Synesthesia- Connection of the Five Senses

Olivia Longmore, Staff Reporter

We may not realize it, but our brains are taking in information all the time. We hear, see, and feel things simultaneously, but they are all very different senses. We each have five senses: sight, smell, touch, hear, and taste. Yet there is a condition in which there can be overlapping of these senses. In essence it is like a person with this condition can hear something and a certain color corresponds with it. This condition is known as synesthesia and it affects about 3-5 percent of the population has some sort of synesthetic condition. These people are known as syntheses.

Now at first glance, synesthesia sounds almost like an illusion, and for many years it was thought of as just that. Synesthesia has not been widely studied because scientists believed that the people with this condition were either making false claims, experimenting with witchcraft, or using drugs. In fact, Vincent Van Gogh was dismissed from his piano lessons after his teacher found out he was associating the notes in music with specific colors. The teacher claimed it was a form of witchcraft and refused to teach him again. Scientists didn’t start studying this phenomenon until the early 2000s when there was more technology to delve deeper into the study of the brain. It was then that scientists concurred that synesthesia was not a reaction caused by drugs or a fantasy but a neurological phenomenon.

Neurons in your brain are always firing to create what the sensation of sight or sound. These neurons are located and associated with specific regions of the brain. A syntheses’ brain is wired differently than non-synthese allowing for more communication across the regions that create these sensations. For example, while listening to music a part of your brain will “light up” to show that it is activated, however, in a syntheses brain the structure for both light and sound will be activated creating a mix or overlap of sensations. Psychology Today talks about an experiment where 12 Synesthetes  and 12 non-synesthetes were placed in an MRI with their eyes closed to try to eliminate some of the sensory observances around them. It was found that the people with Synesthesia had a much higher cognitive rate or neuronal fires than the non-synthesets

These overlaps are very consistent and won’t change overtime since they most likely developed in the early stages of childhood. This is what makes synesthesia different than the illusion of an overlap that may occur when someone has taken the LSD drug. LSD can heighten or speed up the neuronal firings in the brain, which may appear that they are “hearing colors” or “feeling shapes” but the sensation will be different every time they sense it. For example, if a syntheses saw the color red while looking at the number nine, that will always occur no matter the durations before seeing it. However, someone who has taken LSD might see the number nine and first associate it with the color blue, yet the next time it may be the color green.

There are many different types of synesthesia that can occur. Grapheme-color is the most common form of synesthesia where the brain creates a tie with a number to a color. Chromesthesia is the association of colors with sounds or certain notes in music. Pharrell Williams talks about the fact that he is a syntheses, and how it shaped his music career. According to ………Pharrell states, “It’s the only way that I can identify what something sounds like. I know when something is in key because it either matches the same color or it doesn’t. Or it feels different and it doesn’t feel right.” While many of the reactions to synesthesia are positive, there can be harmful mixtures of senses as well. Mirror-touch synesthesia occurs when a syntheses watches someone being touched and can feel what that person would be feeling. For example, if they were watching a person do chest compressions on another their chest may feel tighter and harder to breathe.

The causes of synesthesia have been linked to both the structure of the brain and genetics. It has been found that the majority of syntheses have been located within their own families. There are studies that show that some syntheses are born with this mixture while others are slowly exposed or taught during their early development stages. Synesthesia can be learned with training or how your brain develops during the early learning stages during childhood- basically they attach a concept that they learned, like colors, to new subjects in order to help them learn, like a sound or a color. Hence why later on in life their brain automatically links say the number nine to the color orange. People who have outgrown this stage in their life can still be taught some of the synesthesia like reactions. Yet, it is much easier for people with similar brain structure to learn this overlapping sensation. An experiment was conducted where a group of non-synesthetes were given a book to read for thirty minutes every day for three weeks. Every letter “a” in this book was typed with red ink while every “o” was typed in blue. After this study, they took MRI scans of their brains and it showed a deeper connection with the certain parts of the brain that coincide with colors and numbers. After a period of time, however, the connection decreased after the non-synesthetes stopped reading the book.

This type of synesthesia has been linked with health benefits, even if synesthesia doesn’t run in genetics. People increase their IQ, short term memory, long term memory, increased cognitivity, and decreased risk of Alzheimer’s. While non-sythesthets may not truly experience what it is like to have an overlap of sensations, it is still amazing that our brains can multitask while taking in large amounts of information.