Write about intriguing psychological phenomena.

Understanding the Many Different Interpretations of Synesthesia

Understanding Different Interpretations of Synesthesia
Synesthesia is a very interesting neurological condition in which people are said to hear colors, see sounds and taste numbers, alphabets and words!! Basically their senses are cross-wired and so more than one sense is triggered simultaneously for a particular stimuli. Not everyone is aware of this rare, yet fascinating condition.
Christina Andrew
Last Updated: Aug 6, 2017
Did you know?
There can be as many as 25 combinations of synesthesia formed by cross-wiring our five senses - touch, smell, sight, sound, taste.
I wonder how amazing would the experience be to hear something that can never make a sound, see something that cannot be seen - like visualizing colors in sound, feel something you are not supposed to, taste something that is tasteless, or smell something that others can't!

Synesthesia is one such condition that mixes up all the senses of a person, where one sense gives rise to another. Most people having synesthesia don't know that they think differently until they grow mature enough to understand that something is not normal about other people. Because for them, normal is what they experience. They think that everybody else around them can see, smell, taste, feel and hear as they do.

Generally, people would call them crazy, but we'd like to call them people with super powers! Imagine what their life would be like! They can associate every number with maybe a particular taste - like number 1 tastes like grapes, 2 like bananas, 3 like apples, or maybe they have different colors. For them weekdays are 'taller' than weekends, the white keys of a keyboard are pink, and black are yellow! One (alphabet) is orange, but 1 (numeric) is red! Names smell like rose to them, days of a week like strawberries, and yes this is a real condition, and there do exist such people.
Types of synesthesia
Grapheme-color synesthesia (letters, numbers, days, etc. in different colors)
In this type of synesthesia, a person can see different letters and numbers in unique colors. A normal text written in black ink that we read in books will look colorful to them, according to the colors they have assigned each letter or number. For example, the letter 'w' is blue in color, 'x' is violet, the number 5 is orange, and so on.
Here is one example of how they can picture a colorful pin wheel when they look at the days of a week.
The days of a week for a synesthete
The days of a week for a synesthete
Now let's see how most people see a jumbled up number picture, and how Grapheme-color synesthetes see them. This kind of picture is also used to test if people have synesthesia. Color association allows them to immediately recognize which number is where, whereas a normal person would find it difficult since all the numbers almost look alike because of the same color.
From the eyes of an ordinary person
From the eyes of an ordinary person
From the eyes of a synesthete
From the eyes of a synesthete
Chromesthesia (sound-to-colour synesthesia)
Colorful music notes
Any kind of sound, be it music, a person talking, people clapping, birds chirping, dogs barking, glass breaking or a bell ringing, every sound can be linked to a color. Imagine how colorful a world would be, if every sound had one color of its own. Here the sense of sound triggers the sense of sight, and visuals are seen whenever a chromesthete hears a particular sound he has assigned colors to. Only, they don't think and assign a color to a sound, but it happens on its own.
Many musicians have this type of synesthesia, where they say they can see every musical note and scale in different colors!
Ordinal-linguistic personification (OLP) (personifying things)
Personification is the act of relating a non-human to human attributes. In this type of synesthesia people tend to associate things with the attributes of a person, also animals sometimes. Like they might see the number 8, as a stout old lady with an angry face, or Thursday as a sophisticated businessman with a black suitcase in his hand. This kind is not a very common one.
Number Zero
Number 0
For example, we'll take numbers. Here, 0 is a happy yellow guy, who calls out his name 'zero' every time he comes up. Number 5 is a happy jumping zebra and 6 is a cock-eyed flamingo!
Number 5
Number 5
Number 6
Number 6
Number-form synesthesia (drawing maps or pathways)
People of this type make maps in their minds which are followed by numbers. When these numbers appear anywhere, they find it very easy to remember and relate them to the situation. They are also very good at remembering phone and vehicle numbers.
Lexical-gustatory synesthesia (mixing words and tastes)
These synesthetes can taste your words! Now what do you have to say about that! Every word they read or hear, they get a particular taste for each one. Again, words that have tastes maybe selective, and different for every synesthete. So when you are talking to them, they are getting these waves of endless varieties of tastes in their mouth. I wonder, if your words are tasting irresistibly good, would they want to take a bite on you? Just kidding! But such a thing is out of imagination for a non-synesthete, isn't it?
Mirror-touch synesthesia (feeling the same sensation another person is feeling)
For these people, experiences might become from excellent to worse, because they can actually start feeling what you are! So if they see a person being beaten up by a group of crooks, a mirror-touch synesthete will feel that pain! Good experience will also come their way when maybe they see a couple kissing though! In that case, where they go and what they see, would matter a lot.
Misophonia (hatred of sound evoking emotions like disgust and anger)
Life can be really troublesome for synesthetes having misophonia, because there has to be sound everywhere, even though only a particular set of sounds affects different individuals but their senses get triggered even by the slightest sound that can annoy them to the core.

