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6 Intriguing Types of Synesthesia: Tasting Words, Seeing Sounds, Hearing Colours And More — PsyBlog

One fantastic reminder of the varieties of consciousness is the phenomena of synesthesia: the cross-wiring of the brain’s senses in a small proportion of the population.

Until recently, when experts explained that around 4% of people have the involuntary experience of, say, certain numbers evoking particular colours, they were met by disbelief.

Surely ‘synesthetes’ were making it up to feel special or perhaps unconsciously responding to the demands of the tests?

Now, of course, we know better: this cross-wiring of the brain’s senses is real and it’s experienced in all kinds of different ways.

Estimates place the number of varieties of synesthesia at between 50 and 150 but here are some of the most intriguing (that we know about).


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6. ChromesthesiaChromesthesia is sound-to-colour synesthesia, the kind which most intrigued the artist Wassily Kandinsky, and which many of his paintings attempt to evoke.

Here is one of his paintings, called “Yellow, Red and Blue”:


People with chromesthesia hear sounds and these automatically and unintentionally make them experience colours.

To someone who doesn’t experience this, it sounds weird or distracting, that you’d suddenly start seeing colours while listening to music, but to synesthetes who have grown up with this, it’s just their normal, everyday, experience.

It’s no more unsettling than having a particular song remind you of a place you used to live, perhaps less so.

The variety that’s been found even within this one type of synesthesia is mind-boggling.

Some of those with chromesthesia find the colours are projected into space in front of them; others see it in their ‘mind’s eye’.

Some only get the chromesthesia for spoken words, which are influenced by the voice’s accent, pitch and intonation; others just for music.

How do we know what's real?! Only through our senses.

They have tests designed to verify it. 

This truly does blow my mind.

There are a couple of good books on this:  

The Man Who Tasted Shapes - - which is where I got onto the trail of this condition because the ability to attribute physical textures to tastes is something that I do (or think I do)

Born on a Blue Day - the story of Daniel Tammet - who exhibits synethesthesia with numbers

Thanks Gammy. I'm amazed that this is the first I've heard of this phenom.

I have had extreme bouts of experiences like discussed and other times they "normal" but normal to me is far from normal. 

Extreme experiences are perfectly normal, merely on the tails of the experience spectrum.  

I have the number-form synesthesia, although it's spatial in three dimensions and I sort of zoom around in the number space depending on the number I'm thinking of. I also have spatial structures for days, the week, months and year/decades/centuries/millennia (interestingly the timeline has a different spatial structure than regular numbers even though they both use numbers....) The timeline measures also kind of fold into each other so I can kind of zoom into specific time periods to expand out years, months, weeks and days.  Certain kinds of data structures can also take on spatial qualities. 

I also have a mild form of mirror touch synesthesia (although it tends to spike when I see others in pain), and a fairly intense form of empathy that can be distracting. It's not just that I can read people's micro expressions really well, but I actually feel the flutter of emotions (I have no doubt it's my mirror neurons at work, it's not any kind of supernatural ability). With the empathy I'm not sure if I'm just more sensitive or just more aware than most people. In addition, when people think about certain things regularly they often take on a facial expression (or sort of like an expression pattern) that is a like a marker for that topic. Seeing that pattern is usually a good indication of what they are thinking about. If I know them reasonably well and I've discussed the topic with them, and I've paid attention, I often know what they are thinking about when that pattern shows up (my wife has gotten used to it, but it can wig other people out) In addition, I am very good at knowing when someone I know is lying. Strangers are a lot harder. I can tell something is not kosher, but I can't be sure what the cause is.

Frankly, it was only recently that I found out about synesthesia, and that it is unusual. I always just assumed that people had their own unique spatial structures for concepts. It never occurred to me to discuss them, because I just figured everyone saw the patterns in their own way. I did realize very early in life that a lot of people lack precise empathy (although I don't think I'm that far outside the norm empathically). But it wasn't until I read Paul Ekman's work and read about mirror neurons that a lot of what I experience made sense.

James, fascinating. It must have taken you years to figure out what's going on!

