms—basically nonsense. When saying gobbledygook out loud, the actual sound of the word phonetically mimics its definition. “Crash, hiss, buzz” also have this quality, which categorizes these words as onomatopoetic. Some forms of synesthesia bring this ordinal lingual personification sensation to another level; for example, the letter A might be egotistical, while C is brave. Tuesday is sympathetic, whereas Thursday is driven. In these cases ordinal lists such as the alphabet, numbers, and days of the week have assigned personalities. There is no sensory consensus between synesthetes, each seems to have his or her own association preferences.

Imagine a clock in front of you. Where would you place North and where would you place South? Most of us would place north at the 12 o’clock mark and south at the 6 o’clock mark, but true north and south are not actually where we place them in this instance.

Ok, now imagine a line in front of you running from left to right. Where would you place “the past” and where would you place “the future”? Most Westerners assign “the past” to the left side and “the future” to the right side of the line. This is a cultural preference and not globally consistent. Ask a monolingual Mandarin-speaker to do this, and he or she most often assigns past, or earlier, events above the line and later, or future, events below the line. There are cultures that do not have words for left or right, past or future. For them these concepts do not have enough strength to exist in their vocabulary. You can ask some synesthetes, Where is February? and they will say, “At my left elbow.” And March? “At my right shoulder; that’s where it belongs.” These people have an accelerated sense for spatial preference, referred to as spatial-sequence synesthesia. If outside this present conversation you ask any normal person, Where is February? or Where is March? or Where is August? and they will likely respond, “Yeah. Uh huh. Ok, have you been taking your medications today?”

Many synesthetes are intelligent, well balanced, emotionally fit individuals.

A common form of synesthesia is musical-color, in which people view colors when listening to music or musical scales, harmonies, keys, or percussive timbres. Duke Ellington, for example, stated: “I hear a note by one of the fellows in the band and it’s one color. I hear the same note played by someone else and it’s a different color. If Harry Carney is playing, “D” is dark blue. If Johnny Hodges is playing, “G” becomes light blue satin.” Lexical-gustatory synesthesia is experiencing the sensation of taste that is triggered by specific words, such as exuberant, which might taste like spearmint, or keyboard might taste like dark chocolate.

Nicola Tesla: “When I drop little squares of paper in a dish filled with liquid, I always sense a peculiar and awful taste in my mouth.”

We’ve all heard the statement, “I got the blues,” and for us this is a completely understandable, logical, and sane remark. But does the speaker actually display or have a blue skin color? Usually not. Still, we subscribe to this type of thinking or metacognition. What is curious is how or why this phrase first originated. Who was the person to initially inaugurate such a phrase, and why did it catch on and become so widely accepted? There is a common type of synesthesia called grapheme-color where letters or numbers take on certain colors: the number 11 might be yellow or the letter A is red and so on. Each particular association is consistent for the synesthete and does not change. “Synesthesia is involuntary. It happens to you. You can’t make it happen, and you can’t make it not happen.”—Dr. Richard E. Cytowic of George Washington University Medical Center, Washington, D.C.

What is interesting about number/color synesthesia is that number and color recognition occur in two brain areas that are right next to each other. “The number area and color area in the brain are right next to each other in the fusiform gyrus [part of the temporal and occipital lobes of the brain] and we have now done brain imaging experiments—there’s a paper coming out in the journal Neuron—showing that in normal people when you show [them] numbers, only the number area lights up in the fusiform gyrus. In synaesthetes both the number and color area light up, [and] they spill over across activation of the color region, occurring every time this chap sees a ‘black and white’ number or letter.” (V. S. Ramachandran, All in the Mind interview, 5/7/2005. (Full citation below).

These people are not imagining this; they actually get a color visual when shown a number, as the neurons for color in the fusiform gyrus are firing. A black-and-white matrix, similar to the left frame below, is presented for testing this type of synesthesia.

