To be a Synaesthete!

Latest News Thursday, 12 Nov 2020

I rarely envy people, but I really envy synesthetes. I can hear you – “synesth what”?

Synaesthesia is ‘a neurological condition in which people have a recurring sensory overlap, such as ‘tasting’ words or envisioning letters and numbers each with their own inherent colour. Levy possesses one of the most common forms of the condition, chromaesthesia, in which sounds and music provoke visuals’. (If you want to see how a chromaesthete / synesthete (Levy) visualises a John Coltrane track go here). 

I could only imagine how brilliant this must be to be able to have multiple senses interpreting my world simultaneously. To listen to music and see design or to hear colour and see sound. This is a neurological trait or condition that results in a joining or merging of senses that aren't normally connected. The stimulation of one sense causes an involuntary reaction in one or more of the other senses.

This association (I would think) would be great for learning. I would hope that it would be so reinforcing. Synesthete, Melanie Schoo, told SBS she experiences synaesthesia by feeling emotions when she sees letters and numbers. “There are letters of the alphabet and numbers that are positive or happy, and there are numbers and letters that I perceive as being mean, nasty or negative.” What a way to learn your phonics and sight words!!

According to Macquarie University researchers, the prevalence of the condition in Australia is varied. It's estimated that one-in-500 experiences more common forms of synaesthesia, like letter-colour synaesthesia, while one-in-25,000 live with rarer forms, like sound-odour synaesthesia.

The truth is (from what I can understand in reading) it can be a gift and a hindrance. In The Psychologist – the British Psychological Society Journal (Feb 2015) there’s a story of one man who experienced a lexical-gustatory form where words are experienced as strong tastes. ‘Piccadilly Circus tasted of the peanuts and goo you get inside a Picnic bar. Bond Street tasted of a tangy aerosol spray. I liked Tottenham Court Road; it tasted of breakfast. The word “Tottenham” tasted of sausage, the “Court” tasted of egg and the “Road” tasted of toast.’

There’s no doubt I’d hate this form (there are over 60 known types of synaesthesia) particularly if it tasted of chocolate.
The Psychologist reports that American neurologist Richard E. Cytowic attended a dinner party where he saw someone cooking a chicken sauce. The chef tasted the sauce and said that it tasted ‘wrong’ and that it ‘needed more points’ on it. Cytowic questioned the chef and found out that the chef experienced shapes on his hand whenever he tasted food.

Carolyn Hart, who works as a massage therapist at Twitter’s main headquarters in San Francisco, has a rare type known as mirror-touch synaesthesia. Someone with mirror-touch synaesthesia involuntarily feels the same sensation another person feels. Carolyn tells me about her experiences: ‘My earliest memory of it was when I was about three years old. We had a dog that broke her leg in front of me. I remember that at the moment I saw that fracture I felt pain. It’s been with me as long as I remember.’

Carolyn’s pain is experienced instantaneously, before she has time to think. It doesn’t matter how she feels about the person or animal in pain – she has to see the image or object before she feels a tactile sense.

That certainly would be a massive hindrance. In some research there does seem to be a performance advantage in certain types of memory tasks. 

Again, from The Psychologist, it reports on Daniel McBride - a second-year student at the Royal College of Music in London who experiences synaesthesia. After starting piano lessons aged 16, he learned very quickly, and within only seven months, he was performing professionally. ‘I’d never write down any of the songs I’d play. I could memorise everything from the colours and patterns I’d see when playing them,’ he says.

‘Being at college introduced me to a lot of music, some of which used non-traditional triads. Sometimes I’d listen to music and be hypnotised by the colours I’d see,’ he says. In college Daniel is often given music projects to work on – it’s the style in which he plays them that is influenced by his synaesthesia. ‘I clearly see a change in colour when I hear one note and hear it rise slowly in pitch. Because of that, I really like listening to Middle Eastern music. That stimulates me the most.’

Whilst many believe it is fundamentally a hereditary condition, for some grapheme synaesthetes the colours they saw matched those of a well-known set of Fisher-Price magnets, which 10 of the 11 participants recalled owning when they were younger. This suggested that environmental associations learnt in childhood had a strong effect on synaesthetic symptoms.

This has to be one of the most fascinating of conditions. I only hope I meet students with it!

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