What is synesthesia?
What if you have the ability to see Music in shapes and colors? Or to smell textures? Or to touch colors?
What if you have synesthesia and you are not aware of it? Maybe letters and numbers are colored personalities? And is your week is arranged as a shape in your mental space?
Maybe you have a neurological gift…
What is synesthesia? In this article you will get an overview about the fascinating world of synesthesia. There is a lot to discover and to learn. And you maybe surprised how many benefits there are, when aware of synesthesia. It may change the way your perceive the world.
Synesthesia: blending of the senses
Wikipedia defines synesthesia as following:
Well, that is a nice definition of synesthesia, but what does it actually mean?
Co-activation of different sensory areas in the brain
Synesthesia derives from greek. “Syn” stands for together, “esthesia” means perception. Loosely translated it means perceiving together. The word “Anesthesia” is the opposite: no perception.
Synesthesia is a condition where one sense co-activates other senses.
Okay, “condition” sounds kind of clinical. It is rather a gift, it has nothing to do with a disease or a mental disorder. You also do not need any medication or medical treatment. Scientists just like to have a word for it, that is as neutral as possible. So they call it condition.
Synesthesia is perceiving the world with blended senses.
Music can be colored, letters and figures can be associated with genders and personality, and forms can have tastes. There are many different types of synesthesias; every sense can theoretically be coupled with any other sense. Synesthesia is not the product of imagination or hallucination. It is the result of enhanced neuronal connections.
Stronger neurological connections between sensory areas
How is it possible to see music in shapes and colors? What is the underlying mechanism?
Imagine it like this: We have in our brain different sensory areas that are responsible for different sensory experiences. Such as the auditory cortex is on the lateral side of our brain (on the temporal cortex). The visual cortex, the area that creates “vision” is in the back of our brain (occipital lobe).
For people that resonate with synesthesia these areas are “neurologically stronger connected”. Be aware, that this explanation is a little bit oversimplified.
If a synesthete hears a sound, the auditory area is activated. And additionally, the visual area is also co-activated. This leads to a visual experience while listening to sounds or music. These experiences is are real perceptions and not a result of fantasy or associative visualisation.
Maybe all your senses are combined
Theoretically, all of our senses can be combined to each other. Seeing Taste, tasting touch, touching, smells, smelling sound. Shuffle the senses as you wish, there are many different types of synesthesia possible.
In the Garden of synesthesia in the Sensorium of synesthesia.com we offer different exercises for the different types of synesthesia. Take a few minutes and mix your senses as you discover the different forms of synesthesia!
Ideasthesia – Letters and numbers evoke colors
In the definition of synesthesia, it is mentioned that “cognitive pathways” are also involved in synesthetic perception. What does that mean?
Well, synesthesia is not only restricted to sensory stimuli, such as seeing or tasting. Abstract ideas can evoke the perception of a sensory experience, as well.
A very common type of synesthesia is grapheme color synesthesia. Letters and numbers are perceived in colors, for example. But Letters and numbers are not a sensory experience like a vision or a sound. It is the stimulation of a cognitive pathway that can elicit a sensory experience, too.
How are the weekdays arranged in space?
Time units, such as the years or the weeks, may be perceived as a shape in space. Or the colors of months and weekdays. Some synesthetes also find different swim styles to be colorful.
Those kinds of synesthesia are also referred to as “Ideasthesia”.
If you are curious to learn more about grapheme color synesthesia, read our article.
If you want to know more about more about the science of synesthesia and the brain, click here.
Or maybe you feel like engaging with your senses for free?
Synesthetic perceptions – automatic, involuntary and consistent. But attention is needed.
Sometimes it is not so easy to differentiate, what is synesthesia and what are associations or imagination.
So there are some characteristics that are used to define “genuine” synesthesia. They origin from Jamie Ward and Richard E. Cytowic. Having said so, some of these categorizations are also under dispute.
Automatic: synesthetic experiences happen without a mental effort or the need to imagine it.
Involuntary: A person that resonates with synesthesia cannot turn off the synesthetic experiences, but can ignore it.
Consistent: Mostly the synesthetic experiences do not change over time. So the colors for example for letters remain the same.
Unidirectional: For example, number 5 may always trigger orange. But orange does not trigger 5. But in one study set up it could also be both ways.
