Colorful Connections and Preceptions (Synesthesia)

See sound as color? Associate letters with random colors? Sounds like a hallucination but really it is far from it. Synesthesia is a condition that is not very common and an estimated one out of two-thousand people, have a diagnosable form of it. People who experience synesthesia (synthetes) are usually very creative and in fact, famous Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, who was credited with the first completely abstract art, was a synthete who used sounds of instruments to draw abstract art.

Synesthesia is a condition where one of somebody’s senses is stimulated by and at the same time as another sense, such as hearing and sight. The most common form of synesthesia is when someone’s mind associates numbers, letters, and shapes with a color or in some cases flavor and smell. This experience is called grapheme-color synesthesia and helps most synthetes with memorizing numbers, and in fact, synthete Daniel Tammet used his special gift to memorize 22,514 number of Pi. One strange thing to note is that numbers written out are usually not the same color as numbers. For instance, the number three could be yellow, but the word “three” could be green. Many synthetes are unaware that they perceive things in a different way until they are further exposed to the knowledge of what synesthesia is but, even then, many synthetes still can not tell that they have synesthesia as it can be in many different forms. One of these different forms is called chromesthesia and is a type of synesthesia that occurs when a person hears sound, usually music, and elicit an experience of color.  Chromesthesia is common with popular musicians due to the person’s ability to identify notes with ease because they are so associated with a color, resulting in perfect pitch. One popular singer with chromesthesia is Panic at The Disco’s Brendon Urie, who was often talked about his chromesthesia and describes how he wrote a song with his chromesthesia stating, “It felt so right, it felt nice to have that completion to the idea (colors to the music), the colors really had to go with the song.” Another popular singer that has chromesthesia is Pharrell Williams, best known for his hit song “Happy” from Despicable Me 2. Chromesthesia does not only have to be sound to color; it can also be sound to shapes or letters since they are all so intertwined in the branches of synesthesia. On the other hand, one of the most uncommon diagnosable form of synesthesia is called mirror-touch and is when someone experiences the same feeling as another person. An example of this is if the synthete were to observe someone brush their own cheek, the synthete would feel a light pressure on their cheek. There are however, non synethesiaetic cases and in though it is still questioned, scientists think that the fusiform gyrus (a groove around the brain) premotor cortex (basically controls motor functions,) and the superior temporal sulcus, (indentation that separates the superior temporal gyrus from the middle temporal gyrus) most often light up when observing touch to another person’s back of ears or neck. Scientists have also found that these areas light up when we identify faces in not only humans but in inanimate objects. One instance is, when you see some two dots next to each other and have an urge to draw a curved line under them to complete a smiley face.

Different regions of a human brain specialize in different functions and increased interactions between different brain functions, that are for different actions, may be the cause of many different kinds of synesthesia. Grapheme-synesthesia might be due to the part of the brain that is designed for grapheme recognition and the area for color (called visual area 4) being activated at the same time. Synesthesia is also commonly linked to genetics because many families with a synesthete often have more synesthetes along their bloodline but there is still not an identifiable gene that will give us the answer to this question on genetics. One possible way to explain this genetic “equation” is by calling for an “epigenetic” (inherited genetic traits that do not change DNA.)

Studies have also found that in the United States, three times as many women as men report synesthesia. Most synesthetes will not describe their condition as a hindrance except for a few different cases. In one such case was Berit Brogaard, a female writer and neuroscientists diagnosed with a very rare form of synthesia that causes what she describes as a “creepy landscape” to appear before her eyes. She goes on to say that, “The fear induced synesthetic images look like a landscape that’s projected out into the world 20 to 30 cm in front of my eyes.” She also described an image that haunted her childhood as a “bluish green with spiky mountain peaks” and when she told her parents, they were deeply worried that she was losing her mind, which we now know is not the case.

Synthesia is definitely not a commonly understood topic. Many people that are told what it is presume insanity or hallucinogenics but synesthesia is far from it and in most cases is considered a blessing more than a curse. Not every single synesthete has some extreme talent, most synthetes experience no more than thinking, “This feels like so and so color.”

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