[This was originally published in January of 2009, back when I kept up with a regular (and singular) blog. My posts on synesthesia are pretty much the only ones I’ve kept and decided to re-post elsewhere, because they are a nice documentation of my experience with the phenomenon.]
Synesthesia (also spelled synæsthesia or synaesthesia, plural synesthesiae or synaesthesiae)—from the Ancient Greek σύν (syn), “together,” and αἴσθησις (aisthēsis), “sensation” — is a neurologically based phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been synesthetic, but I didn’t even know that what I had was unusual — or that it had a name — until a few years ago. Even in college when my eccentric Design teacher was telling us about synesthesia, it still didn’t register with me. I don’t even really remember anything she said about synesthesia; I just remember her trying to explain it and being very excited about it. Perhaps it was because she had a mystical idea of what it was — since she doesn’t have it. In any case… a few years after that, my dear friend Miss EC introduced me to what synesthesia really is, and I instantly related.
Grapheme → Color Synesthesia
In one of the most common forms of synesthesia, grapheme → color synesthesia, individual letters of the alphabet and numbers (collectively referred to as graphemes), are “shaded” or “tinged” with a color. While synesthetes do not, in general, report the same colors for all letters and numbers, studies of large numbers of synesthetes find that there are some commonalities across letters (e.g., A is likely to be red)
This has always been a part of me. I’ve never known letters or numbers without color. By extension, words are colored also. Days of the week also have a specific color and months of the year have a specific color (which may or may not correspond to the color of the actual word). I will go into more detail about this in my next blog post. For a good article about synesthesia, please go here: link.
Spatial-Sequence or Time-Space Synesthesia
One type of synesthesia studies is called spatial sequence synesthesia, in which synesthetes experience time units (such as weekdays or numberlines) in distinct spatial configurations.
Again, this has always been a part of me. I see the months of the year, days of the week, and hours in the day in a spatial, circular sequence in front of me. I see numbers along a specific line pattern, but it isn’t as complex as other synesthetes with number-lines. In addition, I also see letters of the alphabet along a specific sequence line that cascades in space. I will go into more detail about this in my next blog post. For an excellent article about spatial-sequence synesthesia, please go here: link.
Sound → Color Synesthesia
In sound → color synesthesia, individuals experience colors in response to tones or other aspects of sounds.
Music makes me see colors. Certain instruments are especially vibrant in my mind, and certain music more so than others. In addition, sounds and music often illicit specific touch sensations.
Lexical → Gustatory Synesthesia
In a rare form of synesthesia, lexical → gustatory synesthesia, individual words and phonemes of spoken language evoke the sensations of taste in the mouth.
I have this as well, but to a lesser extent. Not every word will illicit a specific flavor. But words do have a profound impact on my mouth. Some words taste and feel delicious in my mouth. Some words are too bitter to say. Some words are uncomfortable for my mouth to hold. Some works make me nauseous. It works whether I am speaking the word or hearing someone else speak it.
Referred itch (also known as Mitempfindung) is a phenomenon where scratching an itch on one part of the body produces an itching sensation on a different, apparently unrelated part of the body.
This is not a direct form of synesthesia, but some researchers feel that it may be related. It is not necessarily an itch, either, but just a touching of the stimulus creates a sensation of feeling in another part of the body. And yes, I have this, too. I didn’t even realize it was rare or unique until I was reading an article about it yesterday. I always just thought it was weird — but never ventured to ask anyone else if they experienced it too, because I didn’t want them to think I was crazy! Touching my fingers in a certain spot, for example, will induce a tickling sensation on my tongue, and it won’t stop until the stimulus is stopped. Similarly, it will also happen if you touch my arm or foot, I will feel it in a spot on my back.
For more information about mitempfindung, please go here: link.
For information about mitempfindung and how it relates to synesthesia, please go here: link.
I found an awesome battery of tests for syensthetes that was created by Dr. David Eagleman at Baylor. After taking these tests and answering questions about my synesthesia, it made me even more excited to research about it. It was really cool seeing all of my colors documented like that, and even more cool to get to actually visualize my spatial-sequence for the months of the year. If you’re a synesthete, you should check it out! http://www.synesthete.org
In an awesome twist of fate, I was able to hook up with Dr. Eagleman for some syensthesia research! :D