Intuitive: Synesthetes feel like these synesthetic experiences are natural and nothing special. It seems to be hard to imagine a life without it.
Attention needed: Though synesthetic experiences are involuntary and automatic, they require attention. If not focused on it, they are not perceived consciously. Further below, we will talk more about synesthetic awareness.
Difficulties of such characteristics – the self fulfilling prophecy
There are many different types of synesthesia. Many of them have only been studied very poorly. Synesthetic experiences are also very subjective and different for everybody. So it is very difficult to generalize synesthesia.
There is a debate going on about the consistency of synesthetic experiences. It is defined that synesthetic colors for letters are consistent. Meaning, the synesthetic colors do not change over time. Synesthesia tests have been based on that criteria and is considered to be the gold standard.
Synesthetes are defined by having consistent letter number associations. Meaning, if somebody perceives letter A always in the same color, it is a synesthete. So defining people only as synesthetes because other synesthetes have consistent letter colors, could be considered a circular argument.
But more recently, there has also been reports about synesthetes with changing colors for letters and numbers. With the current methods, they would not pass a synesthesia test.
Maybe the prevalence is higher than assumed
Another problem is that is has been assumed, that synesthetes are able to self report synesthesia. In other words, all synesthetes know that they have synesthetic experiences, otherwise they are not synesthetes.
But it is a problem. Not all synesthetes are aware of having synesthesia. Some studies automatically declare all participants as “non-synesthetes” when they claim not to be synesthetic. But maybe there just did not know about it. This leads to too many “non-synesthetic” diagnoses.
We will pick up the topic of the prevalence of synesthesia further below.
Terminology – inducers induce concurrents
It is worth it to talk about the terminology of synesthesia.
When we discuss synesthetic experience, there is an inducing stimulus. This co-activates another, concurring stimulus.
Let’s take the example of seeing music in colors. Music is the inducing stimulus. In synesthetic terminology it is the inducer. The colors is the concurring sense. It is called the concurrent. To be more concise, it is written like this Music -> Color. Meaning, Music is the inducer and it co-activates the Colors, the concurrent.
Another example is the personification of a letter. The letter is the inducer, the perception of a personification is the concurrent. Short: Letter -> personification.
This allows researcher to be more concise communicating and writing about different types of synesthesia.
Some common types of Synesthesia
There are many different types of synesthesia. Some are more common than others. Here you get an overview of the most “famous” ones. If you want to go in depth, read the article “types of synesthesia”. In the Sensorium, here on Synesthesia.com, you find exercises to discover those types yourself. So feel free to begin your sensory journey!
Grapheme-color synesthesia: perceiving letters and numbers in colors. Click here for an exercise
Spatial sequence synesthesia spatio-temporal synesthesia: perceiving the alphabet, or calendar units such as the year or a week as shapes in space.
Number form: The numbers are arranged in a mental space.
Chromesthesia: The perception of music in shapes and colors
Auditory-tactile synesthesia: you hear something and you can touch it.
Ordinal linguistic personification (OLP): perceiving letters and numbers as personalities
Mirror -touch synesthesia / mirror- pain synaesthesia: Seeing somebody being touched or in pain and then perceiving it as well.
Lexical gustatory synesthesia: words or numbers have a taste.
Tastes and smells evoke the sensation of shapes and colors.
The subtlety of synesthesia – do not miss it!
Synesthetic experiences can be very subtle. For many people it is hidden in daily life. Synesthetic experiences require attention and focus. Some types of synesthesia are easier to perceive, such as the colors of letters and numbers, than, let’s say the taste of a color.
Synesthetic perceptions “out in space”
Synesthetic perceptions are often perceived somewhere in space. Synesthetes state that it is as if they were looking at it. Music played with a loudspeaker may be perceived externally. While the colors of music with headphones are rather in the mind.
Letter “A” in red? That is ugly!
The synesthetic experiences are generally consistent. So for me, letter “A” is blue and it has always been blue. And probably it will stay blue forever. Though maybe for you, the letter “A” in blue may be ugly and an unpleasant experience.
This is called “idiosyncrasy”. For everybody it is different but it remains the same.
Synesthetes can have never ending discussions about whether letter A is better in blue or in red.
For a synesthete being confronted with a wrong colored letter, it may feel like the word “green” written in red.
