Synesthesia is a neurological disorder where a person feels several of the five senses at one time. For example, an individual with this condition might say that they “smell the color red.” According to the APA, synesthesia is quite rare. In fact, only an estimated 1 in 2,000 people have the disorder. Someone with synesthesia feels like their brain is overwhelmed with sensory input, which creates a confusing experience for them. The origin of synesthesia is inconclusive; however, there are research studies that speculate that it may be hereditary. Here you will find articles that explain the signs and symptoms of this rare and fascinating mental health condition. Though uncommon, many people live with synesthesia, and if you are one of them, this section will provide insight into your experiences.
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Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Synesthesia can be defined as a condition through which human beings experience one sense simultaneously with one or more other senses. Accordingly, people with this neurological condition may hear colors, taste textures, or feel sounds. Certain forms of synesthesia can go along with words or objects, and some report that they can taste names or numbers. They might have sensory perceptions in which colors go along with sounds, such as notes in music. There can be many types of synesthesia that usually manifest in distinct ways. To learn more about synesthesia and its potential impacts on your life, consider scheduling a session with an online or in-person therapist.
Synesthesia is generally a sensory experience in which your senses cross or combine. This neurological condition can be characterized by mixed signals where an ordinary stimulus will elicit an extraordinary response. For example, a person with synesthesia might be able to “taste” the color purple, or they might see the color red when they hear a horn. Because of this unusual cross-wiring of senses, many people with this condition enjoy creative outlets, such as music or painting.
Types Of Synesthesia
There have been several types of synesthesia identified by researchers, including the following.
This type of synesthesia usually involves linking letters or numbers to particular colors (for example, the letter L may appear green). In some cases, a person with this type of synesthesia may see each letter of a word in a distinct hue, while others might find that entire words take on the color of the first letter.
People with this type of synesthesia typically report that they experience numbers within a kind of mental shape or diagram. When they think about numbers, they may picture a mental map of numbers that they can move around in patterns or lines.
Considered an especially rare form, lexical-gustatory synesthetes may experience tastes in association with words. In some cases, every word that the individual hears, speaks, reads, or thinks about may induce a different taste.
This type of synesthesia normally involves items in an ordered list that seem to occupy positions in space or as visual patterns. For example, certain months might seem closer or farther away depending on where they fall in the year or appear as a spiral staircase. Other people might experience the hours of the day in a clock-like arrangement around their bodies.
This type is usually characterized by seeing sounds as colors, sometimes with accompanying shapes or motions. These visual elements typically accompany the sounds rather than replacing them, and people with this type of perception often find that it enriches the experience of listening to music.
When people with mirror-touch synesthesia see another person receiving physical contact, they may feel as though they are receiving this touch. Research suggests that there may be a link between this type of synesthesia and high levels of empathy, which can reinforce the idea that being able to feel someone else’s pain may be linked to our ability to imagine ourselves in their place.
With this type of synesthesia, a person may see a scrolling string of words underneath others while they talk. Others may observe their own thoughts appearing in the air in front of them. Ticker tape synesthesia may be accompanied by grapheme-color synesthesia, with letters appearing in corresponding colors.
In this form of synesthesia, specific sounds can produce tactile sensations in various parts of the hearer’s body. Different types of music might provoke different levels of pressure, or some spoken words might feel prickly while others seem smooth or soft.
Is Synesthesia Rare?
Synesthesia tends to be rare, affecting approximately 1% to 2% of the general population, but it may be more prevalent in certain populations. Artistic people, such as writers, artists, actors, and musicians, may have a higher prevalence of synesthetes than the general population. The same may apply to people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
The Discovery Of Synesthesia
Synesthesia has generally been recorded in writing since the late 1700s. It was first described as an “obscure feeling” in 1772 by German poet Gottfried Herde and later called pseudochromesthésie (pseudochromesthesia), or “false colors,” by French physician Chabelier in 1864. However, the term synesthesia to describe those who experienced seeing colors with sounds was not officially accepted until 1895.
Currently, Professor Simon Baron-Cohen at the University of Cambridge is usually considered the world’s leading research scientist on synesthesia. For the past 25 years, he has researched this condition and worked with several other scientists to understand why it happens and how it may be connected to other neurological conditions, including autism. Another theory by Canadian psychologist Daphne Maurer proposes that all human beings may have connections between the senses at birth, but only certain individuals can use them.
According to these experts, synesthesia may not be a disorder, but a neurological condition. It can happen when neurological pathways cross, and as a result, sensory information merges in a person’s brain. There may be cases in which the condition can feel unpleasant. In the case of mirror-touch synesthesia, the condition can be unsettling. If an individual sees someone in extreme pain, they might feel that pain themselves.
How Do You Get Diagnosed With Synesthesia?
As it is not a mental health disorder, there is generally no official way to diagnose an individual with synesthesia. Nonetheless, people with synesthesia will often experience the following symptoms.
- Involuntary experiences with overlapping senses
- A perception that is emotionally connected with a sense
- Synesthetic perceptions that overwhelm the primary sense
While there may not be a clinical diagnosis specific to synesthesia, several tests have been devised to affirm whether someone could be living with synesthesia. Many of these tests are time-sensitive, with the test-taker being given a short amount of time to answer in order to determine whether they have automatic associations between various stimuli, such as numbers and colors.
Is Synesthesia Dangerous?
Synesthesia is usually not a dangerous condition, but it can be uncomfortable for the person experiencing the merging of multiple senses. For example, mirror-touch synesthesia can cause a person to feel uneasy in their body. If they are watching a movie where a character experiences physical trauma, they might feel that pain in their body while they view the film. That experience can be unpleasant, and they may not be able to control it at that moment, as it can be a natural feeling that goes along with the condition.
People with synesthesia are generally unable to control their responses. Imagine that you smelled smoke from a candle that was just blown out. You may be unable to control that sensation, just as a person with synesthesia cannot. They can be aware of their symptoms, but they may not be able to stop them from occurring. Awareness can help them cope with the uncomfortable crossing of the senses.
Some with synesthesia may be hyper-aware and feel concerned that their synesthesia may draw unnecessary attention to them. They may have learned that the way they perceive things is different from others. Many people with synesthesia also experience sensory overload, especially if they are managing another neurodivergent condition. Because each stimulation can elicit multiple sensations, they may feel overwhelmed in stimulating environments. In these cases, seeking guidance from a mental health therapist can help individuals manage symptoms and develop healthy coping methods.
Benefits Of Online Therapy
If you believe that you have synesthesia and it is negatively impacting your life, you may find it helpful to speak to a licensed mental health professional. An online therapist can help you understand what you are experiencing, teach you to live with synesthesia, and help you identify potential advantages of this experience. The perceived distance associated with speaking to a therapist online may help you feel more comfortable as you talk about potentially vulnerable topics.
Effectiveness Of Online Therapy
More research may be needed regarding the efficacy of online therapy for coping with synesthesia. However, existing evidence suggests that online therapy is usually just as effective as in-person therapy for treating a wide variety of mental health concerns.
We usually refer to the crossing of two or more senses as synesthesia. Synesthesia can come in many types, such as grapheme-color, number-form, and mirror-touch. While synesthesia generally isn’t a dangerous condition, it can sometimes feel uncomfortable. If synesthesia is negatively impacting your life, consider working with an online or in-person therapist for professional guidance.