Synesthesia: Noun – The production of a sense impression relating to one sense or part of the body by stimulation of another sense or part of the body,
What does that mean? Simply stated, the brain of a synesthete confuses one sensory experience for another, and the result of that confusion is the manifestation of a sensation that does not correspond to the experience. For example, one of the most common forms of synesthesia is that of Grapheme -> Color Synesthesia, where numbers or letters appear to the synesthete as being colored when they are not. These people actually see a color along with the number or letter when they view it – it’s as though the number or letter has a colored aura.
Less commonly, ideas, thoughts, and feelings can trigger similar reactions in some people. I’ve read transcripts of interviews with synesthetes who report having different colors for each day of the week, each emotional feeling they experience, each person they meet. These people typically believe, at first, that everyone is experiencing these sensations, and so they rarely discuss them.
Colors aren’t the only possibly manifestations of synesthesia, which can affect any of the senses. Auditory manifestations are much less common than visual. A good friend of mine, Dévo, revealed to me recently that, since childhood, he has heard illusory sounds in connection with physical or intellectual stimulus. He had never heard of synesthesia before speaking with me, and the experiences he described sounded, to me (an untrained observer of course), spot on.
Dévo hears string-like sounds, vibrations, in response to almost everything: the sight of physical objects, sounds in the distance, the different emotional states of his friends, the planets, numbers, internal mental states, and more. His manifestation of hypnagogic imagery is almost completely auditory. Dévo plays the bass guitar, but he doesn’t play it traditionally (he can, he just chooses not to) – instead, he plays the sounds he hears. Honestly, I’m envious. =P
These sounds are consistent, as well, with the stimulus. On several occasions, I have asked Dévo to play sounds that correspond to different things. Mostly I would ask about whatever we were talking about at the time – he’s incredibly intelligent and enjoys talking about physics, astronomy, religion, psychology, etc. Though I haven’t done any formal testing with him on this, I have noticed that when I request a sound I’ve already heard, it’s consistent with the last time I’d heard it. This is usually how I realize I’d already asked him to play it…
I told Dévo not too long ago about synesthesia, and he has since done some research on the subject, and I believe he agrees with my amateur diagnosis. When he first told me about all this, he was a bit apprehensive, as though I wouldn’t believe him, or thought him crazy. I think my recognition of this sort of phenomenon, along with my opinions on the nature of consciousness and the mind, helped him to realize that what he’s experiencing, while not strictly speaking ‘normal,’ are not indicative of insanity, and I hope his own continuing research on the topic provides a source of confidence when telling others about this.
Dévo is one of the lucky people in this world who experiences things just a little differently from the rest of us. I think the rest of us are also lucky, though, because people like Dévo teach us that our reality and our experiences are not shared with everyone. Our perceptions are our own, and everyone sees things differently from everyone else.
- Brain Oddities: Mmm…tastes like blue. (danapress.typepad.com)
- What is synesthesia and how do you get it? (zocdoc.com)