What color is “Bohemian Rhapsody”? Where is September located in space? What does “summer” taste like?
If these questions make any sense to you, you might belong to a small portion of the population who experiences a unique neurological phenomenon known as synesthesia.
Synesthesia is a phenomenon which leads to the pairing or overlapping of two or more senses. It can take on many forms: Some people see colors when they listen to music or associate each word with a particular taste, while others see words in color or visualize time in space.
According to the Oxford Handbook of Scholarly Research Reviews, the phenomenon has been documented since the early 19th century. However, it is only in recent decades that neurologists and psychologists have been able to shed significant insight into how the phenomenon emerges and what its various forms are.
Current estimates demonstrate that about 4-5 percent of the population experiences some sort of synesthesia, and scientists now believe that there is a strong genetic component to the phenomenon. Having one kind of synesthesia increases your chances of having a second, third or fourth type by 50 percent, according to a report by TED-Ed. In addition, some argue that synesthesia is linked to higher memory functioning, since the association of two or more senses can often create a more impactful association in the brain. For instance, if someone sees words in color, it might be easier for them to memorize things such as people’s names, since the auditory (a person’s name) and visual cues (their face) are further fused together by a colorful visual aid — Peter is turquoise.
However, while having synesthesia can often be a useful aid to some people, it can also be an impairment in certain situations. For example, Olivia Warren, a graduate of Harvey Mudd College, gave a TED talk in 2015 about how her synesthesia posed a significant challenge in her ability to solve math problems. In her case, the colors she associated with numbers were greatly muddled when she had to take the SAT, which is usually administered on a greyish hue of paper. The color of the testing paper changed her associations between color and letters or numbers, causing her difficulty. While she was able to devise methods to overcome this challenge, there are other cases of synesthetes who finds certain situations overstimulating and overwhelming, and often require a different approach than most people take.
Even today, much remains unknown or inconclusive about synesthesia. In a report published in 2009 in Developmental Psychology, entitled “Synesthesia: A new approach to understanding the development of perception,” a group of researchers hypothesized that we are all born with a raw form of synesthesia. Studies conducted on infants indicate a very similar kind of neural overlap between the different senses and an increased association of two or more sensory cues. However, as our brains develop, some of our neural synapses are “cut” — a phenomenon that is referred to as neural pruning — and, for most of us, the synapses that associate different sensations are severed, as they do not offer a particularly useful advantage.
One of the reasons I became so intrigued by the phenomenon of synesthesia is because, a few months ago, I discovered that I also have a form of synesthesia, known as “spatial sequence synesthesia.”
People who experience spatial sequence synesthesia map concepts of time onto space. While the details of that visualization vary from person to person, the majority of people with this type of synesthesia see months mapped onto an ellipse that wraps around them. For each person, the particulars of the ellipse and the arrangement of the months on it slightly varies, often indicating months or seasons that are particularly meaningful to that person. For example, in my case, the month of April, which is my birth month, is at the top of the ellipse above my head.
However, the most interesting part of my own — and, as I later discovered, others’ — experience of synesthesia is just how long it took me to realize that not everyone perceives time in the way that I do. For the first 20 years of my life, I thought that everyone saw January to their top left, and saw the month of October loop around their body in the ellipse.
It was not until my junior year of college that I realized there was something unusual about my relationship with time. I made this realization when I saw the weird look my roommate gave me when I told her about how the days of the week begin under my left arm and stretch out diagonally and away from me towards the right. As she started pushing me more and asking me questions, I realized that for her July was not actually just out of reach of her extended right arm and that weekends were not slightly more elevated as compared to the rest of the days of the week.
The incredulous reaction in my friend that my descriptions elicited baffled me, but it wasn’t long before the day-to-day routines of college life made me forget all about the strange interaction. Until, that is, a few months later when my visual representations of space came up in conversation with another friend who was absolutely fascinated by them. “NO WAY!!,” she shrieked and broke out in laughter when I explained my experience to her. “So wait,” she asked, “When I tell you to get dinner with me on Friday, do you see that in space too?”
A couple of days later, as I was sitting with some friends at our usual table at Blue State on York, my special spatial calendar came to occupy my thoughts once again. I had completely zoned out of the conversation my friends were having when, suddenly, something caught my attention.
“Um … It must have been … January!” one of my friends remarked, pointing just above her left arm.
I was taken aback and immediately asked her to explain why she was pointing there. Soon we discovered that we both share this weird mapping of time onto space, and not long after that, we discovered our “condition” had a name: spatial sequence synesthesia.
Instances and depictions of synesthesia are much more common than most of us realize. Seeing how synesthesia is statistically more common among artists, there are many works of art that are inspired, or are thought to be inspired by, synesthetic experiences.
One of the most memorable animated movie scenes of my childhood is, without a doubt, the scene in “Ratatouille” where Remy is eating a cube of cheese and a grape while fireworks of colors explode on the screen. As he tastes the cheese, Remy closes his eyes and witnesses soft swirling hues of yellow, while the grape triggers a sharper, more explosive set of purplish combinations. This scene is inspired by the experience of people who have color-gustatory synesthesia, a type of synesthesia that associates tastes with specific colors.
Many famous artists, such as Billy Joel, Lady Gaga and Alessia Cara, among others, are thought to be synesthetes. Vincent Van Gogh was also likely a synesthete, and some think “Starry Night,” one of his most famous works, portrays his own synesthetic perception of the world. Van Gogh experienced chromesthesia, meaning that he associated certain sounds with colors, which is thought to be reflected in his works.
Annie Dickinson is a singer, songwriter and composer who experiences a very similar kind of synesthesia to Van Gogh’s. Annie can see people’s voices in distinct, individualized colors. This allows her to perceive changes in people’s moods and emotional states, since they are depicted as slight variations to their normal hues. However, much like most synesthetes, Annie did not realize that people perceived the world differently from how she did until much later in her life.
It is fascinating to me that one of the most common themes across different cases of synesthesia is how people can go for years without ever realizing that the way in which they perceive the world differs from the way others view it. It really makes one reconsider the agreed upon consensus of how reality is experienced and to question the extent to which we can ever talk about universal human experiences.
Hopefully, as we learn more about this particular neurological phenomenon, we will be able to further our understanding of different perceptions of the world and extend the ways in which we empathize with and comprehend others. While we might not all be able to taste Smarties when we hear the word synesthesia, exploring and understanding the social and neurological processes that lead some people to do so might improve our ability to relate with one another — and accept that reality might not be as objective as we have come to believe it to be.
Sophia Catsambi | firstname.lastname@example.org .