Synesthesia: When Colors and Words Collide

Have you ever wondered about the links language has with other methods our brain has of perceiving the world?  Everyone has different connotations associated with different words, but in some cases that connection can be much more vivid.  Synesthesia is a condition of the brain where activity of one sensory or cognitive pathway triggers the activity of another sensory or cognitive pathway; simply put, when the part of your brain lights up that makes you perceive a certain word, letter, or number, you will simultaneously experience a color or sound or something to that effect.

There are various different kinds of synesthesia, with the most common being color-graphemic synesthesia, in which letters and numbers are seen corresponding with specific colors. Image 13 Others types of synesthesia can associate numbers, dates, or days of the week with different personalities or locations in space.  Number form synesthesia is when any thought of numbers evokes the mental image of an entire numerical map.  While it has been determined that synesthesia is largely an inherited condition, it can also be brought on by use of psychedelic drugs, by stroke or epilepsy, or it can be the brain’s way of overcompensating for blindness or deafness later in life.

As it links the different senses to each other, synesthesia can provide an alternative way of interpreting and responding to the world—unsurprisingly, many of history’s greatest artists, writers, musicians, and mathematicians were synesthetes.  Vladimir Nabokov used his synesthesia as inspiration for the vivid sensory details in his fiction, while painters such as Kandinsky and Mondrian attempted to evoke the music associated with the visual aspects of their artwork.  Sound-color synesthesia (chromesthesia) is a condition shared by the composers Liszt, Rimsky-Korsakov, Beethoven, and Duke Ellington.  The neurological phenomenon of sounds manifesting themselves as colors has been described as similar to fireworks, an explosion of color that moves and fades according to the sound that triggered it.  Most people agree that loud sounds are brighter than dark sounds, and that higher tones are louder than lower tones.

Synesthesia has been studied and researched for thousands of years, as far back as the ancient Greeks philosophizing over whether it was possible to quantify the color of music.  Image 17While it can often coincide with conditions such as autism and epilepsy, studies have shown that everyone has the propensity for associating words with sounds, ideas, or personalities.  (For example, what do you think of when you hear the word “moist”?  “Cataclysmic”? “Murmur”?)  The Bouba/Kiki effect is an experiment that shows people a pointy shape and a round, blob-like shape, asking them which one is “bouba” and which one is “kiki.”  98% of the test subjects chose bouba for the round shape, and kiki for the pointy one, suggesting that sounds and the shapes our mouths make when speaking have a universal effect on the formation of language.

While synesthesia is technically a neurological abnormality (around 1 in 23 people’s is estimated to have it,) it isn’t included in the DSM-IV because it doesn’t actually disrupt day-to-day living.  If anything, many synesthetes claim it enriches their experience of the world, providing them enhanced senses and different ways of understanding things.  It is often presented in a romantic light in literature and pop culture, as a means of artistic inspiration and transcending the normal way of looking at things.

Do you have any experiences with synesthesia?