Synesthesia: do you hear colors?

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Leah Kruszewski
Synesthesia: do you hear colors?

Synesthesia is a phenomenon where the stimulation of one sense leads to the perception of another sense.  There are more than sixty forms of synesthesia, and some examples include: 

  • Grapheme-color synesthesia - Perceiving certain letters or numbers as inherently colored. 

  • Chromesthesia - Hearing music or pitches and experiencing it as flashes or swirls of color.  Colors can also be associated with common sounds such as dogs barking, car honks, and household appliances.

  • Auditory-tactile synesthesia - Feeling sensations in parts of the body in response to specific sounds.

  • Lexical-gustatory synesthesia - tasting words

  • Misophonia - Experiencing negative feelings, thoughts, and physical reactions in response to certain ‘trigger sounds’.  

  • Mirror-touch synesthesia - Feeling the same physical sensation as another person when observing their experience (a shouder tap, or even pain)

While some forms of synesthesia (misophonia, particularly) sound like a problem that one would want to treat, others like chromesthesia, for example, sound like a fun and interesting bonus in a creative person’s life.  

In recent years, music and sound related forms of synesthesia has become a trending topic in the art and music world.  Being trendy probably causes synesthesia to be over-reported - for example, just associating a key or song with a color in a given moment doesn’t make you a synesthete.  Real synesthesia is involuntary and automatic, and the associations are consistent and permanent. For example, the letter ‘A’ would always appear red, or hearing a trumpet would always cause you to see an orange triangle in space.   Psychologists estimate that authentic synesthesia occurs in 1 in 2,000 people. Less reliable sources report prevalence as high as one to four percent of people. In any case, synesthesia is far more common in writers, artists, and musicians than in the general population.  Here are some examples of musician synesthetes:

  • New Zealand singer songwriter Lorde sees certain colors when she ears specific notes.  She uses the associations to craft her songs so that they sound like what she sees.  When she was working on her hit ‘Tennis Court’, for instance, An interview with Tumblr reported ‘it was so boringly tan that it made her feel sick.  Then they worked out a a pre-chorus and turned it green, which was loads better.’  

  • Pop singer Billie Eilish says synesthesia is so ingrained in her way of viewing the world that ‘it kind of just ties in to everything and I don’t really think about it.’ she barely thinks about it.  She gives an example and describes that the number two has a color, a shape, and a smell. Any time she thinks of a song, the song has a color, a number, and a shape.  

  • Violinist and neuroscientist Kaitlyn Hova associates pitches with colors and explains more about what it’s like to live with synesthesia in this Tedx talk.  She founded the synesthesia network to connect synesthetes and researchers.

  • Composer Olivier Messiaen explained, ‘I see colours when I hear sounds, but I don’t see colours with my eyes.  I see colours intellectually, in my head.’ He described several of his works as direct results of his cloured visions.  Of ‘Colours de la Cité Céleste’, he wrote, ‘The shape or this work depends entirely on colours. The melodic or rhythmic themes, the complexes of sounds and timbres, evolve like colours. In their perpetually renewed variations, one can find warm and cold colours, complementary colours influencing their neighbours, colours bleached towards white, darkened by black. One can moreover compare these transformations to characters acting on several superposed stages and telling several stories simultaneously.’

The causes of synesthesia remain somewhat of a mystery.  Some research suggests that synethesia results from an overabundance of neural connections.  While usually the senses are confined to separate areas of the brain, for people with synesthesia, the borders break down, and connections form between the different areas.  Other scientists propose that everyone has potentially synesthetic connections, but not everyone uses and develops them. A recent study showed that half of all people without synesthesia can experience artificially-induced synesthesia as a result of short-term sensory deprivation.  Genetics appears to influence the presence synesthesia, although the mechanism by which the trait is passed down is uncertain. Synesthesia is also more common in women than men. A few studies of synesthesia have found that people with diverse linguistic backgrounds from childhood are more likely to have synesthesia than people who grew up speaking only one language.

Do you have synesthesia?  What senses are linked for you and what are the perceptions and associations like?  When did you first discover that the associations you perceive were unusual, and that not everyone perceives music/sounds/pitches with multiple senses?  Does it help you in creating or learning music at all?  Does it ever confuse or overwhelm you?  

Sources and Further Reading:

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