We Could All Be a Little Synesthetic

October 20, 2008 Updated: November 28, 2009

“I said to my father, ‘I realized that to make an ‘R’ all I had to do was first write a ‘P’ and then draw a line down from its loop. And I was so surprised that I could turn a yellow letter into an orange letter just by adding a line,” writes Patricia Lynne Duffy in her book “Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens, How Synesthetes Color Their Worlds.”

The great majority of us may never completely understand the sensation author Lynne Duffy experiences. Yet, according to recent studies by Dr. Jamie Ward of College University in London, we all possess a small degree of this rare quality of intermixing images, sounds, and other sensations, called “synesthesia.”

In the past, synesthesia (meaning “joined sensation”) was often branded to be the result of a mental disorder, drug addiction, or excessive imagination. Today it is studied in the field of neurology as a peculiar capacity some individuals possess for associating two different senses. They perceive these sensations, seemingly unconnected, as intimately joined.

It is such that synesthetes can hear a certain sound when contemplating a work of art, evoke a certain taste when touching the surface of something, or smell a characteristic aroma when listening to a melody. Strange? Perhaps, but real without a doubt.
The people who possess this sensual intercrossing do not imagine the phenomenon. They truly experience it, as was confirmed several years ago through countless studies.

While it had been classified as a disease in the past, synesthesia might more accurately be labeled a special ability or a heightened awareness, as nearly all synesthetes declare that they enjoy this quality. These individuals report enjoying a greater sense of context in their world from those who are merely capable of discrete sense perception.

Tasting Shapes

Neurologist Richard Cytowic explored this phenomenon in his book “The Man Who Tasted Shapes,” inspired by an evening when his friend Michael had him over for dinner.  “There’s not enough points on the chicken,” Michael exclaimed after tasting the sauce, immediately embarrassed that he had blurted out such an absurd statement. As Dr. Cytowic probed his friend to explain his unusual experience, Michael reluctantly recounted his life-long ability to taste shapes.

“Just as there were no walls between the rooms of his house, I knew that Michael had no walls between his senses. Just as his rooms flowed into each other, so too taste, touch, movement, and color meshed together seamlessly in his brain. For Michael, sensation was simultaneous, like a jambalaya, instead of neat separate courses. Still, my self–satisfaction at recognizing one of the most rare of medical curiosities must have been perfectly clear,” writes Cytowic.

The experience prompted Dr. Cytowic to examine synesthesia in greater detail. After a decade of experiments, he concluded that we all perceive synesthetically, yet the ability is usually hidden from conscious awareness.

Even those among us who are not able to consciously taste the sound of a waterfall, feel the color of a tenor’s singing, or listen to the sweet melody of a painting, the majority of us can associate senses—in an imperceptible way.

For example, observe the illustration that corresponds to this article. These two figures, known as “Kiki and Booba” are presented by investigator Wolfgang Köhler as part of his synesthesia test. When asked which name is linked to each figure, 95 percent to 98 percent of people respond correctly.

In another study designed to demonstrate the slight intercrossing of sense that we all possess, Dr. Jamie Ward asked half a dozen synesthetes to draw their visual experiences while listening to the music of the New London Orchestra. A control group was recruited from the average, non-synesthete population to do the same activity.

The images of both groups were later edited into a video, overlaying the music that inspired the would-be artists. The video was then shown in a museum, with 200 visitors being selected at random to give their opinions about which images they thought corresponded best with the music.

The study found that not only could the synesthetic people express the melody better (as would be expected), but that the majority of people also interpret the world in a slightly, though surely less consciously, synesthetic way. While some neurologists calculate that as much as 10 percent of humanity has some degree of synesthesia, others, like Dr. Ward, believe that everyone probably knows at least 6 or 7 people who naturally blend their senses.

Wired for Color

In 2005, researchers from the University of California–San Diego and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies studied the cross-activation of adjacent brain regions in the mechanism underlying synesthesia. The study focused on grapheme-color synesthetes—the most common form of synesthesia in which the individual sees specific letters or numbers in specific colors.

Researchers were able to verify through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) that the area of the brain that perceives color was activated when the subjects were looking at black numbers and letters.

“Processes similar to synesthesia may underlie our general capacity for metaphor and be critical to creativity,” said neurologist V.S. Ramachandran in a press release for the study.

“It is not an accident that the condition is eight times more common among artists than the general population,” he said. “A quirky color/number synesthesia is not on the evolutionary agenda—but the ability for metaphor, a flair for connection, is. In fact, it’s one of the hallmarks that makes us human.”

Given that all of humanity is synesthetic to some degree, do not be surprised, reader, that your response probably belongs to the 98 percent group—those who attribute “Kiki” to the pointy figure on the left and “Booba” to the rounded one on the right. Although you should take yourself to be a real synesthete if, in reading this article, you encountered an especially interesting aroma.