Synesthesia Types, Causes, Symptoms – Seeing Sounds Explained


As a generation brought up on the amazing powers a human could gain through exposure to certain chemicals has always fascinated us, which is why the superhero universe appeals to us. DC has its set of genetically enhanced villains and heroes, and the Marvel universe has been breaking records with its latest movie, which contains an array of extraterrestrial, genetically enhanced and technologically enabled heroes. But before the Marvel Universe won over a generation with the stories of its superheroes, there existed another set of heroes giving birth to a cult of followers.

We are obviously talking about the X-Men and the rise of the mutant genre. These mutants didn’t gain their powers through lab accidents, they were born with their powers. In hindsight, Magneto’s assertion that these mutants were the next step of humanity, kind of makes sense to anyone who subscribes by Darwin. But what if these mutants were more real than fiction? What if humans as a species were moving slowly but steadily to the next evolutionary step? Synesthesia or the ability to see sound and taste its color is one such ability. It is a neurological condition where stimulus responding areas of the brain are fused together, meaning that a person experiences a hyper response to a stimulus or is over sensitive to stimulus.

Ideally Synesthesia is defined as the condition where sounds also create a visual response and in some cases leave behind a taste. Many synesthetes don’t even realize this involuntary experience and assume that others have a similar experience of the world. However, it is an extremely rare condition with only 4% of the global population reporting synesthesia.

Synesthesia: Seeing Colors

Synesthesia: A History

Synesthesia emerges from two ancient Greek words “syn” which means “together” and “aisthesis” which means “sensation” combined together this word means “to feel sensations together”. Even when research of synesthesia started in the 18th century, instances of synesthesia have been present throughout history. Ancient Chinese texts have inferences of correlating dates to colours and flavours. Ancient Persian texts have attributed colours to musical notes, in fact, in 550 B.C. Pythagoras argued that musical scales could be measured in numbers. In 370 B.C. Greek Philosopher Plato, asserted that the world and its soul had movements similar to the basic musical notes. Aristotle in 350 B.C. took this argument forward and postulated that the harmony of colours and sounds were the same. Aristotle even described the corresponding taste of each color.

Various men of science throughout the ages have prescribed colour and subsequent taste to music, including Sir Isaac Newton. A formal research of Synesthesia as a subject of scientific enquiry began in the 19th century, however, as psychology developed people started focusing on behavior and what triggers it, pushing synesthesia as a field of enquiry to the side.

Thus, when synesthetes claimed that they can see or taste sound, most people brushed their claims off as high imagination or rumblings of individuals high on drugs and weed. However, in the 1980s psychologists and neurologists started studying behaviors and sensations experienced shown and experienced because of certain biological influences and synesthesia again became a topic of much research and wonder. In the 1980s, researchers like Larry Blake, Richard Cytowic, Simon Baron-Cohen, and Jeffrey Gray led the study of human behaviour through human cognition and explored how a synesthetes’ perceptions influence his/her reality. This return to synesthesia as a field of study led to the development of online societies for synesthetes in the 1990s, these online forums later developed to synesthesia societies in America, United Kingdom and Norway among others.

Causes and Symptoms of Synesthesia:

Different sections of the human brain are responsible for our responses to different stimuli. It was believed that in a synesthete, his/her limbic system influences the mixing of sensations allowing them to experience an event through two or more sensory points. However, later research has shown that the cerebral cortex is responsible for the fusion of such sensory experiences. The brain map of a synesthete shows activity in those parts of the brain which remain inactive in a normal human-being. Since synesthetes feel more than one sensation when exposed to stimuli, they have better memories and associative capabilities.

