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alphabet and digits
|What it Is|
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|Synaesthesia (syn -joined, aethesia -sense) is a neurological rarity in which two or more senses are connected. For example music might be "seen" in colours and patterns, or taste may be seen in shapes, letters and number have textures.
These associations are present from as early as the synaesthete can remember, or from the first time the stimuli was presented, eg the first time they smelled cinnamon or when they first learned the alphabet.
Sometimes people mistakenly think they are have synaesthesia because, eg, they see spheres when eating an orange, red when thinking of anger, smoothness with cream, or blue with a song about the sea. Often these types of associations may seem arbitrary but there is still a subtle link. These are learned associations.
The synaesthete's senses are arbitrarily linked. A true synaesthete may, eg, see the letter 'b' as pink, or think that chicken tastes spherical, or associate back pain with lavender squiggles. These associations are constant (eg 'q' will always be orange, etc)
|Trends in Synaesthesia|
|Synaesthesia is thought to be very rare. Estimates of its rate of occurence vary greatly (i've read anything from between 1 in 2,000 and 1 in a million!!) but the most commonly agreed upon figure is about 1 in 25,000. Because of its rarity, and because many synaesthetes don't realise that it is abnormal, scientific studies can be fairly inaccurate. While it seems that anyone can have synaesthesia, scientists have observed the following trends:
~ Synaesthesia is probably genetic. Many synaesthetes have synaesthetic parents/siblings, or at least a family history of some of the other traits listed below. (To my knowledge I have no synaesthetic relatives, but most other synaesthetes I have contacted do.)
~ It seems female synaesthetes are far more common than male synaesthetes. Synaesthesia may be carried by the X-chromosome. (I'm a girl)
~ It seems that synaesthetes are almost always very intelligent. However, it might just seem this way because famous synaesthetes include geniuses such as Ludwig van Beethoven, poet Vladimir Nabakov (and some other artists and composers I've forgotten the names of). Also, "intellectuals" in the scientific world, etc, are more likely to discover that synaesthesia is not normal. (I'd like to agree with this theory, hehe. Most of the synaesthetes who have emailed me seem/claim to be very intelligent. )
~ Synaesthetes are far more likely to be left handed or ambidextrous than the general population. (Not me.)
~ Synaesthetes often have a tendency to confuse left and right.
~ Synaesthetes often have an appalling sense of direction. (This is definitely me.)
~ Synaesthetes often have a good memory for the triggers of there synaesthetic associations. The association with colour/shapes, etc. aids this. (Yes. Whenever I have to remember a number i try to remember the colours. I also remember my French vocabulary really easily. I guess stuff stays in your mind better if you visualise it.)
~ Synaesthetes are far more likely than the general population to have ADD/ADHD, perfectionistic traits, obsessive compulsive behaviour and depression. I read one estimate that stated that 15% of synaesthetes also have ADD/ADHD. There's also a lot of evidence pointing towards an greatly increased incidence of various other neurological abnormalities such as autism, eidetic memory, prosopagnosia, etc, in synaesthetes. (I have ADD and there's a strong trend towards ADD/ADHD as well as other neurological abnormalities on my both sides of the family.)
~ Synaesthetes may be prone to hypersensitivity to light, sound, smell, touch, etc eg they might be unusually ticklish, or feel overpowered by even a small amount of perfume. (It's interesting to note that ultra-hypersensitive senses is a common symptom of people with autism.) Perhaps in response to this risk of sensory overload, many synaesthetes hate crowds, are nocturnal and prefer dreary days to sunny days. (I think I'm a highly sensitive person but then again that might be an element of my ADD. I'm also very nocturnal.)
~ Synaesthetes may be more prone to migraines than the general population. (I've had heaps of migraines in the past, as has my father.)
~ Although synaesthetes are generally as social as the next person, the vast majority of synaesthetes I've contacted describe themselves as being essentially very solitary people. This could be partially due to the tendency towards hypersensitivity but I think that this is mostly due to the fact our brains function differently (especially if we have other associated neurological disorders) so we can't help but feel somewhat isolated.
~ Compared with their overall intelligence, synaesthetes are often poor at mathematics. (I'm piss-poor at maths....I got 27% on my half-yearly exam...)
~ Synaesthetes are usually very creative, often talented at music, art or poetry.
