Synesthesia: A Symphony of Color
The five senses are the basis of human life and interaction with the universe. Sight, hearing, taste, touch and scent are considered vital to the everyday processes of life for every living creature on the planet. The senses each have their own individual barriers between one another, and the absence of one sense entirely holds the potential to greatly hinder daily functioning. While it is true that the senses are separated, one must question the effects of a conjoining of the senses rather than a loss. Would this hinder or improve normal functioning? This conjoining of senses, in addition to the answer, lies in the palm of one with Synesthesia, a rare neurological condition experienced by approximately one in every two thousand people. The term “hindrance” does not apply in this scenario, however–rather, Synesthesia is a gift.
What Is Synesthesia?
Synesthesia is roughly defined as “an involuntary secondary reaction triggered by an initial sensory reaction, or in which the real perception of one sense is accompanied by a perception in another sense (As defined by SynesthesiaTest.org).” In effect, a reaction or perception of one sense, such as seeing, tasting or hearing, triggers a second sensory reaction in the mind of the affected that is both involuntary and abnormal. Any of the five senses can be affected, or any combination of two or more senses. This results in some rather fascinating reactions that may seem strange to picture: synesthetes may perceive letters and numbers as colors, tastes as various sounds, sounds as assorted geometric shapes, or even physically feel the pain or pleasure inflicted upon another.
Synesthetes aren’t as obvious to spot as, say, patients of schizophrenia, depression or numerous other neurological/mental disorders, and experience odd symptoms. The basic diagnostic criteria of Synesthesia include irregular sensory experiences, simple and objective sensations, involuntary and automatic perception, and consistent triggers for reactions. In addition, synesthetes typically possess above-average intelligence levels, awful senses of direction, difficulties with differentiating lefts and rights, strong or photographic memories, obsessions with perfection or OCD in general, chronic headaches and occasionally even a stronger-than-average vulnerability to tickling.
The Science of Synesthesia
The cause of Synesthesia is unknown, but thought to be related to an incomplete separation of sense signal transmitters in the brain during fetal development, resulting in mismatched commands from different senses. The condition is not often referred to as a disease or even a disorder, and isn’t especially understood by medical experts as of yet. While Synesthesia is considered relatively rare, cropping up full-on in only approximately one in every two thousand people, synesthetic traits (occasionally referred to as Pseudo-Synesthesia) have been found to occur as commonly as every one in twenty-seven people, more commonly in children than adults. Synesthesia appears more often in females than males at an astounding 6:1 ratio, and has various methods of developing. Synesthesia is most commonly found to appear as a result of heredity, generating as a result of synesthetic genetics. Furthermore, these genetics tend to run more strongly in left-handed people than right-handed. Synesthesia can also develop as a result of brain-affecting injuries or accidents, and synesthetic experiences can be had while under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs, though the latter is quite rare. Natural Synesthesia develops very early in life, observed to be present as early as the age of four months old in the mind of a synesthete.
Sadly, Synesthesia can hypothetically be lost. The disappearance of Synesthesia is typically attributed to injuries that directly affect either the brain or the mismatched senses (i.e., injuries inflicting color blindness, deafness, etc.). According to research by psychologist Oliver Sacks, Synesthesia relies on the conjoining of the senses to relay the sensory experiences themselves. Due to such, the destruction or alteration of the affected senses may alter the Synesthesia itself as well. This can deeply shake the way of life for a given synesthete who is suddenly stripped of these experiences: the world may be perceived quite differently, and the strange new alteration of the senses may result in difficulty with particular functioning (such as reading without color, tasting without sounds, etc.) for a set period of time. Many synesthetes would likely have significantly more difficulty with the fields of art should they have relied on their synesthetic experiences to aid them. Life itself may even lose meaning, in some scenarios.
Life With Synesthesia
The life of a synesthete is more complex than one would think. The vast majority of synesthetes do not see their condition as hindering: rather, to most, it is a gift. As many synesthetes are extremely creative (this, too, is considered a trait of Synesthesia), their so-called gift aids them in their exploits concerning the visual and performing arts. Many synesthetes go on to become culinary experts, musicians and artists later in their lives, helped along by their synesthetic experiences in everyday life. The largest (and oftentimes the only) problem presented daily to synesthetes are the headaches and sensory overload that may occasionally result from strings of Synesthesia experiences. Synesthetes might also sometimes feel “out of place” as a result of their condition: Synesthesia is perhaps one of the most difficult experiences to relate to, and can be difficult to imagine from the standpoint of a non-synesthete. As such, many synesthetes opt not to share their experiences, and may not realize they are affected by Synesthesia for much of their lives. Synesthetic children are the prime example of such, as they often do not see anything abnormal or irregular about the sensory mixing and matching occurring in their heads. Many assume that other children and adults experience the same sensations they do.
