What is Synesthesia?

Synesthesia is a unique neurological disorder that causes the brain to confuse two or more different types of stimulation. There are many examples of synesthesia, each combining the aspects of two or more senses into one. For example, someone may be able to hear the colour red or touch the sound of a siren.

This condition is extremely rare; it is estimated that only two to four percent of people have synesthesia. However, many famous musicians and artists have been found to have some form of synesthesia. Auditory and visual synesthesia are among the most common forms experienced.

The Different Types of Synesthesia

As stated above, synesthesia can occur in several different ways. The most common types of synesthesia include:
  • Grapheme-colour synesthesia
  • Auditory-tactile synesthesia
  • Chromesthesia or sound-colour synesthesia
  • Lexical-gustatory synesthesia
  • Mirror-touch synesthesia
Individuals who experience grapheme-colour synesthesia associate different colours with the days of the week. For example, Mondays may appear blue while Saturdays are a vibrant yellow.
Auditory-tactile synesthesia occurs when an individual experiences physical sensations when they hear certain noises. Meanwhile, with sound-colour synesthesia, specific sounds are associated with certain colours, sometimes even resembling shapes that move.

Lexical-gustatory synesthesia is when an individual experiences various tastes in response to specific words. The individual can either speak the word themselves or hear it from another person.
Finally, mirror-touch synesthesia is unique in that it involves another person. The individual with this form of synesthesia feels whatever they see someone else feeling. For example, they may experience pain if someone near them is injured.

Of course, these are just a few of the many types of synesthesia that have been recorded. There are many other variations that are rarer, each with its own symptoms and causes. 

Causes of Synesthesia

The exact causes for synesthesia are currently unknown, though doctors do have a few theories. Most believe that people with synesthesia are simply born that way and that the different neural pathways in the brain strengthen over time. As the individual grows used to the sensations they experience due to their synesthesia, those neural pathways continue the same bizarre processes.

There is also some evidence that shows synesthesia could be hereditary. Synesthesia has been shown to be passed down through family trees; if someone in your family has synesthesia, then you may have it, too. It is most likely to be inherited from a father who has synesthesia.

Symptoms of Synesthesia

The symptoms of synesthesia depend on the exact type of synesthesia the individual has. However, there are a few constants with each case of synesthesia that you can look out for.

To start, synesthesia cannot be controlled; the senses that you experience happen simultaneously and can't be stopped. This is due to the specific wiring of your neural pathways. There is no effort involved in the process, it just happens naturally.
Synesthesia often appears during childhood, though it can develop later in life. Once it has set in, the effects of synesthesia are rigid and unchanging. For example, the sound of a piano will always taste like cherries and a drum will taste like vinegar.

Finally, the effects of synesthesia rarely occur anywhere other than in the mind. It's rare to actually see colours when you hear music or anything similar; rather, the neural pathways trigger the idea that you are seeing things and connecting them together.

A Detailed Dive into Auditory Synesthesia

Auditory synesthesia is perhaps one of the most commonly known and occurring forms of synesthesia. Many famous artists and musicians, such as Billie Eilish and even Kanye West have been known to have auditory synesthesia. It's thought that experiencing synesthesia has influenced and even helped their musical careers.

Chromesthesia, the form of auditory synesthesia that translates sounds into colours, has influenced many great artists. Wassily Kandinsky is well known for his "musical paintings," or paintings that were inspired as he listened to different songs. While he did not have chromesthesia himself, his paintings evoke the same feelings that those with synesthesia may experience.

Chromesthesia is not the only form of auditory synesthesia. In a fascinating turn of events, a new form of auditory synesthesia has been discovered which scientists are calling vEAR; this is when the mind creates auditory sensations while viewing silent videos, such as gifs. It is rare and there haven't been many studies on it yet, though further investigation into vEAR is ongoing.

Finally, misophonia is a misunderstood and rare form of auditory synesthesia that induces rage reactions in response to auditory stimulation. The sound of chewing, pen clicking, humming, or whistling can all trigger anger in an individual with misophonia. These reactions can range from mild to severe depending on the individual.

A Different Way to Experience Life

With the undeniable complexity of the human mind, it should come as no surprise that sometimes the brain confuses its wiring. These strange neurological pathways result in the individual experiencing synesthesia, each with its own quirks and attributes. While it's clear that scientists have a long way to go in the study of synesthesia, what we know now is certainly remarkable!

Have you been experiencing auditory synesthesia or other hearing disorders? Do you want to test your hearing to find out if your ears are in good condition?

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only. You should not use the information as a substitute for, nor should it replace, professional medical advice. If you have any questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other health-care professional.