Synesthetic experience is an involuntary experience, individuals develop synesthesia at a very young age and grow up believing that the rest of humanity perceives the world like they do. Some individuals have reported that they did not realize the difference till it was pointed out to them while other individuals confessed that they felt like they have been living with a secret. In fact, some researchers argue that every baby is a synesthete but once individuals grow up, they forget the link between their different sensory organs, due to childhood amnesia. Childhood amnesia is why most adults disbelieve their fellow humans when they claim that they can hear colors. However, this assumption that every baby is a synesthete is used to explain the development of head trauma/injury induced synesthesia in adults. Another interesting observation is that most left handed people are synesthetic. It is often difficult to ascertain if your loved one as synesthesia or not, however, here are the symptoms of synesthesia:

  1. Same triggers will garner the same visual or olfactory response.
  2. Since the experience of synesthesia is so well ingrained in an individual, they may not even notice anything off, till one of their friends point out that ears cannot see sound. However, it is important to note that every individual will not have the same sensory response to the same stimulus, where one individual sees a particular word or musical note as yellow, the other may see it as orange.
  3. Synesthetic perception is always automatic and involuntary.
  4. Synesthetes do not perceive words or music in elaborate and complicated imageries. More often than not they see words, letters or musical notes in a particular pattern or sequence.

Types of Synesthesia:

“And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music”- Friedrich Nietzsche

These words by Nietzsche fit perfectly when it comes to understanding synesthesia which is prevalent in only 4% of the total global population. The other 96%, who do not remember their own developing days, may find it difficult to relate to synesthetes or understand the way in which they perceive the world, however, some artists have tried to create paintings of how they perceive music. It is also interesting to note that synesthesia is of various types:

1. Projection Synesthesia:

Projection Synesthesia is the most common form of synesthesia which involves the projection of colours to certain letters, numbers, days of the week or words. On hearing words or music the individual is able to see colours corresponding to the word or music in front of him or her. In some cases however, instead of seeing the colour in front of them, a person may instinctively see the colour in their mind’s eye. Projection Synesthesia is further subdivided into different types:

  • Grapheme Color Synesthesia:

Grapheme colour synesthesia is the most widely studied and common type of synesthesia. An individual is able to associate number or letters with certain colours. However, it is important to note that no two individuals will report seeing all alphabets or numbers in the same colours. It is however possible for most individuals with color graphemic synesthesia to report the same color for certain letters, like the letter “A” is unanimously reported as “Red”.

  • Chromesthesia:

Chromesthesia is the form of synesthesia where an individual automatically experiences/perceives colours to every form of sound. Several artists suffering from chromesthesia have created masterpieces depicting the visual effects of music on them.

  • Number Form Synesthesia:

Over a hundred years ago, Sir Francis Galton was one of the first individuals to record number form synesthesia. The graph created by Sir Galton, shows the mapping of numbers in a synesthetes mind, each individual creates a different map for himself/herself with different spatial arrangements between numbers. In some advance cases, an individual may also divide cluster of numbers into different colours.

  • Misophonia:

Misophonia is considered the type of synesthesia which brings out a negative response from an individual. Upon hearing certain sounds or music a person may feel extreme disgust or anger.

  • Personification:

This is a rare form of synesthesia where the synesthete is able to give a personality to numbers, alphabets, or days of the week. Thus, Friday could have a carefree and fun loving personality, the Alphabet A could exude the aura of the Alpha male of the pack, and the numeric 4 could be the happy-go-lucky child of the number system.

  • Lexical- Gustatory Synesthesia:

Lexical-Gustatory Synesthesia is the rarest form of synesthesia. An individual with this type of synesthesia can taste certain words or sounds. Thus, the sound created by even raindrops falling on different surfaces can induce not just the taste, but an instinctive sensation of the warmth of the sound, and its placement on the tongue. This also means that some sounds, like say thunder can taste like coffee, the musical note A-minor can taste like gooseberry and so on.

2. Mirror Touch Synesthesia:

Mirror touch synesthesia is a relatively common form of synesthesia, where a person experiences certain sensations on their skin, as they observe another. For example, if such a synesthete is observing a pair of people, where one person taps the other person’s shoulder, then the synesthete may also experience a certain sensation at the same point in their shoulder. Several non-synesthetes have reported feeling pain on their corresponding body part in the event of observing wounds on another’s person’s body.

Celebrities with Synesthesia:

Further research has shown that since synesthetes are more sensitive to and aware of their situations and surroundings, most synesthetes, take up arts to express themselves and their perception of the world better. Most musicians do have synesthesia as do most artists. Here is a list of famous people throughout modern history, who have synesthesia:

1. Marilyn Monroe:

Marilyn Monroe’s biographer wrote in his book that she was able to see things, people generally see when they are high on drugs, this was written with reference to her ability to see colours for music and sound.

