Synesthesia

Synesthetic number form. Richard E. Cytowic, from Cytowic & Eagleman (2009), "Wednesday is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia." MIT Press. This picture is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

Have you ever met someone who saw the world a little differently than you? Perhaps they pointed out connections that you completely missed, or didn’t see the similarities between two objects when you did. They may be a synesthete.

Synesthesia is a condition where you perceive some sensation in conjunction with the stimulation of one of your other senses. For example, you may read the letter ”b” and see it as bright green. It would appear to you on the page as b.  Or you may be convinced that each month of the year has its own color and they proceed in a circular fashion.

Originating from the Greek words syn (together) and aisthesis (perception), Synesthesia literally means “joined perception.” Synesthesia can involve any combination of the senses. Colored hearing is the most common, but some people have much different experiences. One other form of synesthesia is that of ordinal-linguistic personification, or basically, sequenced things like numbers, days or letters have personalities.  Quoting from Wikipedia, “one synesthete says, ‘T’s are generally crabbed, ungenerous creatures. U is a soulless sort of thing. 4 is honest, but… 3 I cannot trust… 9 is dark, a gentleman, tall and graceful, but politic under his suavity.’”

Artists, poets and writers are about 7 times more likely to be synesthetes, but its not a trait you choose to develop. Syesthesia probably develops early on, when the brain is still going through its pruning stages, although it could also be attributed to neurochemical differences, which are biological. The end result is that synesthetes’ brains are wired differently than the rest of us, and those remaining neurological connections cause them to experience these sensational mix-ups.

Synesthesia is a complex and fascinating irregularity of the human brain. The lingering neurons connecting two separate areas of the brain allow for insights that would otherwise have been totally lost. The lessons of the synesthete are equally important: everything could have characteristics you haven’t seen yet, every letter on the page may have a back-story. Try to apply these ideas to any current problem; what color is your most recent dilemma? What does it taste like? What would your last PowerPoint slide want to talk about if you went out to coffee? This sort of exercise may not solve your problem, but I guarantee you’ll end up with some new angles to explore.

If you’re interested in finding out more about synesthesia, check out the websites I used for this blog: MIT’s blurb on synesthetes, and The University of Washington’s “Synesthesia for Kids.