You might be wondering what this weird word means… well, synaesthesia is a condition where the stimulation of one sense causes a simultaneous stimulation in another sense. For example, a person with synaesthesia might see different colours, textures and shapes when hearing a certain song, they could see a colour for each word you speak, or they could see green “commas” floating around in a blue sea when feeling pain. This happens naturally and is not associated with the consumption of drugs.
Synaesthesia is associated with neurocognitive factors: consciousness, the activation of sensory nodes and automatic cognitive processes. What happens is that synapses and neurons of a particular sensory system overlap with other sensory systems. The areas of the brain involved are the limbic system and the cerebral cortex.
This condition is associated with genetic factors; it is transmitted through a dominant X-chromosome. What is hereditary is the general disposition, but not the particular associations (a family member could experience synaesthetic taste and another family member could experience synaesthetic colour). We know there is a genetic base for this condition through studies of the genome, although we don’t fully understand what these genes are doing; most certainly they are affecting how the brain matures (they have more grey matter1 in the areas where they see, for example, and more white matter2 between the “seeing” area and the “tasting” area). It is thought that we all have synaesthesia when we are born but disappears as the brain matures, and so, people with this condition are thought to have underdeveloped sensory systems.
Have you ever wondered why we all seem to agree that, for example, a high-pitched sound is going to be brighter, smaller and louder in space than a low-pitched sound? Jamie Ward conducts a test in which people listen to two different sounds while looking at a piece by Kandinsky. People tend to choose sound 1, which is more discordant, while sound 2 is more harmonious. This may seem trivial, but in reality there is a whole set of rules for linking vision and music. This occurs more intensely and more concretely in people with synaesthesia and in the early stages of childhood. However, as we see, people without synaesthesia agree with synaesthetic experiences, even if they do not experience them themselves (only in some cases, not in all), thus showing that these rules hold in one form or another.
Another fun example is the called mirror-touch synaesthesia in which the person experiences a similar sensation in the same or opposite part of the body that another person feels. A specific example would be when seeing someone being touched on their cheek, they also feel like they are being touched on their cheek. Or, when seeing a Giacometti3 sculpture, they feel their body longer. This type of experience also happens with non-synaesthetic people, but in an unconscious and less intense way. It’s a form of empathy, and artists tend to use it to make us feel a certain feeling with their paintings or sculptures.
People with synaesthesia cannot control when it happens, and they usually experience it as if it was projected outside of their bodies rather than as an illusion or imaginary perceptions. Their associations are stable; for example, if they taste strawberry while touching wool, this will always happen no matter the environment they find themselves in.
These perceptions also influence emotional reactions; for example, they may feel pleasure or happiness when “tasting” a word or “hearing” a taste.
Synaesthesia doesn’t usually affect their daily life (it is seen more as an ability rather than a disability) but, if it does affect everyday functionality, therapists and doctors recommend their patients hypnosis therapy, which has been found to be effective to treat this condition.
Synaesthetes (people who have synaesthesia) tend to choose artistic careers or hobbies because these unusual experiences are probably beautiful for them and it probably inspires them to create art, and it may also help them with certain abilities like distinguishing colours. For example, Philippa Stanton paints people’s voices. How original and fun is that!
What synaesthesia tells us is that there are definitely many different ways to experience the world, and we should always be curious and respectful towards other people experiences, whether they have synaesthesia or not, and use it to have fun and help others; for example, blind people who have auditory depictions of the visual world – we could sonify images in art installations so they can understand what colours are out there and the different spatial relationship between objects.
1: grey matter is the darker tissue of the brain and spinal cord, consisting mainly of nerve cell bodies and branching dendrites.
2: white matter is the paler tissue of the brain and spinal cord, consisting mainly of nerve fibres with their myelin sheaths.
3: Giacometti was a Swiss sculptor and painter. His sculptures are known worldwide for being extremely thin and elongated, rugged and rough.
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