Types of Synesthesia
As there are numerous possible combinations of sensual triggers and sensory experiences that may occur as a result of Synesthesia, the list of branches and variations of Synesthesia continues to grow even today. The most common type of Synesthesia is Grapheme-Color Synethesia, in which the synesthete perceives letters and numbers as colors. What comes across to the average person as a typical word may be visualized as a rainbow to a synesthete with Grapheme-Color Synesthesia. However, synesthetes do not visually perceive these colors projected onto the actual words and letters themselves: synesthetes achieve these sensations in the mind’s eye, in the same way one would “see” an image or color when told to envision one. A similar reaction occurs with the other four senses as well, as synesthetes do not audibly hear or legitimately taste their respective sounds or flavors as a result of any given reaction. Other types of Synesthesia include but are by no means limited to the following: Object Personification Synesthesia (in which objects take on specific traits and emotions in the mind of the synesthete), Music-Taste Synesthesia (in which the synesthete can “taste” various sounds and notes), Personality-Color Synesthesia (where personalities of others take on colors, often perceived as “auras”) and even Mirror Touch Synesthesia (where the synesthete physically feels the pain or pleasure inflicted on another simply by watching). While Color-Grapheme Synesthesia is the most common, any branch related to the sense of taste is considered to be the rarest of all Synesthesia varieties. Synesthetes may have fixated associations with certain colors, sounds or tastes in conjunction with certain triggers (i.e. one such synesthete may always perceive the number five as yellow, or the key of D Minor as cold or icy), and may feel that other associations that conflict with their own fixations are “abnormal” or “incorrect.” While these fixations are not necessarily always present, those which are have been found to date back to birth or the initial development of Synesthesia itself.
Synesthesia in Everyday Life
As stated previously, synesthetes are very successful in the fields of visual and performing arts, and often make successful livings in the arts in general. Famous synesthetes include Lady Gaga, Marilyn Monroe, Vincent Van Gogh, Frank Lloyd Wright, Billy Joel and Van Halen. Synesthesia, even from the perspective of a non-synesthete, has its uses as well: Synesthesia is commonly implemented as a literary device, primarily in poetry. In literature, Synesthesia takes on a different and yet quite similar meaning to its namesake. Literary Synesthesia combines senses and sensory experiences in ways that would not be typically written: rather than saying a sentence such as “the chocolate cake tasted fluffy and moist,” the implementation of Synesthesia would convert such a sentence into something along the lines of “the chocolate cake tasted of dusk and pale moonlight.” This integrates a sensory mismatch similar to what could be felt by a synesthete, comparing a flavor to an unrelated sense entirely.
The most common example of Synesthesia in literature is the personification of colors as temperatures. Typically, colors on the lighter end of the spectrum (such as yellow, red, orange, green, pink, etc.) are perceived as warm, whereas colors on the darker ends (blue, purple, black, etc.) are felt to be cold or icy. This is not to be confused with personification, where traits rather than sensory experiences are attributed to an inanimate object or objects. Nevertheless, Synesthesia and personification crop up alongside one another often in literature. Several famous authors make use of Synesthesia in poetry as it is: Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” makes use of Synesthesia as a literary device. One such stanza is as follows: “And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain thrilled me – filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before.” While not burningly obvious, the stanza gives the purple curtains a “sad and uncertain” quality that would otherwise not be distributed under normal circumstances. Emily Dickinson’s “Hope Is The Thing With Feathers” uses Synesthesia more heavily. The primary example of such lies in one specific stanza: “And sweetest in the gale is heard; and sore must be the storm, that could abash the little bird that kept so many warm.” This is quite the interesting combination of Synesthesia and personification in itself. Throughout the poem, hope is personified as a singing bird, while Synesthesia describes hope as “warm and sweet” whilst the values which oppose cold are assigned to be “cold and sore.”
From the viewpoint of a non-synesthete, Synesthesia is quite the quirky condition to experience and can be tricky to relate to. While classified as a neurological condition, Synesthesia is far from a disease or disorder: as stated numerous times, it is a gift. Speaking personally as a Color-Grapheme, Sound-Color and Grapheme-Personification Synesthete, Synesthesia is a beautiful and unique way of perceiving the universe. To take an extra moment here, I would like to personally verify that Synesthesia is every bit as enjoyable as it is described in this essay to experience and live with. The world takes on new forms and meanings, serving only to highlight the already-lovely aspects of life itself. For any medical expert who dares to say otherwise, one will never understand until he, too, can hear the sound of the color blue, or, dare I say, truly taste the rainbow.