Are You a Synesthete?

Posted September 27, 2009

Synesthesia is a neurological condition involving the crossing of sensory and/or category perception such that the two are linked experientially. For example, some people report that words have a color property to them — they see colors with words.

How a synesthete with letter/color overlap might see written words

How a synesthete with letter/color overlap might see written words

These associations are consistent. If the word “jumping” is blue, it is always blue.

The most commonly documented forms are those in which letters or numbers are crossed with colors, but there are many forms of synesthesia. Richard Cytowic wrote a book titled The Man Who Tasted Shapes, which is, of course, about a man for whom taste is crossed with shape perception. In it, the subject describes the dish he is cooking as “too pointy”.

If you are not one of these people, you might think they are crazy. Nutso. Fruit loops.

You would be wrong.

A skeptic should consider that simple associations could account for many of these reports and they would probably be correct. Many people reading this may think they are a synesthete when, in fact, what they feel is connected is a simple association. Then again, synesthesia appears to be more common than originally thought.

How do we know these are not just associations or the ramblings of the loony?

The S in this image is much easier to find than the E.

The S in this image is much easier to find than the E.

Because tests have been developed which produce differences in performance that only synesthesia can explain. In his book A Brief Tour of Consciousness, V. S. Ramachandran discusses a test for number/color synesthesia that he developed which takes advantage of well-known perceptual phenomena. We know, for example, that it takes much longer to find a target object in a field of distracters if the object is similar in appearance to those distracters than if it differs perceptually. For example, reaction time in a task in which the participant must indicate if an E is present in a field of Fs is much longer than if the target were an S. However, if the letter E were one color and all of the Fs were another, the E would “pop out” of the scene. Likewise, the average person takes much longer to find a 5 in a field of 2s than to find that same 5 in a field of zeros. However, if 5s were experienced consistently with blue and 2s with red, the 5 would be found quickly and easily in both cases.


For the synesthete with number/color association, there is no difference between these 2 searches. And images created from those objects will be easier to see as well.


Melissa Saenz and Christoph Koch have been studying a motion/sound synesthesia which I experience myself. Find out if you are a bit of a synesthete. Play the video below in a quiet room.

Did you hear anything?

I admit that I once thought that everyone heard sounds they knew did not enter through their ears. After all, approximately 50% of people report “hearing” what they read silently and approximately 50% of those people are unable to “turn off” that voice. Even after reading several books on the subject, writing reports in graduate school, and lecturing about it, I was surprised to learn just a year or so ago that what I experience is indeed synesthesia. For me, the video above sounds a lot like the roar one hears when in an airplane, only the pitch changes with the direction of the dots. As they move out, the pitch goes from high to low. As the move in, from low to high again. So, perhaps I am a freak in more ways than I thought.
Or not. Saenz estimates that as many as 1 in 100 people experience this auditory form of synesthesia. So you see, it is really quite common.



Paul Ingraham on September 28th, 2009 at 04:24:
Quirks & Quarks (CBC Radio One, Canada) just did a nice segment on this topic, interviewing the author of “Wednesday is Indigo Blue — Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia.” See the Q&Q show page for the audio (last item):

Barbara Drescher on September 28th, 2009 at 06:02:
Thanks, Paul! Cytowic is the author of “The Man Who Tasted Shapes”. I am not certain that I agree with some of his theories, but he’s documented some interesting cases.
Leo on October 6th, 2009 at 14:26:
I don’t hear a sound when watching that video but I do hear voices when I read. If an author is really good at capturing characters, it’s like the characters in the book are right there in the room with me. Even reading nonfiction though I rarely hear my own voice.
Also, if I’m in the right mood, relaxed and feeling good, when I listen to music in a dark room I see quite vivid shapes and colors.

Barbara Drescher on October 6th, 2009 at 15:35:
Leo, I don’t know about the music & color/shape thing. It is most likely not synesthesia, as the experience would not be intermittent or require a specific mood. Most likely, it can be explained by an altered state of consciousness (which sounds very woo-like, but really isn’t). Meditation and hypnosis are not all that different and they are altered states in which perceptual experiences can be pretty odd.
Regarding hearing voices when reading, I don’t know what proportion hear character voices, but I usually do and have talked to several others who do as well.

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