Also the synesthetic experiences may vary between people with synesthesia. Some rather associate the colors to a letter, others rather see the colors directly on the letters. These are associator synesthetes and projector synesthetes, respectively.
What color is Letter A for you? How do you like letter A in blue? Do you perceive the color rather in your mental space or directly on the page? Check out our free mindful synesthetic exercises in the gateway (for free!).
Genetics and learning; the cause of Synesthesia?
A study about the familial patterns of synesthesia showed showed that 42% of the participants have a first-degree relative with synesthesia.. A research team scanned families with and without synesthetes genetically. Several genetic regions on the DNA could be detected that may relate to synaesthesia. These “synesthesia” genes are located on different chromosomes and may be involved in the development of the brain. It seems to be quite complicated.
But additional factors do play a role. Studies ran on monozygotic twins found that they have different types of synesthesia. If it was purely genetic, then twins should have the same types of synesthesia. More genetic research is being done at the moment. We wait with anticipation for the outcome.
One hypothesis is that synesthesia develops in the period after birth – also called neonatal phase of a child. The brain of freshly born children are still a “mess”. It could be that the life of everybody begins with a form of synesthesia and for some this ability remains.
Another hypothesis proposes, that learning could influence the development of synesthesia. It could be that synesthesia forms as a reaction to learning challenges in early childhood. Though synesthetes state that they have had the colors for the letters since they are children, it seems that it takes time for synesthesia to form.
If you want to read more about the the brain, genetics and the development of synesthesia, read our article about the research on synesthesia, science and the brain.
Cognitive advantages of synesthesia
“Synesthesia is associated with many cognitive benefits. Synesthetes may be more creative, have better perception, better memories and are gifted in many ways.”
The science of synesthesia, memory and the cognitive advantages is still in its infancy. But more and more evidence and insights about the advantages of synesthesia are being revealed. There are some studies about memory showing that synesthetes may perform better in tasks involving graphemes (letters and numbers) than non-synesthetes. Though this was not always the case. Nevertheless, some studies reported impressive advantages.
Creativity is the process of generating novel associations. A study has demonstrated that people with synaesthesia are more likely to be engaged in the creative arts.
And they score higher on some, but not all, tests of creativity. When questioned, 24% of synesthetes are employed in an artistic profession, whereas in the non-synesthete population this applies to only 2%. Creativity is not only a property that is required to work in the arts. Many other professions, such as science, involve creative thinking. It seems as if due to the “synesthetic cross connections” different concepts are easier combined, leading to an improved thinking. Some scientists go even so far, that they say the synesthesia gene may have evolved due to improved creativity. But this is only a hypothesis.
Both, synesthesia and mindfulness meditation are independently associated with increased creativity. What may happen if you put them together? 😉
Memory advantages, increased intelligence and linguistic aid
Synesthetes also have the tendency towards having a “superior” memory. But some scientists prefer to name it “alternative learning strategies”.Being a synesthete does not make you a savant.
Dealing with the “co-activated senses” can provide a memory advantage. For example a letter – color synesthete may have an advantage in color memory. Or synesthetes with calendar form synesthesia show visual short term memory advantages.
But it also goes the other way around. Letter – color synesthetes show advantages for different memory tasks which involve lists or words. Some studies suggest that they are better in learning an artificial grammar. Calendar–form synesthetes also show better autobiographical and somewhat better historical memories.
One study showed, that the synesthetic colors are transferred to other scriptures. So learning a language with different letters may be easier when the new symbols take over the corresponding colors of the latin system.This is called cross-linguistic transfer.
Maybe everybody can train synesthesia and benefit
Nicolas Rothen demonstrated that that synesthesia can be trained, leading to interesting cognitive improvements. Although this was only temporary. Others believe that synesthesia develops as a response to learning challenges.
Non-synesthetes can also benefit from synesthesia. Synesthesia training may have implications to help older people slow their decline in cognitive functions. For example in early stage Alzheimers or helping patients recovering from brain injuries. Perhaps people starting in their 50s could “top up” their memory when they use synesthetic colors. This could be a mnemonic device to remember shopping lists.
However, it seems that there are many benefits of having and training synesthesia. Though more science is needed to fully understand the mechanisms.
Synesthesia Meditation: Mindfulness mixed with synesthetic explorations
Synesthesia Meditation helps you to become aware of your synesthetic abilities. There are many documented benefits of mindfulness practice. Combining synesthesia and mindfulness has great potential for a great varieties of benefits and applications.
