Synesthesia is a natural, neurobiological process where two or more senses are cross-wired in the brain, creating an often dizzying array of sensory perceptions. Synsthesia is NOT a brain disorder, nor is it an abnormal disease. It has a tendency to run in families, thus scientists believe it is genetic in origin. Today scientists in 15 countries around the world are in a race to find the gene which causes this unusual condition. While some synesthetes use their perceptions for creativity, most do not utilize them at all, and some synesthetes are not even aware that their sensations differ from everyone else. Experts today believe that one in twenty people have some form of synesthesia.
There are 43 different "crosses" of senses that have been identified and tested for. One of the most common is color-grapheme synesthesia, as evidenced in the colored word above. Synesthetes with that perception see colors around letters, numbers, and other organized systems (days of the weeks, months of the year, etc.) Each letter or number has a different color and differing shades of intensity. No two synesthetes share the exact same perception. Scientists are now beginning to believe that some children in school have difficulty learning to spell because the "colors are wrong" in the way the teacher or textbook presents them vs. the way that child sees them.
Another fairly common sensory combination that occurs with synesthetes is color and sound. One fascinating individual who sees color with musical notes is Jay Greenberg, a music prodigy. As Jay writes in his November 17, 2011 Facebook posting,
“Musicians with sound / colour synesthesia tend to disagree pretty strongly as to what sounds map to what colours, so I think it’s a bit unlikely everyone shares my views on the subject. In fact, I think I first became aware of mine when I took a class with another synaesthete (Dr. Kendall Briggs ….) who described B-flat as being a brilliant Chinese red, to which my immediate mental reaction was ‘What? No, that doesn’t make any sense. B-flat obviously has the colour and texture of gold foil. Are you sure you meant B-flat? A is the red key…’ (etc) and I was sadly distracted for the rest of the lecture since I spent the rest of the time audializing various pieces in my mind to remind myself what colours they were, as I don’t think it was something I was consciously aware of before.”
For more about Jay's musical genius click on any of the following:
For more information about this fascinating process, check out the following links:
Nancy saw color and tasted shape. Foods that she ate had both color and a geometrical shape attached to them. She experienced the shape as a physical perception inside her mouth. Some were extremely pleasant (avocados); others were not (macaroni.) Nancy was born with this process as was her grandmother. As was typical in her time, she was taught not to speak of it to others. Even today some synesthetes fear being labeled or branded as "crazy," despite scientific advancements in the field. She looked forward to the day that synesthetes are honored for the contributions they make through their perceptions and creative abilities.
Another synesthete who experiences shapes has recently received national attention. As a result of a swimming accident that caused a brain trauma, Derek Amato developed sudden musical savant syndrome as a result of which he composes music via a constant visual stream of black and white squares. His neurosurgeons are studying his synesthesia-like condition to assist him with the new, unexpectd talent and energy. Although he suffers painful migraines, he is unwilling to take any medication or treatment which might reduce or diminish his new perceptions. Other synesthetes, including Nancy, have expressed the same refusal to take any treatment or substance which might alter their abilities. For additional information about Derek Amato, click here.