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How someone with synesthesia might see letters and numbers

Synesthesia, or synaesthesia,[1] is a condition where the brain mixes up the senses. People who have synesthesia are called synesthetes.

Synesthesia is usually inherited (called congenital synesthesia), but exactly how people inherit it is unknown.

Synesthesia is sometimes reported by people using psychedelic drugs, after a stroke, or during an epileptic seizure. It is also reported to be a result of blindness or deafness. Synesthesia that comes from events unrelated to genes is called adventitious synesthesia. This synesthesia results from some drugs or a stroke but not blindness or deafness. It involves sound being linked to vision or touch being linked to hearing.

Synesthesia was investigated a lot in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but in the middle of the 20th century, it was less studied. Only recently has it been studied again in much detail.[2][3]

Some musicians and composers have a form of synesthesia that allows them to "see" music as colors or shapes. This is called chromethesia. Mozart is said to have had this form of synesthesia. He said that the key of D major had a warm "orangey" sound to it, while B-flat minor was blackish. A major was a rainbow of colors to him. This may explain why he wrote some of his music using different colors for different music notes, and why much of his music is in major keys.

Another composer who had color-hearing was the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin. In 1907, he talked with another famous composer, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who had synesthesia,[4] and they both found that some musical notes made them think of certain colors. Scriabin worked with a man named Alexander Mozer who made a color organ.

Experiences[change | change source]

The same type of synesthesia may have different effects (pronounced and less pronounced) on different people.[5]

Synesthetes often say that they did not know their experiences were unusual until they found out that other people did not have them. Others report feeling as if they had been keeping a secret their entire lives.[6] Most synesthetes consider their experiences a gift—a "hidden" sense. Most synesthetes find out in their childhood that they have synethesia. Some learn to apply it in daily life and work. For example, they might use their gift to memorize names and telephone numbers or do mental arithmetic. Many people with synesthesia use their experiences to help them be more creative, for example, in making drawings and music.[6]

More than 60 types of synesthesia have been reported,[7] but only a small number have been studied by scientists.[6] Some common types of synthesia include:

  • Grapheme–color synesthesia: Letters or numbers are seen to have colors of their own.[8][9]
  • Ordinal linguistic personification: Numbers, days of the week, and months of the year are felt to have their own personalities.[10][11]
  • Spatial-sequence: Numbers, months of the year, and/or days of the week are located in specific places in space. For example, 1980 may be "farther away" than 1990. Or a year may be seen three-dimensionally as a map.[12][13][14]
  • Visual motion → sound synesthesia: Hearing sounds in response to seeing motion.[15]

References[change | change source]

  1. "BBC - Science & Nature - Horizon". March 2006. Retrieved 4 March 2011.
  2. Campen C (1999). "Artistic and psychological experiments with synesthesia". Leonardo. 32 (1): 9–14. doi:10.1162/002409499552948. S2CID 57568389.
  3. Cytowic, Richard E. 2002. Synesthesia: a union of the senses. 2nd ed, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-03296-1
  4. This is according to an article in the Russian press, Yastrebtsev V. "On N.A.Rimsky-Korsakov's color sound contemplation." Russkaya muzykalnaya gazeta, 1908, N 39-40, p. 842-845 (in Russian), cited by Bulat Galeyev (1999).
  5. Hubbard EM, Arman AC, Ramachandran VS, Boynton GM (March 2005). "Individual differences among grapheme-color synesthetes: brain-behavior correlations". Neuron. 45 (6): 975–85. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2005.02.008. PMID 15797557. S2CID 8228084.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 van Campen, Cretien (2007). The Hidden Sense: Synesthesia in Art and Science. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-22081-1. OCLC 80179991.
  7. Day, Sean, Types of synesthesia. (2009) Types of synesthesia. Online:, accessed 18 February 2009.
  8. Rich AN, Mattingley JB (January 2002). "Anomalous perception in synaesthesia: a cognitive neuroscience perspective". Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 3 (1): 43–52. doi:10.1038/nrn702. PMID 11823804. S2CID 11477960.
  9. Hubbard EM, Ramachandran VS (November 2005). "Neurocognitive mechanisms of synesthesia". Neuron. 48 (3): 509–20. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2005.10.012. PMID 16269367. S2CID 18730779.
  10. Simner J, Holenstein E (April 2007). "Ordinal linguistic personification as a variant of synesthesia". Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 19 (4): 694–703. doi:10.1162/jocn.2007.19.4.694. PMID 17381259. S2CID 6838388. Retrieved 2008-12-27.
  11. Smilek D, Malcolmson KA, Carriere JS, Eller M, Kwan D, Reynolds M (June 2007). "When "3" is a jerk and "E" is a king: personifying inanimate objects in synesthesia". Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 19 (6): 981–92. doi:10.1162/jocn.2007.19.6.981. PMID 17536968. S2CID 6598738. Retrieved 2008-12-27.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  12. Galton F (1880). "Visualized Numerals". Nature. 22 (543): 494–5. Bibcode:1880Natur..21..494G. doi:10.1038/021494e0. S2CID 4074444.
  13. Seron X, Pesenti M, Noël MP, Deloche G, Cornet JA (August 1992). "Images of numbers, or "When 98 is upper left and 6 sky blue"". Cognition. 44 (1–2): 159–96. doi:10.1016/0010-0277(92)90053-K. PMID 1511585. S2CID 26687757.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  14. Sagiv N, Simner J, Collins J, Brian Butterworth, Ward J (August 2006). "What is the relationship between synaesthesia and visuo-spatial number forms?". Cognition. 101 (1): 114–28. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2005.09.004. PMID 16288733. S2CID 1948034.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  15. Saenz M, Koch C (August 2008). "The sound of change: visually-induced auditory synesthesia". Current Biology. 18 (15): R650–R651. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2008.06.014. PMID 18682202. S2CID 52867099. Retrieved 2008-12-28.