Exploring synaesthesia - see sounds, taste colours, smell words

Few of us had heard of synaesthesia until Lorde announced she has sees colours whenever she hears a musical note. Naomi Lavelle explores the phenomenon

Lorde has recently raised awareness of synaesthesia, and how it inspired her new album ‘Melodrama’. She’s told of how, when she plays a note on a keyboard, a particular colour flashes into her mind. My son sees music in colour too. Until last week he never even thought to mention it. Then he learned about synaesthesia in school and realised that not everyone perceived sound as he does.

And he is not alone. Many people with synaesthesia don’t realise they have it, or that others don’t. Have you heard of synaesthesia? It is a neurological phenomenon whereby a person will experience something through a blend of more than one sense (or cognitive pathway). For example, they might see sounds, taste colours, or smell words. At least 4% of the population appear to be affected and although it can make life a little challenging (imagine eating out in a restaurant when the colour of the plates your food is served on can affect what you taste) most people that have it say they wouldn’t change. My interest was piqued, I needed to do some research and find out if I, too, was a member of this fascinating club.

THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF SYNAESTHESIA

Not surprisingly, synaesthesia comes in many different forms. The range runs from one of the most common forms — Grapheme-colour synaesthesis (seeing letters or words in colour) to the more unusual Lexical-gustatory type (tasting words).

And then there are people who have more than one type, like freelance writer Andrea Mara.

Andrea has grapheme-colour synaesthesia; so she sees the days of the week, months of the year, numbers, and people’s names in very specific colours. “I also have number-form synaesthesia,” says Andrea, “I see dates in a specific line or at a particular point in the air. So for me, the months of the year are in a clock-face circle, with January at number 1. If I’m talking to someone and need to refer to a month in the past or in the future, I often point to it on the imaginary clock-face in the air in front of me.”

Andrea admits that synaesthesia has very little impact on her daily life. Although, considering that she perceives words in such an unusual way, maybe it is little wonder that she is a wordsmith. Alistair Lindsay is a composer and sound engineer. His synaesthesia is as colourful and varied as one of his musical arrangements. When Alistair describes how sound can literally trigger senses of taste, touch, and vision, it is little wonder that he has chosen such a career.

WHAT IS HAPPENING IN THE BRAIN OF SYNAESTHETES?

Every brain is unique, but there are commonalities reported in brain studies on synaesthetes, primarily functional and structural differences within their brains. Julia Simner of the Synaesthesia school of research, University of Sussex, confirms there are subtle differences between the brains of synaesthestes and non-synaesthestes. “People with synaesthesia have more connections in some regions of the brain.” says Prof Simner. “White matter, which connects different regions together, in the brains of people with synaesthesia is organised differently and there is more grey matter in some regions of the brain relating to perception and attention.”

WHAT CAUSES SYNESTHESIA?

It is quite possible that we all start life like this — but, for most, these highly inter-connected brain areas become more segregated as we grow. Infants are born with about 150% more of these connections; around a third of these are eliminated as we develop. Not all of these connections are pruned in synaesthestes.

Prof Simner has also researched the possibility that these interactions, common in synaesthetes, may actually occur in everyone, but that they are the only ones consciously aware of them. We do know that synaesthesia is a genetic trait, often running in families; in fact, it is likely that there are a number of genes involved, but which ones, and what processes they control, is still a matter for investigation. They may control the pruning process of these connections, or they may be responsible for border formation between certain areas within the brain.

ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES

Synaesthetes can have good memories for certain things, as they have more senses triggered and therefore more ways to remember; by the same token, they can also mix things up, as different things may have similar triggers. Not many people with synaesthesia see any disadvantages to it, although some do report that it can affect how they perceive a person, a place or a food. Andrea says: “I don’t think it would ever influence whether or not I like something or someone. I find it’s about abstract words that don’t have a colour. Like, if I think of the name Sarah as white, I’m thinking of the word Sarah — seeing each letter — I’m not thinking about any particular person called Sarah. So the colour relates to the word, not the person.”

Alistair’s synaesthesia is not confined to music but applies to people, places, objects, and almost everything around him; he says it is like a heightened form of gut feeling that is always switched on. However, he still uses musical analogies when describing this. “I always get a feeling or sense of where each thing exists, on a scale with harmony at one end and dissonance at the other,” he says. Alistair perceives people in the same way, so this may alter his initial impression of them. Although Alistair finds his synaesthesia very helpful for work — “I can visualise scenes in my head and then hear them as sounds, instantly” — his emotional sensitivity to so many things can have disadvantage.

“This sensitivity is not just to music or food or people’s moods but also extends to places, buildings and landscapes which all have an emotional fingerprint or personality which I feel as though I can connect with, and sometimes can be quite overwhelmed by,” he says.

Would he change his synaesthesia then, if he could? “Only in that I would like to be less overwhelmed by certain things or situations” he says, although he also adds: “Overwhelm can be blissful too; put me in an art gallery or stand me in front of the right type of painting and my brain and body electrify and I can hear all types of music playing in my head.”

CAN SYNAESTHESIA BE SOMETHING WE LEARN?

Synaesthesis is a great learning ground for cognitive neuroscientists. It is already used as a therapeutic tool in certain disciplines. But can you train someone in synaesthesia? It has been reported that synaesthesia-like experiences can by induced by hypnosis and that there are acquired forms too.

SO AM I A MEMBER?

I don’t see words in colour or feel a certain touch when I eat specific foods. However, I was very interested to learn that the definition of synaesthesia extends to cognitive pathways too. I assign personalities to numbers … by this definition I too am a synaesthete, I’ve even got a special type, sequence-personality synaesthesia.

I’m in the club. How about you?

SOME FAMOUS SYNAESTHETES

Artists such as Van Gogh or Neil Harbisson (a contemporary artist that can perceive colours outside the range of human vision)

Cartoonist/animator Michel Grimaud the creator of the synaesthetic taste sequences in Disney/Pixar’s Ratatouille

Nobel Prize winning Physicist Richard Feymann, who saw his formulae in colour

Musicians - Lorde, Pharrell Williams, Kanye West, Mary J Blige, and Stevie Wonder (they all see music in colour)

© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved

Email Updates

Receive our lunchtime briefing straight to your inbox

More in this Section

In the name of love...for U2

Ask Audrey: The new girlfriend is mad for us to try make-up sex. Where is a good place to buy make-up?

Three quarters of children spend less time outside than prison inmates

‘Our wonder boy had craniofacial op at four months’


Lifestyle

Ask Audrey: The new girlfriend is mad for us to try make-up sex. Where is a good place to buy make-up?

In the name of love ... Is this U2s biggest fan?

GentleBirth method already helping mums 'wired for fear' before childbirth

More From The Irish Examiner