Synesthesia: A New World of Colour

What colour appears in your mind when you think of the word mandible?

For most people, such a question has probably never occurred to them. Why would a word have a colour? Couldn’t mandible be any colour I wanted it to be?

The simple answer is no.

For 1 in 2000 people, this is just one of the many ways they process information and the world around them in general. It’s called Synesthesia, and it’s really quite fascinating.

What is it?

People who experience Synesthesia associate one type of stimulus (such as a number, a letter, a word, a musical note, or even a person) with something that may seem unrelated to everyone else (like a colour, a taste, or a scent).  They can’t explain why something has a certain colour or taste; it just does.

Interestingly, I’ve always noticed that I tend to associate people I know well with certain colours. That colour just appears in my mind when I think of them – my closest friend is a vivid purple, while another is a bright aqua blue. I’ve also done the same with my favourite words. For me, mandible is always red. Chocolate is purple. Magic is silver. Wonderful is a lime green. It’s not something I have to think about – whenever those words pop into my mind, the colour is there as well.

Why does this happen?

According to the University of California, Synesthesia is a result of cross-activitation between parallel centres of the brain that are involved with processing sensory information. Basically, two areas of the brain that lie closely together and that both work with sensory information get their wires crossed, producing a whole world of colour, scent, sound and taste. If, for example, a person with Synesthesia looks at the letter F and sees the colour green, it’s because the green colour perception area of their brain is being stimulated at the same time as their letter recognition area. They literally process one type of stimulus two ways. I think it’s amazing, since there are so many ways that people with Synesthesia experience the world around them.

Who has it?

There are actually a number of famous people, both living and dead, who have Synesthesia. A famous case is Franz Linszt, who would tell members of his orchestra to play notes ‘bluer’, or ‘deep violet, please!’ Geoffrey Rush, the Australian actor, sees numbers and days of the week as colours, while Billy Joel, Tori Amos, and Mary J. Blige see musical notes as colours just like Linszt did. Marilyn Monroe had a unique kind of Synesthesia, where she saw vibrations whenever she heard a sound. Finally, (and my favourite!) Vincent Van Gogh had a type of Synesthesia called Technique-timbre, where he associated the timbre of an instrument with colour or shape. He wrote letters to his brother Theo about this ability, and other artists with Synesthesia have been able to notice these shapes in his work.

It’s all wonderfully fascinating, especially since so many creative people seem to experience this, albeit in different ways. According to researcher Vilayanur Ramachandran, Synesthesia is 8 times more likely to occur among artists and other creative types of people than in other members of the population. Processes similar to blended sensory output might even underlie our general capacity for metaphor and creativity.

I’d love to hear more about other people who have Synesthesia, or at least think they might. How does it present itself for you?