~ Synaesthetes are supposedly more prone to deja-vu, clairvoyance, prophetic dreams and other paranormal experiences. (Actually i think the paranormal is bullshit)
|What Causes Synaesthesia?|
|As mentioned before, people have synaesthesia from as far back as they remember. It's common for letter-colour synaesthetes to think they picked it up from those fridge magnets, that coloured alphabet above the blackboard in kindergarten, or their building blocks. We now know that it doesn't work that way!
Synaesthesia is genetic. There is some sort of cross-wiring in a part of the brain (I can't remember what it's called but I read that it's in the same part as where ADD occurs, which is interesting and probably very significant...ech so much for synaesthetes having good memory...I have several magazine clippings "filed" away...ehh I'll find them one of these days....)
It's interesting to note that synaesthesia has also been known to occur as the result of taking LSD (think "Whoa, I can see the music...") and even as part of severe migraine hallucinations. I've also heard that people can become synaesthetic or lose their synaesthesia as the result of brain injury, but this is rare.
|Synaesthetes Don't See the Same Things|
|Check out some other synaesthete's websites (try the links at bottom of the page) -their associations are completely different from mine. However, it is very interesting to note that the letters 'o' and 'i' and the numbers '0' and '1' are relatively frequently seen as black or white. I'm not sure why this is. One theory is that because lines and circles are very basic forms (and therefore amongst the first we learn to recognise) and black and white are the first colours (or tones, to be correct) that we learn as babies. Also, apparently 'a' is most commonly associated with red.|
|Types of Synaesthesia|
|There are heaps of types. Probably the two most common/best-known forms are 'chromatographic' (coloured letters/numerals) and coloured hearing.
Other associations include coloured/shaped/patterned/sequenced/textured/tasting:
~ objects (eg cutlery, cars, etc.)
~ days, weeks, years, etc.
and much, much more. In fact there are infinite variations. In a case I read about (written by Oliver Sacks) a boy percieved something (i think it was musical notes or something) as strange body contortions, if that makes any sense! He was retested many years later and his "postures" were found to be perfectly constant. No doubt there are numerous other rare/unique synaesthetic associations such as this.
Another interesting form of synaesthesia is sequencial synaesthesia. Read about it here.
|I do the following:
~ See letters as colours (see top of page) and textures ('N' is sort of plasticky/rubbery/smooth, 'L' is sort of the consistency of watery paint, and so on. Actually, most of the other textures are nearly impossible to describe). Letters also have vague personalities, but not as strongly as numerals do.
~ See numbers in colours and as personalities. For example two is kind but fairly reticent, four is a bit of a nerd, seven is headstrong, a leader and slightly arrogant......Numbers also have textures but not as strongly as letters do. I think that's because letters can be used to write numbers so for eg the texture of the word 'four' distracts me from the texture of the numeral '4'.
~ Hear in colours/shapes/patterns, kind of like 3D abstract artworks. My musical associations aren't as strong as my letter/digit associations. If a song has references to colours or whatever in the lyrics, or i see the video clip, or album cover, etc this disrupts my synaesthesia. Otherwise my own arbitrary associations are vivid.
~ See flavours and fragrances in colours and shapes. Again, it's not very strong due to learned/logical associations. A new medicine may taste burgundy and look like a certain kind of blob/squiggle, whereas I simply associate the taste of an orange with the colour orange and see lavender soap as smelling purple.
~ See some people and voices as colours. Yet again, learned association interfere with this. When I was in primary school there was a group of friends who were a reddish-orange/black colour scheme, and another who were kind of a pale purplish-pink.
~ See my fingers as different colours and personalities.
~ See pain and other tactile sensations in colours, textures and patterns. For example the pain of hitting my thumb with a hammer would be dark purple and shaped like a triangle with rounded corners, a mild headache is kind yellowish-browny-red and sort of like a heavy velvet rectangle, being bitten by a mosquito is orange and the texture is too hard to describe.
~ See shapes in colours and vague personalities. For example a square is a beige-yellow, a circle is pale blue, a triangle is orangish-red, a rectangle can be either brown or dark green (it depends), a trapezium is a brownish-orangish-yellow and an oval is a pale purplish-blue.
~ I also have a tendency to see colours/personalities/faces etc in objects like toothbrushes, cutlery, appliances, furniture, the various positions my cat lies in.....anything really. One synaesthete emailed me saying (among other things) she saw things like shampoo and conditioner, etc as having personalities. For me it's like everything has a presence and personality. For example if I'm in a room with, say, a nosy bookshelf, a chatty vase or a critical ironing board and I'm trying to work, I may have to leave.
