Synesthesia: Hearing Colors
by Ron Kurtus (revised 5 December 2004)
Synesthesia is a condition in which the real information of one sense is accompanied by a perception in another sense. A person may see colors when hearing a sound or may experience a smell when seeing a certain color.
Such a person is called a synesthete. There is much to be learned about this phenomenon.
Questions you may have include:
- What type of things do people experience or sense?
- Are such people crazy?
- How is this explained?
This lesson will answer those questions.
Types of linked senses
The five major senses are sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. There may also be a 6th sense or psychic sense.
The most common form of synesthesia is the experience of colors linked to letters and numbers that they see, the sound of words or music, or smells and tastes.
Synesthetes that experience different colors when they see certain letters and numbers, experience the written language as a rush of color associations. Others may enjoy music or eating food as a colorful experience.
It is uncertain whether a person who experiences colors when seeing letters, hearing sounds, or smelling or tasting food will also experience the opposite effect when seeing various colors. This is an area for research.
There are some people who experience tastes or smells when seeing certain colors. It is uncertain if those people experience appropriate colors when smelling or tasting certain items.
Some people experience tastes when they hear certain words or sounds. It is not recorded if anyone hears sounds when tasting certain foods.
Evidence on other combination of senses is rare.
Synesthetes sometimes report frequent experiences of déjà vu , clairvoyance, or precognitive dreams. It is not certain if these experiences are linked to another sense or triggered by another sense.
It is estimated that between 1 in 2000 people are synesthetes. Another estimate is 1 in 25,000. Many synesthetes are individuals of high intelligence. They often have excellent memories. There are more women synesthetes than men. A high proportion are left handed or ambidextrous. Some have trouble telling left from right and have a poor sense of direction. Others experience minor difficulties with mathematics.
Many people have thought they were hallucinating when they experienced synesthesia and have kept the experiences to themselves. But also, a number of brilliant people have also experienced synesthesia and let others know about it. There are now associations for synesthetes.
Many brilliant people have been synesthetes, including:
- Novelist Vladimir Nabokov saw different colors for each letter in the alphabet. His mother was also a synesthete.
- Composer Franz Liszt saw colors when hearing musical notes.
- Physicist Richard Feyman saw colors in his physics equations.
- Abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky saw the colors for his paintings when hearing music.
Many who experience synesthesia assume that everyone else does too.
Caused in processing
Hearing words or music and seeing colors dance around is linking hearing with vision, but seeing letters of the alphabet as different colors is combining two areas of processing the information from one sense. This may indicate that synesthesia concerns how information is processed in the brain.
Synesthetes seems to have a different neural wiring than normal. Perhaps areas in the brain that process information are somehow overlapping in these people. It is also possible that more people than realize it has this capability. There are many expressions that mix sense and may indicate actual experiences. some examples are purple prose, sharp cheese, and bitter cold.
The reality and vividness that people experience are what make synesthesia so interesting in its violation of conventional perception.
Synesthesia is a linking of senses that seems to happen in a small percentage of the population. It is most often the experiencing of colors in association with other senses. It seems to be caused in the processing of information in the brain. There is much study needed to understand this phenomenon.
Be aware of the world around you
Resources and references
Everyday fantasia: The world of synesthesia - American Psychological Association
Some People Really Can Taste The Rainbow - National Public Radio
Synesthesia Research - University of Sussex (UK)
Synesthesia in Science and Technology - NIH Public Access paper
Synesthesia - Wikipedia
Synesthesia: a colorful word with a touching sound? - Frontiers in Psychology
Questions and comments
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Synesthesia: Hearing Colors