Why not starting your journey now, for free? Check out the exercises in the gateway.
Symptoms of synesthesia – is it a disorder?
Synesthesia is not a disorder, nor is it a disease. And since only disorders and diseases can have symptoms, synesthesia does not have symptoms. Synesthesia is a perceptual experience. Consider it a gift.
For those who put synesthesia into the light of disorders and talk about symptoms, they may want to do their homework before engaging in any further discussion.
Perceiving synesthesia – are you aware?
There are several reasons why people are not aware of synesthesia.
The lack of attention is one and maybe the most important. Attention is crucial for perceiving synesthesia.
In this section you will learn how attention modulates the synesthetic experiences.
If you want to learn more about why many people have a low mindful synesthetic awareness, click here and ready our article about mindful synesthetic awareness.
It is hard to put Synesthetic experiences in words and drawings
How is it to perceive Synesthesia?
Synesthetic colors colors can differ in “form, spatial arrangement, transparency, covering degree, intensity, and nuance” Some describe it as “Halo” or fog which surround the letter or number.
Describing synesthesia in words is not easy. Often the words in our language are not enough to explain synesthetic experiences to full satisfaction.
Although it is very hard to express synesthetic perception in words, synesthetes can communicate to each other pretty well. Every person with synesthesia perceives it differently but similar. They can resonate and understand what the other person is saying about their individual synesthetic experience.
Drawing synesthetic experiences is notoriously difficult.
You can zoom in and out of your synesthetic experience, consequently it is hard to bring it on a 2 dimensional sheet. Drawing synesthetic experiences allows one to express the bigger concept of it. But seldomly to depict it in detail.
Nevertheless, drawing is a good exercise to become fully aware of your sense of hearing. Why not try it out? Click here for a “drawing music” exercise.
Our attention modulates our perception
One key aspect of synesthetic perception, or perception in general, is awareness. Awareness is to perceive consciously. Only on what you shift your attention to, you become aware of. Sensations are all the unfiltered stimulations entering through the senses in our brain. Perception is what our attention filters out of it.
Our attention is like a flashlight in the dark. Imagine you are walking through a garden at night without moonlight. Where you point the beam of light onto, there you can see the flowers.
Your flashlight does not turn the night into day. It only has a narrow cone to illuminate the surrounding. But you can see quite well with it. Enough to navigate through the garden, seeing the flowers.
What happens to us is that we have our flash light most of the time directed onto the path which we are walking. Well that is important not to trip,. but we should also not forget to direct them to the flowers that surround us. And once we have a flower in our focus, we should not just switch back towards the path immediately. We should give it some time and look at the flower with all its beauty.
This metaphor describes nicely what happens to us. Our busy lives distract us from the perceptions of the present moment. Our mind tends to think constantly about the future and the past. And we miss the synesthetic experiences in our daily life.
With synesthesia meditation you gain a mindful synesthetic awareness to become more aware of synesthetic perceptions that surround you.
What do you see when you look into a river?
We can shift our attention to different aspects of perceptions and to different synesthetic experiences. Think about a river. When you go close to the river shore and look down, you can see the surface of the water. Maybe you see the sun that is reflected on it. Or you see the waves of the river. Or you focus your sight to the river bed and you see the pebbles at the bottom.
Our perception is modulated by our attention. Shifting attention, zooming around, changes the way we perceive things.
In the same way you can discover the synesthetic experiences within your perception. Your attention determines how the synesthetic perceptions unfold.
Shift your attention to different aspects of your synesthetic perception
Let’s consider music. Similarly to the river you can shift your attention from one instrument to another. And you can observe its shapes and colors. Or you can zoom out and observe the overall picture of the music. Or you focus on a single instrument and shift your attention between synesthetic types: from the shape of the sound, to the movement, to the color, to the surface, to the taste and back to the shape.
The same piece of music can be perceived differently every time. Your attention is never the same.
This is also what we train in the sensorium.
In the Soundscapes you find our Sound series to learn and train mindful synesthetic techniques to perceive Music in a mindful synesthetic way. Get more out of your experience of listening to music. Try it now!
Multisensory mechanisms in the evolution of language?