~ Many concepts such as time, direction, emotion, etc have shapes/colours.
~ I notice new things as the stimuli come to me. Also, since reading responses from other synaesthetes I've realised things which I'd never even previously thought about. I guess synaesthesia is just such a part of daily life that I'm not always consciously aware of it. It's kind of like having a pulse: it's always there but you don't always think about it.
|What it's Like|
|It's really hard to explain especially because I can't imagine being any other way. When I see a letter/hear music/taste something, etc I can sort of vividly feel the colour/texture/shape/pattern in me.
Synaesthesia is not something I can "turn off". The only way I can "see" a letter, number, etc as a different colour is to picture it being painted in my mind. My synaesthesia can get stronger or less noticable depending upon whether or not I'm focusing on it. If I'm reading/writing something really interesting I'll barely notice it but if I'm doing something boring/frustrating (eg in an exam) I'm easily distracted by the colours/textures etc. Imagine doing an exam
When a non-synaesthete tries to mentally picture a letter, they just see the lines/shape of the letter. I see the lines that make up the letter but I also see the colour and texture just as clearly. (Actually 'see' isn't the right word but it's the best I can think of.) There's a sense that the letter 'u' is pale purple. If it wasn't, it wouldn't be 'u'. To say that 'u' is not purple is like saying that a square is circular -it contradicts the whole concept of what it is, it's beyond the bounds of comprehension.
Here's another example: when a non-synaesthete thinks of the taste of banana they will probably think of the banana's yellowness, soft, moist texture and the long, curved shape in the back of their mind. A synaesthete, however, may associate a banana with flashing purplish-blue trapeziums.
Alternately, (as I recently explained to a guy who emailed me) imagine looking at a black and white photo of a familiar scene. With your eyes you can see only the shades of grey but in your mind you *know* that the car is red, the grass is green and the girl is blonde, etc.
|Are You Insane?|
|No. Well maybe. But it has nothing to do with synaesthesia. In the past synaesthetes have often been mistaken for schizophrenics. Actually this occasionally still happens today as most psychiatrists have never even heard of synaesthesia. A fellow synaesthete recalled an episode of "Roseanne" where they suspect their mother is going crazy. DJ suggests they ask her "what colour is a dog's bark?" Well for my dog it's a dark-greenish brown, but it's different for other dogs.... Anyway my point is that synaesthesia is not a delusional mental illness, but a self-aware neurological abnormality.|
|What Synaesthesia Can Tell Us About the Mind|
|There has been little research into synaesthesia beyond a very specialised field. What little there is known suggests that synaesthesia may hold the key to major questions regarding human consciousness as well as numerous questions in regards to psycholinguistics.
They heyday of synaesthesia research was in Austria during the late 1800s to early 1900s. At this time Freud was a major influence in both the arts and the sciences. Some famous synaesthetes include artist David Hockney, composer Ludwig van Beethoven (-or so I've heard, but I'm not sure) and the writer Vladimir Nabokov. Read about synaesthesia in art here.
Cytowic (author of The Man Who Tasted Shapes) believes that synaesthesia proves that the human mind is governed by emotion, yet another guy (an Australian whose name I've forgotten) thinks that it proves we are governed by reason. I strongly disagree with both. If I remember correctly these theories are based partially upon research supposedly indicating that we are born with synaesthesia, but quickly lose it as we grow and learn reason. The problem with these conclusions is that they are based upon findings that babies made connections between loudness and brightness (ie they identified a soft sound with dim light, a loud sound with bright light). This connection is based entirely upon METAPHOR, whereas true synaesthetic connections are completely ILLOGICAL, ARBITRARY and VARY from synaesthete to synaesthete. Another famous example Cytowic used was a description of the flavour of mint being being like a cool, cylindrical piece of glass. Again this was actually a poetic description rather than the actual neurological condition of synaesthesia.
Personally I find that learned associations and metaphors actually interfere with my synaesthesia (I think I already mentioned this somewhere above but hell I'm trying to push the point). For example I see anger as red and sadness as blue, sweetness as pink, the taste of cheese as yellow, my red-headed friend as orange. However things like this that DON'T have logical connections are all seen with my unique, personal synaesthetic responses.
Synaesthesia can also tell us a lot about psycholinguistics (what language allow the mind to do, and what the mind allows language to do, etc.....). To read about this click on the link below:
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