I am sure we have all had that thought before of “do people see or hear things the way I do?” but for the most part, I am inclined to say people do experience things the way I do. However, for around 3-4% of the population that isn’t the case. Some people across the globe experience the world in a different way to most. This amazing experience is called synaesthesia.
Synaesthesia is a phenomenon that doesn’t occur often, and even then it varies from person to person. The general consensus of synaesthesia is that it entails a person experiencing “united senses”. So, for example, someone may see colours when listening to music or taste a certain food when they hear a certain word. The word synaesthesia comes from the Greek word meaning “joined perception” or “to perceive together”. It used to be pushed aside and often dismissed as just being an overactive imagination or even a type of mental illness – this is far from the truth. In modern science, it is accepted as a neurological phenomenon, with no correlation with one's health. Scientists are now researching further into synaesthesia in the hope that we can understand more about how the brain is wired. Really the phenomenon just highlights how little we actually understand about our minds and that, although our minds might be with us 24/7, we are far from understanding what makes them tick.
Although there are no clear explanations for synaesthesia many believe that it has to do with how the sensory regions in our brain are linked. Someone without synaesthesia has senses that interact together but have separate regions that, whilst linking them, aren’t bound together. However, it may be that someone with synaesthesia has more closely connecting senses so that their sensory regions respond together. This is often why people with it are said to have a better memory because they are able to connect something to a word, taste or smell. It's kind of like when we remember songs in school to recall the order of the plants - you remember better because you have something to associate it with. For example, they may remember someone’s name better because they see a colour when they think of the letters in their name. However, as I have already said, all synaesthesia is different depending on the person. Two people with it could see a 3 and it appear completely different in colour to each of them.
What are the types?
The number of types that could be out there is unknown. However, due to people communicating about it more openly, there have started to be common types occurring. It is also becoming clear that most people with synaesthesia will experience more than one type. Below is a look into some prominent types.
This is the most common type of synaesthesia and is centred on how people see numbers and letters. People with this type will associate or see numbers and letters with certain colours. Normally it happens in a way that numbers 1-9 will have a clear colour, and any number with more than one digit will be made up or have a link to the numbers that make them up. So 1 could be green and 9 a deep red, which would make 19 similar to the 1 and 9.
Not many have been seen to have this type of synaesthesia, although the actress Tilda Swinton has spoken about having it. In this type, you can taste words. So, when someone says “office”, you suddenly taste a type of food. This could be a “cake” or “potatoes”.
This is another one that is commonly known, although it is more abstract than other types. People with the mirror-touch type will feel what someone they are looking at is feeling. So someone could get a slap on the face, and someone with this type would feel a sensation on their face too. Their empathy is normally more heightened due to this.
This is experienced by quite a few musicians. In this type, you see colours whilst listening to music. Often you will link a certain note with a colour so that when you listen to a song you can see a beautiful colour melody in your mind or even before your eyes. However, it can mean that some songs are too overwhelming due to them being too colourful.
Now sadly this isn’t to do with outer space, but nevertheless, it is a very interesting type. Sequence-space is relatively common in the synaesthesia community, and in this type you view ordinal sequences, such as months or the alphabet, as if they are taking up space in your mind or something you can see visually and follow like a map. So you might think what day of the month it is, but then you get a visual board of all the days and weeks so you can pinpoint where you are on the “map”. Once again this is quite good for the memory, as you are often more aware what day it is or when something is because you have a visual “map” in your brain.
Can you get synaesthesia?
You are more likely to get synaesthesia at a young age, almost to the point where you don’t actually realise it’s not something other people don’t have. Which is why many with synaesthesia may experience shock once realising others don’t experience the world as they do. However, there are cases of it happening in adulthood. So, for those of you who don’t have it, don’t lose hope – there is still a way to experience it!
A synaesthesia mask has been created by aerospace engineer Zachary Howard. He created the mask by using colour sensors, essential oils and a microprocessor – all so he could replicate the experience of synaesthesia.
These are just a few types of synaesthesia but in reality, they can affect people in very different ways. They can affect how you experience emotions, movements, pain and personalities. They can even affect how you experience sex.
Watch more about synaesthesia here!