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Neurological Disorders

Synesthesia Is The Odd Condition Of Tasting Music, Hearing Colors, Or Seeing Flavors

For most of us, listening to music, reading a good book, or talking to a friend on the phone are all great ways to wind down. But for someone with synesthesia, activities like those take on another dimension. Synesthetes, as they're called, experience a blending of two or more senses so that music may have flavor, words may show up in imaginary colors, or voices may elicit different tactile sensations. Scientists don't yet understand the root causes of this real-life superpower, but what they're discovering so far is exciting.

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Rooted In Mystery

Just as we don't have a solid grasp of synesthesia's cause, we also don't have a solid grasp of its prevalence. According to Scientific American, it may affect anywhere from one in 20,000 people to one in 200. Synesthesia, to be clear, is different than hallucination. While hallucinations have no predictable pattern, synesthetic sensations happen the same way every time: A particular synesthete may see every number 2 as orange, or taste coffee every time they hear the note F. The experiences are unique to each synesthete. If two people see every number in its own color, one might see 5 as red while the other may see the same number as blue. Likewise, the sensations aren't linked to meaning: for the same person, the digit version of a number may take on a different color than the word spelled out.

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Here's what we do know: it tends to run in families, and nearly six times as many women experience the condition as men. Researchers have found certain genetic markers associated with synesthesia. Interestingly, those markers are also strongly linked to autism—which could explain why so many people with autism also have synesthesia—as well as to epilepsy. Experts also think that we may all be born with synesthesia, but most of us lose those brain connections as we develop.

Sorry I'm Late, I Got My Colors Mixed Up

Synesthesia can be both a blessing and a curse. In some situations, it can help people identify things that others can't. For example, if you see 2s as orange and 5s as green, you could pick out a 2 in a sea of 5s much more easily than a non-synesthete. Research bears this out, as Scientific American reports: "In one task, [researchers] presented synesthetes with an array of equally-spaced letters and digits. Synesthetes reported that these arrays organized themselves into distinct rows or columns depending on whether the rows or columns of characters were the same synesthetic color."

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But the condition can also make things go awry. "For example," notes New Scientist, "synaesthetes who 'see' sounds might find it hard to work in a noisy classroom[...] People who attach colours to letters might also find reading confusing. Some synaesthetic children get confused between the colour of numbers and their numerical properties, thinking that a 'blue' number plus a 'yellow' number must make a 'green' number, for example." For people with synesthesia, life can turn into one big Stroop task where you must ignore the information your brain conjures and focus on the information that exists before you—and that can take a lot of mental energy.

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Key Facts In This Video

  1. 1 in 23 people have a form of synesthesia. 00:26

  2. Synesthesia can manifest in several ways, affecting the senses of sight, smell, taste, and hearing. 02:02

  3. View a representation of what a synesthete sees across the night sky: 02:53

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