2. Jimi Hendrix:

Jimi Hendrix is a renowned musician who famously saw chords in different colours, in fact, the lyrics to the song “Purple Haze” described his perception of the chord on his guitar which had a purple tinge.

3. Pharrell Williams:

Pharrell Williams is one of the most outspoken promoters of synesthesia. He encourages people to accept this ability as a gift. According to Williams he can’t even dissociate sound and colours, in fact, the musician believes that if he ever became unable to see music, he would stop making music. According to the musician, seeing music helps him create music which is unique in the sense that it does not overshadow or alter the art of his collaborators.

4. Vincent Van Gogh:

The tortured artist with a tale and art to mesmerise anyone, once tried to learn piano. His piano teacher observed that the boy connected piano notes with colours, suspecting insanity she asked the famous artist to leave. It is rather unfortunate that people back then did not understand synesthesia as a human condition. Some psychologists argue that all of Van Gogh’s later psychological problems arose from the suppression and ignorance about his condition.

5. Mozart:

It seems that most successful musicians in recent times had synesthesia. Mozart saw particular colours in every note of his piano, allowing him to mix and match colours to create unusual music.

6. Vladimir Nobokov:

The Nobokov family’s experience of synesthesia, shared by the novelist Vladimir, his mother and his son is a classic example of how synesthesia is genetic. While Vladimir himself could see alphabets and numbers in certain colours, both his mother and son could see colours in music.

In the evolutionary cycle of things, once may genuinely wonder if synesthesia is the next step for humanity, how is it aiding any human? But one must remember that a synesthete has heightened senses of receiving information as well as storing information. Most synesthetes build mental castles without even intending to. So how does this help humanity? We cannot say for sure but we guess that in the old times synesthetes also made excellent guides for a hunting party, not to mention in the present day, the ability to remember details and being sensitive to sounds and colours helps them be more empathetic, with a longer memory.

Also Read: Hematohidrosis: People Who Can Cry Bloody Tears or Sweat Blood

News on Synesthesia:

A Woman With Synesthesia Can Taste Names

– 22nd Jan 2019

Julie Mcdowall from Glasgow suffers from Synesthesia and she has broken the internet with her tweet that she can taste names. While she struggles with identifying the taste of unfamiliar names like those having Asian or Indian origins, she claims that the word “Dal” tastes like a rubber duck which was dipped in vinegar. Since her tweet, she has entertained several requests from people asking what their names taste like and Julie has been brutally honest about her replies. She even admitted that she hated the name Duncan as it tasted like a burp after eating smoky bacon crisps. The name Graham tastes like stew, while Catherine tastes like a rusk dipped in chocolate or coffee. In fact, the name Jesus tastes like Malteaser to her. There have been several people who are critical of her responses, even claiming that the sheer randomness of her responses shows that she is making this up as she goes. However, strangely, Synesthesia is much more common than people would like to believe, and some words or phrases may trigger similar responses in other people, like in 1690, philosopher John Locke, reported of meeting a blind man who apparently saw the colour scarlet when he heard the sound of a trumpet.

Synesthesia May Be A Result of Hyper Connected Neurons:

17th July 2018

For the longest time scientists have been reluctant in researching on singular medical anomalies like synesthetes. However, scientists in Netherlands, finally gave in to their curiosity and began testing on synesthesia. It has already been established that synesthesia may be genetic as instances generally appear in families. Keeping this one key factor in mind, scientists from Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics studied three families of synesthetes. Within these three families, they studied the genes three consecutive generations of synesthetes, along with the genes of the non-synesthetes in the family. After several rounds of rigorous tests, it was revealed that 37 genes could possibly predict the presence of a synesthetes in the future.

Further research also revealed that out of these 37 genes, there are 6 variants, which are known to be related to neurons and are known as “Axons”. Interestingly, these axons are related to both the sound and sight neurons. This one revelation has brought much excitement to the scientific community because it opens up more gates for understanding autism too, as researchers have discovered, hyper connected neurons in autistic people.



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