2014-REP_Synaesthesia numbers

The frame on the right might be what a verified synesthete would see. In the lab, researchers simply test controlled groups for their reaction time in identifying the ‘2’ formation, using a series of frames in black and white. If a person actually sees numbers as color their reaction time is of course much shorter, or faster—suggesting they actually can see numbers as colors, as in the right frame, where the triangular formation of the 2’s stands out clearly.

Jonathan Hsy, an English professor at the GeorgeWashingtonUniversity, is a verified synesthete. He sees the number 5 as cherry red. Professor Hsy is also multilingual:

“Speaking from my own experience, it’s not so much that I “see” the letter E as bright lime green in “my mind’s eye,” but rather that “lime-green-ness” is inextricably tied to “E-ness” in my perception. In a similar way, five is inherently bright cherry red, no matter whether or not it’s transcribed as five, 5, or in any other language I happen to know: [Chinese], fünf [German], cinq [French], etc.” For Professor Hsy all letters, numbers, days of the week, and months all have distinctive colors.

Clinically, synesthesia is a perceptual experience in which stimuli presented through one modality will spontaneously evoke sensations in an unrelated modality.

This condition is present in 1 percent of the population, occurring in varying degrees and modalities. There is an estimated 60 different modalities of synesthesia.

One of the neurologically based theories for synesthesia is that there is more crosstalk between sensory modalities in the brain than normally occur. This may be related to a neurological maturation process called “synaptic pruning.”

In a newborn, as the brain grows and new information is incorporated, the neurons develop synapses, which transmit information from one neuron to another. As these links are used repeatedly, the neurons develop a sheathing, making them stronger and thereby creating preferred pathways for information to travel. As the infant reaches toddler age, synapses between neurons are “pruned” so stronger neural pathways can transmit signals more efficiently. The synapses most activated in this early growth period are preserved. This process is most prevalent in the early years but continues to a lesser degree as life goes on. If this pruning mechanism were less diligent, more crosstalk might occur between different brain areas; this is one theory for the explanation of synesthesia, which brings up another question: Are all toddlers or babies synesthetes? It probably won’t be long before we have that answer, as synesthesia is being researched and published in fifteen countries at this writing. The Oxford Handbook of Synaesthesia (2013) contains over a thousand pages. Compelling evidence suggests that synesthesia is genetic.

“Loud shirt.” “Sharp cheddar.” “Soft moonlight.” “Cool jazz.” “Use Exxon Gasoline. Put a tiger in your tank!” Is metaphoric cognition a fragmented form of synesthesia inherent in the human condition? Are dream formations, synesthetic echos? Is there an evolutionary cognitive value for synesthesia? Was this ability at one time more prominent in human beings? The following is taken from the Rig Veda 1.164, “The Asya Vamasya Hymn”:

Speech was divided into four parts that the inspired priest knows. Three parts hidden in deep secret, humans do not stir into action; the fourth part of Speech is what men speak.” Let him that really knows proclaim here the hidden place of that beloved bird. The cows give milk from his head; wearing a cloak, they drank water with their feet.”

by Michael McIntyre

Sources used and for further information:

Richard E. Cytowic: “Wednesday Is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia,” Music and the Brain series, Library of Congress podcast, October 30, 2009.

V. S. Ramachandran, interview with Natasha Mitchell, “The Marco Polo of Neuroscience: V.S. Ramachandran,” All in the Mind, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, May 7, 2005.

David Eagleman, interview with Natasha Mitchell, “The Afterlife, Synesthesia and Other Tales of the Senses,” All in the Mind, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, June 20, 2009.

Alison Gopnik, “What Do Babies Think?, TED Talks Radio Hour, July 2011.

Radiolab Podcasts, “Colors,” Season 10/Episode 13. also offers a library of clinical research on synesthesia.

© 2014 Michael McIntyre

Note: This article was previously published on Copyright 2014 by the author, Michael Mcintire, all rights reserved.







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