What if whenever you said the word 'jump' you instantly tasted pumpkin pie? Or you believed all of the letters of the alphabet had designated colors (letter 'A' was aqua-marine, B lime green, C yellow, etc.)? Or whenever you saw the color pink you automatically smelled chlorine? Those experiences can be a reality for the estimated 1 in 23 people in the population have what's called synesthesia.
What is synesthesia you might ask? Good question. We think this definition sums it up pretty well. "Synesthesia is a neurological based phenomenon. It is when the stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. People who report such experiences are known as synesthetes" (The Health Journals 1).
Synesthetes differ in the associations each has. While some associate colors with various letters of the alphabet or taste something in his or her mouth after hearing a certain word, some synesthetes also see colors when they hear music. Additionally, some say that numbers have genders and personalities. For example, the letter 4 might be a loud and exhuberant female, while the letter 7 is a quiet and reserved male. Interesting, huh?
Synesthesia has been researched since the 1800s. It typically runs in families, and is estimated to affect approximately 4% of the population. Additionally some individuals report synthetic experiences after a seizure or stroke.
The majority of scientists agree that synesthesia is due to "cross-talk" of the brain, or when different parts of the brain interact. Here's an explanation from The Health Journals online:
"...regions involved in naming letters are adjacent to the area involved in color processing; synesthesia may be the result of cross-activation between these two areas. Recent research shows marked differences in the brains of synesthetes and the general population. Synesthetes have higher levels of connectivity between the fusiform gyrus (part of the temporal lobe, the area that controls processing and color information as well as word and number recognition) and the frontal cortex. Scientists hypothesize that this 'cross-wiring' occurs when the nerve wiring that is usually contained within one sensory system crosses into another system."
As children, many synthesthetes find it odd that classmates don't understand when he or she insists perhaps, that the color G is cranberry-red. Such is the case in A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass. It's a fictionous novel, but a pretty accurate and interesting read about a 13-year-old girl's experiences with synesthesia.
Artist Carol Steen described her own personal experiences with synesthesia. As she says, "There have been times when I have had one sensation such as toothache and observed the color of the pain, its taste and smell. All these synaesthetic perceptions are aspects of one overall experience. I perceive them as related in the same way that windows, a door and front steps combine to become the image of a house." She has also said, like many other synesthetes, that her synesthesia has been very beneficial in relation to her art.
After getting acupuncture, Carol described the synaesthetic experiences she had during her session. She later used these experiences as inspiration for the coloring of a new painting. "Lying there, I watched the black background become pierced by a bright red colour that began to form in the middle of the rich velvet blackness. The red began as a small dot of colour and grew quite large rather quickly, chasing much of the blackness away. I saw green shapes appear in the midst of the red color and move around the red and black fields."
There are many other synaesthetic artists like Carol, such as painter David Hockney, writer Vladimir Nabokov and composer Olivier Messiaen.
In addition to artistic benefits, many synesthetes also claim synesthesia benefits their memory; the idea of color, for example gives them an additional way to help remember facts.
Interesting phenomenon, huh? If you're interested to learning more, you can check out our sources below. Also, the book mentioned above, A Mango Shaped Space by Wendy Mass is a good read.
Another good source is the American Synesthesia Association. Their website is: http://www.synesthesia.info/index.html