Synesthesia: When Senses Blend

Updated: Aug 3

By: Celine Chin

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons @ Kelley

Skittles is a beloved candy across the world, found in a range of different colors of the rainbow. From red, to green, to purple, Skittles are a widely known sweet treat. But what if you were actually able to taste the rainbow? Some people have a condition called synesthesia that can enable them to do just that. Having a bite of steak might produce a deep sea blue, or mango sherbet might generate images of lime green with wavy strips of red. The word “synesthesia” originates from the Greek words “synth,” meaning together, and “ethesia,” meaning perception. If you have this condition, this means some of your senses intertwine and are experienced together.

However, the taste of food and color aren’t the only combination of senses that can be experienced together. For example, some people are able to taste shapes or words. Some may be able to interpret numbers, letters and words as different colors. These are just a few, as there are about thirty-five different sensory combinations for synesthesia! It is speculated that the most common form of this condition is colored hearing, where someone sees sounds, such as musical notes, in different colors. Most people with this ability are only able to see sounds internally, whereas only a few see colors projected externally, outside of their bodies.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons @ Dhp1080 & Interiot

Those who have synesthesia are known as synesthetes, and it is estimated that about one in two thousand people is a synesthete. Synesthetes are more likely to be left-handed people, and women are more likely to be synesthetes too. It is not a very well known phenomenon, and this may partially be because many synesthetes fear that they’ll be ridiculed for speaking out about their abnormal experiences. So what causes synesthesia? This condition may actually be due to genes, and often appears in early childhood, though it might be possible for it to develop later in life. Researchers also believe that the parts of the brain that are involved in the senses are especially interconnected in synesthetes. Another biological factor that may play a part in synesthesia is the higher amount of myelin in the neurons of the parts of the brain involved in sensing. Myelin is a fatty substance that surrounds neurons and allows neural signals to move quicker. It is found to be abundant in the sensory-related brain parts of synesthetes. Specific drugs can also cause temporary synesthesia through heightening and connecting your senses, including psychedelic drugs like LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin. Other drugs like cannabis, alcohol, and caffeine can also cause this phenomena temporarily.

Although some synesthetes feel that their synesthesia isolates them from others in their community, most would say that they wouldn’t be willing to get rid of it. Being able to experience multiple senses together is their version of normal, and some may actually see their condition as positive and unique, rather than find that it is taking away from life. Overall, synesthesia is a fascinating phenomena that scientists are continuing to explore the secrets of. Individual experiences with synesthesia can be vastly different, and only the individual experiencing them can determine whether those instances are positive or negative through their own interpretations.


Q: What is synesthesia?

A: Synesthesia is the blending of different senses, with the combination of senses that can blend differing from person to person. For example, a letter or a word may trigger a certain color to appear, or seeing a word may elicit a certain taste. Most people with synesthesia view these colors internally, but a few are able to see these colors projected outside of the body.

Q: What causes synesthesia?

A: Research shows that there is some genetic basis to synesthesia, and it is also believed that parts of the brain involved in sensing are especially interconnected. The neurons in the sensory parts of the brain are also highly myelinated. Drugs can temporarily cause synesthesia to occur; for example, psychedelic drugs like LSD or even other ones like caffeine can cause it.




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