Imagine tasting words, seeing sounds or hearing paintings. This is the reality for people with synaesthesia, a perceptual phenomenon that muddles your senses so you experience one sense upon stimulation of another. It only affects 4% of the worldwide population, and generally develops during childhood, although many of those who experience the phenomenon don’t actually realise they have it. It is completely automatic, so to those who have always experienced it, it seems ordinary. Generally, the more common form is to have interactions between taste and sound or words, rather than colour, but any combination is possible.
There are various different ways you can experience synaesthesia, grapheme-colour, spatial sequence and number form are the most common. For grapheme-colour, the main signs are considering numbers and letters to be inherently coloured, or days and school subjects to be assigned a colour. Spatial-Sequence or number form is where numbers, months or days of the week have specific positions in space or seem to be a three-dimensional map.
Synaesthesia is a genetic trait rather than a disorder. The experience can, however, sometimes be brought on temporarily by drugs such as LSD. There is also a difference between actual synesthesia and just associating words with colours. Despite this, it’s possible to have synesthesia and not realise, due to the wide variety of possible sensory combinations.
Some synaesthetes find their condition to be beneficial, rather than a hindrance, in everyday life. The Student spoke to a student at the University of Edinburgh who has lived with synaesthesia from a young age.
From early childhood, she would associate weekdays with particular colours but initially assumed that it was her imagination or something that everyone experienced. At school, each subject would have a specific colour, she would then co-ordinate her folders and books to ensure that they would be in the correct colour, otherwise, it would be wrong and frustrating.
It’s thought that artists are far more likely to have experienced synaesthesia than the general population, and many find it helps their creative process. The ability to see colours alongside words and numbers can help with creative ideas, and the artists are able to use this to make a practical use of their sensual phenomena.
There are also links between synaesthesia and memory, and this was researched in a University of Edinburgh study by Julia Simner. She found that synaesthetes (those who experience long-term synesthesia) have a built-in mnemonic reference when memorising things, and therefore are able to memorise sequences far faster than a non-synaesthetee.
Many celebrities have spoken about their experiences with it, including Marilyn Monroe, and more recently Kanye West and Pharrell Williams. Its harmless nature means that there’s no reason to raise awareness or funds to support those living with the condition, and its consequently not particularly well known. However synaesthesia is undoubtedly an interesting and unusual phenomenon that deserves to be explored further.
Ilustration: Emily Lowes