If you’ve ever heard someone talk about synesthesia, you’ve probably heard some strange story about a condition that makes people see letters and words as color, taste music, and see sound. This prospect sounds straight out of a fantasy novel and is probably just as fictional, right? Well, maybe some of the stories, but synesthesia is a real condition that is thought to affect approximately 1 in 2,000 people worldwide. And I am one of them. The cause of synesthesia is still inconclusive but it is hypothesized by Simon Baron-Cohen, PhD, who studies synesthesia at Cambridge University, that the condition is caused by a “genetically driven overabundance of neural connections in the brain“. This definition can be confusing to your average Joe, but the concept of synesthesia is relatively simple to explain. Essentially, my brain is cross-wired which causes some (well, most) of my senses to be connected in some shape or form. Because of their connection, when my brain receives signals from one of my senses, it is as though it also received signals from another one of my senses. This causes weird phenomena like being able to taste sound.
Although there are roughly 20 different types of synesthesia, the ones I am going to be talking about today are the ones I experience; simply because I don’t think I’m qualified to speak on parts of my condition that I don’t experience. To break it down scientifically, I experience about 3 types of synesthesia: Grapheme-Color Synesthesia, Sound-to-Color Synesthesia, and Lexical-Gustatory Synesthesia. What a mouthful! Now before I go any further, you all most likely are in need of a more colloquial explanation of what these types of synesthesia entail. First, Grapheme-Color Synesthesia is a strong association between words, letters, numbers, and color. For example, my brain associated the letter “A” with the color red, and the letter “F” with the color orange. This is the most common type of synesthesia and I know several peers that also have this type of synesthesia. The second type of synesthesia that I experience is called Chromosthesia, more commonly known as Sound-to-Color synesthesia. With this variety, the brain connects sound and color together so that when you hear a sound, your brain also “sees” a color. I know what you’re thinking. This sounds a whole hell of a lot like hallucinations from drugs like LSD. However, the connection of senses does not take form as a “hallucination”. I don’t actually associate the color as a physical presence in my vision as I would if I had hallucinations. It’s hard to explain to someone without the condition, but it’s as though my brain overlaps the sensory input it receives with a strong idea. In a way, the two blend together. Last but not least, Lexical-Gustatory synesthesia, aka the bane of my existence. This is by far the most annoying form of synesthesia I experience and the one that I wouldn’t mind getting rid of if I had the choice. Lexical-Gustatory synesthesia is incredibly rare but of course I lost the gene pool lottery on this one. This type is essentially the connection of sound and taste. When I hear a sound, particularly a loud one, my brain decides it’s time to activate the taste buds. The worst and most common association I have would be fireworks are rotten eggs/milk. Yes, when I hear fireworks, I literally taste the two things you don’t want to go rotten in your fridge. Not to be unpatriotic but I can’t stand the 4th of July. Lexical Gustatory synesthesia has turned me into the Grinch of Independence Day.
Although the condition is not particularly uncommon in relation to other brain disorders, it is extremely unusual for people to get a formal diagnosis of synesthesia. This is most likely due to the fact that synesthesia is not life threatening and does not pose any health risks to individuals who have the condition. Most negative aspects of synesthesia are only minor inconveniences or annoyances. Despite my own personal opinion, I suppose tasting rotten eggs and milk when I hear fireworks is not going to kill me.
There is not much conclusive research on my condition at the present time, but I hope to someday find out what on earth my brain decided to do with itself. Another prospect that I would be interested in finding out is whether or not there is a connection between learning disabilities and synesthesia, particularly because I have both. In fact, from meeting many people with both learning disabilities and synesthesia this combination seems to be relatively common. As usual, don’t be afraid to reach out with any questions or comments.
Until next post,
photocredit: Lifeboat Foundation