James. Wow. That's amazing, I read your post over and over, sort of wishing I could be in your head. I came back here just now because I just read this piece:

jason padgett

When two thugs bashed Jason Padgett outside a bar they weren't trying to release skills he never knew he had, less still conduct one of the most groundbreaking neuroscience experiments of the century. But as it turned out, that's what they did. Hopefully the events will never be repeated, but they opened up new worlds for Padgett and lines of inquiry for neuroscientists.

Pre-bashing, Padgett not only had no particular mathematical skill and no interest in the subject. “I cheated on everything and I never cracked a book” is how the self-confessed former "jock" describes his approach to math. After recovering from concussion resulting from being knocked to the ground and repeatedly kicked in the head, Padgett saw the world in an entirely different way. 


I don't think it's vastly different in my head to be honest. I think it is more a matter of degree. My suspicion is that I simply have certain parts of my brain that are louder, and a little more cross-wired than most people. The spatial imaging I do with certain kinds of data is automatic and effortless in my mind's eye, but drawing it would be time consuming. I also don't think it would be especially revealing for math or time, just esoteric. As for the empathy, I suspect there is some link with my spatial cross wiring. When I know what someone is thinking about it is based on their non-verbal communication, which is largely spatial and positional in nature, so I just recognize that component. But I also need to have a decent amount of knowledge of that person. It doesn't work with the same precision with strangers (although I do tend to know what they are feeling, just not why). I think everyone has the same abilities. I suspect other brain noise just gets in the way. What can be irritating and can throw me off is when other people's emotion becomes or pollutes my emotion. These days I know what is going on, but when I was younger it was disconcerting.

On your statement "When I know what someone is thinking about it is based on their non-verbal communication, which is largely spatial and positional in nature, so I just recognize that component. But I also need to have a decent amount of knowledge of that person." Made me think of when people say that their pets have a 'sixth sense' and they always know what they are thinking:


Meet @Nangidog ... we've been together for 13 years and to an outsider she knows me well, like she has that sixth sense. However, this dog is entirely dependent on me - for her food, water, going out, playing, lights out, going for a walk, in the car etc. So she's watching me and she knows all the cues however subtle they maybe.

I always feed her after I eat and she knows that she won't get food by coming to beg during the meal, however cute or hopeful she may be. However when I have guests, they are always amazed that towards the end of a meal, she heads to her bowl. I've discovered that one of the cues she listens to is the noise of cutlery on the plate - something that starts to happen as the plate is almost empty.

She will watch my face and body language to the point where 'she knows what I am thinking'. James, not saying you're a dog, but I am thinking it is the ability to isolate and assign acts and consequences to a set of signals that you are receiving - so removing the 'brain noise' as you put it.

As you say, we all have a little of this - so we can recognize by an expression how someone feels. Is this trait the opposite of someone with Aspergers Syndrome?

Wikipedia says: "The cognitive ability of children with AS often allows them to articulate social norms in a laboratory context,[1] where they may be able to show a theoretical understanding of other people's emotions; however, they typically have difficulty acting on this knowledge in fluid, real-life situations.[9] People with AS may analyze and distill their observations of social interaction into rigid behavioral guidelines, and apply these rules in awkward ways, such as forced eye contact, resulting in a demeanor that appears rigid or socially naive. Childhood desire for companionship can become numbed through a history of failed social encounters.[1]"

But then I looked up Synesthesia and Aspergers and found there was a co-occurence:

"Clearly this man has an extraordinary brain. However, Daniel is perhaps not entirely unique, and it appears that the link between autism and synesthesia is more common than originally thought. This suggests that there is a potential common mechanism between these two conditions, which may even help to explain some of Daniel’s special savant abilities.

A new study published in the journal Molecular Autism from a team of researchers at the University of Cambridge now empirically shows that there is an almost three-fold higher occurrence of synesthesia in individuals with autism (18.9%), compared with that of the general population (7.2%). This increased prevalence implies that there is indeed a significant link between autism and synesthesia."

Now I've confused myself...

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