How Synesthesia Works

What's Synesthesia Like?

Kanye West performs during the 2011 Essence Music Festival in New Orleans, La. West is one of numerous contemporary artists like Mary J. Blige, Aphex Twin, Billy Joel and Stevie Wonder who say they see music in color.
Kanye West performs during the 2011 Essence Music Festival in New Orleans, La. West is one of numerous contemporary artists like Mary J. Blige, Aphex Twin, Billy Joel and Stevie Wonder who say they see music in color.
Skip Bolen/WireImage/Getty Images

Most discussions of synesthesia will include famous creative types. Vladimir Nabakov wrote about his synesthesia in his biography "Speak, Memory," and the composers Franz Liszt and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov apparently clashed over what colors certain musical keys were [source: Cytowic and Eagleman]. But if you're a non-synesthete and feeling bummed about how mundane your worldview appears, take heart: Although much has been said about synesthesia among artists, there is no evidence that having synesthesia makes one more creative [source: Brang and Ramachandran].

However, there just may be some secondary cognitive benefits for synesthetes. Memorization appears to be one of them. Some synesthetes can memorize a substantial list of numbers by recalling color associations, for example. And some color synesthetes have also demonstrated an impressive sensitivity to discerning extremely similar colors [source: Brang and Ramachandran]. (It remains to be seen whether synesthesia is the cause of this, or if it can be attributed to the broad and frequent experience synesthetes have with color.)

Alas, it's not all idyllic. Some synesthetes report their condition can be a little grating at times. It can be uncomfortable, for instance, for a grapheme-color synesthete to see a number in the "wrong" color. One lexical-gustatory synesthete also made the point that if a certain name doesn't taste right to him, he has a hard time liking the person it's attached to [source: Carlsen]. (One can only assume that's where nicknames come in handy.)

And while not everyone has synesthesia, we should point out that hallucinogenic drugs might be one way that synesthesia could be "manufactured." Several drugs can produce vivid synesthesia in otherwise non-synesthetes, which might be a key to understanding the condition. One researcher has posited that in non-synesthetes, information in a multisensory area travels back easily to its single-sense area, but in synesthetes it gets a bit mixed up along the way. Taking something like LSD might mean that the subsequent change in neurochemistry causes those existing connections to get confused for a while [source: Carpenter].

So we've still got a lot to learn about synesthesia, it seems. Read on to the next page to taste, touch, feel or just see a lot more information about it.

Author's Note: How Synesthesia Works

I'll just say it: I'm disappointed to be a non-synesthete. But the more I learned about synesthesia, the less "outside" the phenomena I felt. Most of us have a very traditional, dependable relationship with our senses even though we can't ever be sure that, say, I perceive red like you do, or that pad thai tastes the same to both of us. So synesthesia doesn't just show how senses can cross; it shows that perhaps our senses aren't that reliable, period.

Related Articles


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