Have you ever heard of something and then immediately wished you had it, or could at least experience it? This has actually happened to me before (with Aspergers’ Syndrome), but not quite for the same reason. In that case, it helped explain things I was already experiencing. In the case of Synaesthesia, it just sounds cool to me. And I will tell you why.
What is Synaesthesia?
Synaesthesia is a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. People who report such experiences are known as synesthetes.
Difficulties have been recognized in coming up with an adequate definition of synesthesia: many different phenomena have been included in the term synesthesia (“union of senses”), and in many cases it seems to be an inaccurate one. A more accurate term may be ideasthesia.
In one common form of synesthesia, known as grapheme → color synesthesia or color-graphemic synesthesia, letters or numbers are perceived as inherently colored. In spatial-sequence, or number form synesthesia, numbers, months of the year, and/or days of the week elicit precise locations in space (for example, 1980 may be “farther away” than 1990), or may have a (three-dimensional) view of a year as a map (clockwise or counterclockwise).
I was just reading an article called “Can you see time?” on BBC News, about a form of the condition that involves seeing time, and I found the first explanation of it that really “clicked” for me:
Dr Simner studies synaesthesia – a condition caused by an unusually high number of connections between two areas of the brain’s sensory cortex, making two senses inseparable.
I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty cool. I mean, I’m sure there are ways in which this isn’t ideal, but it seems to add a bit more interestingness to life experiences in general. The first time I ever heard about this condition, it was in terms of a musician being able to see colour when he heard musical notes. Each individual note corresponded to a specific colour (ie C was blue, D was red, etc). This allowed the musician in question to compose a symphony based on colour. THAT is something I would really like to experience!
In the case of time-space synaesthesia, a very visual experience can be triggered by thinking about time.
“I thought everyone thought like I did, says Holly Branigan, also a scientist at Edinburgh University, and someone with time-space synaesthesia. “I found out when I attended a talk in the department that Julia was giving. She said that some synaesthetes can see time. And I thought, ‘Oh my god, that means I’ve got synaesthesia’.”
So what exactly does she see?
“For me it’s a bit like a running track,” she says. “The track is organised around the academic year. The short ends are the summer and Christmas holidays – the summer holiday is slightly longer. “It’s as if I’m in the centre and I’m turning around slowly as the year goes by. If I think ahead to the future, my perspective will shift.”
There are at least 54 different variants of synaesthesia and Dr Simner thinks this might be one of the most common ones.
And the plot gets even thicker and more interesting:
Dr Simner explains: “There is one called ordinal-linguistic personification. So letters or numbers trigger, not colour, but the impression of a personality or gender.
Another variant recently come to light is called mirror touch synaesthesia. This causes people to experience sensations of touch when they see other people being touched.
“So if I sat in front of you and scratched my nose, you would feel a scratch on your nose,” explains Dr Simner. Psychologists have linked this to a greater sense of empathy.
Synaesthetes often report that they actually enjoy things that match their own experiences.
“So if you have a red A, and I show you a picture of the letter A in red, you really like it,” explains Dr Simner. “But if I show you a green A, you hate it. I’ve had to change the colours of fonts on my power point slides in the past when giving presentations to synaesthetes.”
See, that’s probably one of the not so great examples. I do have an unusually strong dislike of certain colours (red, yellow), and have always tended to like things a lot more when they are blue, purple or green (my favourite colours). This isn’t Synaesthesia, but I guess I’m just trying to relate a bit.
Here’s another downside:
Some types of synaesthesia interfere with everyday living. As one synaesthete told me recently, if someone says a word that tastes of roast beef whilst you’re eating your strawberries, it can ruin a tasty treat.
And here’s a little hard science for you:
“If you want to define synaesthesia in a purely neurological sense, it’s just the predisposition to have extra pathways between areas of the brain,” says Dr Simner. “And we can see those connections.”
With FMRI scans (functional magnetic resonance imaging), researchers can watch activity in the brain – for example, seeing colour- and language-processing areas “light up” at the same time in a grapheme-colour synaesthete’s brain.
And with a newer imaging technique, called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), Dr Simner says you can “almost count the extra pathways”. “This tracks the movement of water molecules in the brain,” she explains.
“We’re still inferring the pathways from the image, but it’s pretty clear. Where there are lots of pathways the water molecules, which normally move randomly, stop moving quite as much.”
Temple Grandin’s latest book about Autism talked about fMRI scans and neurological imaging as well in terms of helping to diagnose Autism in the future, so this sounds pretty cool to me. I kind of want to become a Neuro scientist now, because you get to literally examine and unlock the key functionality of the brain to understand how it works and why we are the way we are.
Have you ever heard of people who have “Eidetic Memory” (aka Photographic Memory)? Basically they can recall anything they’ve experienced with remarkable precision. Synaesthesia might help explain some of the instances of that:
And one particular case study caused Dr Simner to wonder whether time-space synaesthesia might be an advantageous thing to have. She and her team became interested in a type of savant with a condition known as hyperthymestic syndrome.
“This is a savant whose amazing ability lies in their ability to recalling dates and events in time,” she explains. Researchers in the US wrote an article about their patient – a woman who displayed the condition.
“This person can tell you exactly what they were doing on any particular day of any year of their life,” says Dr Simner. “She can tell you which of her shoelaces she tied up first in 1974 on a Tuesday afternoon, what clothes she was wearing when she first ate a hamburger.”
The article also talks about how when given memory tests about their own lives, Synaesthetes recalled at least twice as many facts as non-synaesthetes.
So, are you a Synaesthete? Well, apparently everyone has a little bit of it intrinsically:
But they are also testing synaesthetic tendencies in the general population. They have already established that most people associate texture and shape with shades of colour. And most people have an intrinsic sense of the shade of different pitches of sound.
Through the research team’s website, you can take part in a series of tests to find out if you are in fact a synaesthete.
Unfortunately I can’t seem to find the link to the website in question (it doesn’t appear to be linked in the article unless I missed it), but I did find this site – http://www.synesthesiatest.org
I still want to experience this for myself!