They can easily become angry by specific sounds, like slurping, throat-clearing, people clipping their nails, brushing their teeth, chewing crushed ice, eating, drinking, breathing, sniffing, talking, sneezing, yawning, walking, chewing gum, laughing, snoring, typing on a keyboard, coughing, humming, whistling, singing, saying certain consonants, or repetitive sounds. This leads them to live a reclusive lifestyle, and they cut off themselves from social life.
World through the eyes of a synesthete - perception
We are talking about synesthetes seeing different colors in letters, but can they still see the real color that we see? There can be synesthetes who are associators, projectors or both.
The difference between the two types can be explained with these simple examples
(Assuming the text color to be black) A grapheme-color synesthete who is an associator, will not actually see a colored 'A'. He will only feel the color. Suppose he has associated the letter 'A' with blue, when he sees it, he will get the feeling of blue in his mind, but see black.

For a projector, the person can actually project his color superimposing the black color of letter 'A' with his blue. Here, he knows that the original color of the text is black, but he can see his own color.

For an ordinal-linguistic personification type of synesthete, the characters or attributes an associator has assigned for the number 5, will only run in the back of his mind, but he will not really see it on the text, whereas if a projector has assigned number 5 to be an honest spiritual boy who is also an amazing singer, he can actually project this boy onto the text, superimposing the original one.

If we talk about chromesthetes, who can see colors in sound, the projectors can actually see music in colors at a distance they wish to project it, and it looks like an image on the 3D screen, and not how it would look in the mind, for associators.
Use in literature
Synesthesia is used in literature too. It is used in reference to a combination of words that mix two senses. A very common one we use is 'warm colors' or 'cool colors'. Here, warm is related to tactile sense, while colors are related to the sense of sight.

Use of such words are essential to make it more figurative and evoke a different response in the readers that they can much better relate to. Some more examples would be, 'biting cold', 'blue moon', 'sweet sound', 'bitter memories', etc.
Use in poetry
A poem by Dante, 'The Divine Comedy' has an example of synesthesia -

"Back to the region where the sun is silent."

Here, he binds the sun which is a sense of sight with silent, the sense of hearing.
n John Keats' 'Ode to a Nightingale',

"In some melodious plot,
Of beechen green,
Singest of summer in full throated ease."

Here he associates the act of singing melodiously with a plot of green beechen trees and thus connects the sense of sight with the sense of hearing.
Emily Dickens in her poem 'Dying'

"With blue, uncertain, stumbling buzz,
Between the light and me;
And then the windows failed, and then
could not see to see."

Here, the word 'buzz' indicating sound is associated with the color 'blue' adding a visual element to the sound buzz.
In James Dickey's 'In the Mountain Tent'

"I am hearing the shape of the rain
Take the shape of the tent and believe it . . .."

Here, he hears the shape, which is the sense of sight.
Each one of us has experienced synesthesia
Researchers say that as infants, the senses in our minds are interconnected. Infants have responded to experimental stimuli in a way that synesthetes would. So only after we grow, our connections are made firm with time, and we lose the cross-wiring of senses. Out of which some retain the original interconnection, resulting into adult synesthetes. We don't remember any of it, because of childhood amnesia, which is the inability of adults to remember anything from birth to the age of 3 or 4. Also it said to transfer through genes, mainly through X chromosomes, as it is mostly found in people of the same family. Synesthesia is also said to occur in some animals.
Studying the human mind and its consciousness
As fascinating as this neurological condition might sound to be, scientists and researchers take special interest in it, since it might also help us understand a lot about the human mind and its consciousness. The way it connects every sensory action and gives us a conclusion to think on, can be known to a better extent.

Like right now you are reading this article, and your brain is connecting the dots, which is the reason why you are understanding each word you are reading. There might have been moments when while reading, you actually tried to imagine or remember if you ever saw any text or music in colors, to - in a way check if you had any traces of it in you. This is normal, because that's how our brain works. It gives us a picture of everything we read or hear, but not to the extent of synesthesia. You might have also experienced a taste or a particular smell "in your mind", when you thought or heard about a sweet dish, but again not to the extent of a synesthete.

What you can only think, is what they can actually feel, see, touch, smell or hear. That also is only there in their mind, but their mind decides to make it more real for them.
A simple test to know if you or anyone around you is a synesthete!
  1. Show some numbers in random order from 0-9, and ask the person to note down the color he/she can see in them.
  2. In a week's time again, show numbers from 0-9, only in a different order than before, and ask them to note down the colors.
  3. A synesthete will note the exact colors he had before, while a non-synesthete will note different colors.
For a not-at-all-synesthete person like me, this sensory cross-wiring in the mind is very intriguing, but I'm not even close to imagining what it would be like to live their life. The world would be so different from their eyes. How beautiful is this, that every person has a different world of his own. A different way of thinking, or imagining or doing things. It all eventually depends on how your brain perceives it, and what it decides to show you!