It has been proposed by V. Ramachandran and E. Hubbard, that synesthetic-like mechanisms may play a role in the evolution of language. Language may not have just emerged randomly. It may be that the shape of certain objects have induced the sound of words. Let’s take the famous example below.
Almost everybody asked in this study had the same opinion, probably you have as well. Interestingly, people with autism tend to agree less than the overall population.
This multisensory perception is present in almost everybody, even in chimpanzees.
This is not only for such shapes, it is also true for names.
Who do you think is thin and or fat? Kate or Molly?
Prevalence of Synesthesia
In a nutshell, we do not know exactly how prevalent synesthesia is. It could be between 1% and 25%. Diagnosing synesthesia is challenging. And depending on how to define what synesthesia is or not, there are more synesthetes.
“Diagnosing” Synesthesia is challenging
DISCLAIMER: If you have in mind to do one of our Synesthesia quizzes, you may do this before reading this paragraph.
Although there are different tools available, such as synesthesia tests, it is challenging to “diagnose Synesthesia”. The Gold Standard of “testing” for synesthesia is the consistency test.
Synesthetes tend to always perceive the same color for let’s say letters. And in this way you can “test” for synesthesia. This method works fine but has its limits. Not all types of synesthesia can be tested like that.
Sometimes, synesthetes are classified as non-synesthetes. And vice versa.
Are there more females with synesthesia?
You can sometimes read that synesthesia is more common among women. But studies suggest that the ratio between female and male synesthetes is more or less the same. Though women tend to be generally more interested in this topic than man. Similarly as you find also more females in a yoga class.
The Prevalence of synesthesia – how frequent is it?
Yes, you may be now disappointed by this very imprecise answer, since this is quite a wide range. It is not so easy to figure out how common synesthesia is. So let me explain.
Prevalence estimations have been rising constantly
The estimated prevalence of synesthesia has continuously risen the past 30 years.
Another study had a look on art school students in Switzerland. They found out that the prevalence of synesthetes is higher in artistic schools with around 7% compared to 2% in normal schools.
A new study with students in Canada and Czech found that around 2% resp 4.4% had at least one type of synesthesia. They claim that it is an underestimate.
One researcher proposed that 20% of population had Calendar Synesthesia.
And to add some more confusion, a study from 2016 used questionnaires, but not the typical consistency test. They came up with a 25% estimation. This would mean, every fourth person on this planet has at least one type of synesthesia. But the authors of this study admit themselves, that it is an overestimation.
You see, there is not yet an agreement how frequent synesthesia is exactly. There is definitively a trend from “a rare phenomenon” to something that may be much more common than we assumed the last 30 years.
Our guesstimate is around 10%.
So, more studies are needed and it won’t be easy to figure out the exact number. Please do not cite us on the 10%.
What is actually much more important is the following:
Synesthesia is common. And you may have it. And you may be unaware of it.
But why is it so hard to come up with accurate estimations?
Social exchange is important to become aware
In the end, it does not matter for you to know the exact prevalence score. More important is that you know that there are many synesthetes out there. And many do not know about it. Ask your friends and family members! Maybe they see letters and numbers in colors. Or music in shape. Do not talk about synesthesia as if it was something weird or overly special. It is a very common phenomenon. Go out, help other people as well to discover their synesthetic sensory abilities.
To give you a guidance how to approach other people to exchange about synesthesia, read our article about synesthetic mindful awareness.
Conclusion: Synesthesia Meditation – become aware of your synesthetic experiences.
Synesthesia is perceiving the world with blended senses in the here and now.
There are many people with synesthesia, but most are not aware of it. Slowly we realize, that ist is more common than assumed. And many are not aware of it. Maybe you too?
We, the team of Synesthesia.com, have spent several years to find a solution to that problem. Our aim is to support people on their journey to become aware of synesthesia.
Synesthesia Meditation in the Sensorium is our approach. It is a mix between mindfulness techniques and synesthetic exploration. Get connected with your senses and become aware of synesthesia. It is an investment in your mind and you overall life quality. There are many benefits of synesthesia Mediation, such as more sensory awareness, less stress and anxiety, more calm, patience and focus. It is really worth the time.
Practice 10 minutes a day and discover the full range or yours synesthetic abilities.
Read more hear about synesthesia here on the Blog. Or start directly for free in the Gateway, where you find many free exercises that are just one click away.
What to do next?
Watch our Video about synesthesia Meditation
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