Understanding The Synesthesia Definition

Updated December 19, 2018

Reviewer Sonya Bruner

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Have you ever wanted to know what it is like to taste the rainbow? Well, if you have certain types of synesthesia, you do not even need to eat any candy to find out. Yes, there is a serious condition, or phenomenon, that causes those who have it to enjoy extra senses. In other words, when one of their senses (sight, sound, touch, hearing, or taste) is stimulated, another one that is unrelated to the stimuli is activated as well. However, depending on the type you have and severity, it could be more of a curse than a blessing. As some with severe mirror-touch synesthesia can tell you, being able to feel what others feel is not always a blessing.

What Is Synesthesia?

So, what does someone with synesthesia experience? Well, some people can see music. For example, they can hear music as it sounds to others, but they can also see the music. So, they have an extra sense that most others do not have. Some people with synesthesia can taste music. A certain tune will bring a familiar taste to their senses. The most complicated and maddening form of synesthesia is mirror-touch synesthesia, where individuals can feel what other people feel. For instance, if your friend falls and breaks their arm while you are watching them, you would feel their pain if you have mirror-touch synesthesia. You can also feel others' feelings and emotions so if your husband is feeling sad about losing his job; you would be able to feel it too. This is like empathy but much more intense.

What Causes Synesthesia?

Synesthesia is still very much a mystery to experts and sufferers alike. Although it is thought that many more may have this condition, only one in about two thousand people has been diagnosed. Some say it is a neurological disorder; others claim it is a mental health condition. Whatever it is, the cause is still a mystery as well. It may be due to some kind of crossed wires in the brain. Not real wires, of course, but your neurons in your central nervous system may not be firing properly. It may also be genetic, according to some studies, with women being six times as more susceptible than men.

However, new research with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was able to show that there is a dramatic increase in the area of the brain responsible for sight when the participant is subjected to certain stimuli. Another test showed that sensory receptors are just more active in some individuals, giving them an extra sense.

Different Types Of Synesthesia

A person who experiences any type of synesthesia is considered a synesthete. No matter what kind of synesthesia one has, no two people experience it the same way, but there are two basic forms of synesthesia, which are associative and projective.

Associative Synesthesia

This type of synesthesia, associative synesthesia, causes those who have it to associate certain colors with numbers, letters, sounds, or tastes. They do not smell, feel, or see them but just know that they are there. For example, some who have this condition may see the letter A written in black ink as blue in their head, but they still see it in black in the real world. These types of synesthetes associate certain colors, scents, or sounds with words, colors, smells, or sounds, which is why it is called associative synesthesia. To these individuals with associative synesthesia, there is a connection between the stimuli and the sense that is activated, even if it cannot be seen or explained.

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Projective Synesthesia

Those synesthetes with projective synesthesia, which is the most common type of this phenomenon, can see shapes, forms, or colors when they hear, smell, or taste something. They may also actually taste, smell, feel, see, or hear things that are supposed to be experienced by a different one of their senses. For example, they can hear the color red or see scents. For them, the sound of a guitar may cause them to see a blue square. But, those with associative synesthesia will just feel or know that the guitar sounds blue.

There are over 20 variations of synesthesia, both projective and associative, with each variation causing a unique set of senses. Some of these include grapheme-color synesthesia, chromesthesia, spatial sequence synesthesia, number form synesthesia, auditory, tactile synesthesia, and mirror-touch synesthesia.

Grapheme-Color Synesthesia

This is one of the more common variations of synesthesia. Those with grapheme color synesthesia see numbers or letters as certain colors. Those with the projective form will see the number or letter shaded with a certain color while those with associative synesthesia just know that the number or letter is a certain color.

Chromesthesia

Those who have chromesthesia see colors when they hear certain sounds. For instance, a dog barking may cause the synesthete to see the color green. While projective synesthetes see the color green in real life, associative synesthetes just associate that sound with the color.

Spatial Sequence Synesthesia

Synesthetes with spatial sequence synesthesia see numbers at different points in space. For one person with this condition, the number one may be closer than the number two, but for others, it may be the other way around. Another version is with years, months, and days in which the year 2010 may be to your right while Tuesday is above your head.

Number Form Synesthesia

Someone with number form synesthesia can visualize a map of different numbers in a certain order when they think about numbers. This is similar to spatial sequence synesthesia, but those with this condition see the numbers in order in a line.

Auditory Tactile Synesthesia

This interesting type of synesthesia causes certain sounds to stimulate a sensation in part of your body. In other words, if you have auditory, tactile synesthesia, you have a link between your hearing and your sense of touch. This variant is rare and can vary from a tingle to an actual pain when you hear a certain sound.

Mirror Touch Synesthesia

Even more rare than auditory, the tactile sensation is mirror-touch synesthesia. This ranges from being able to feel other people's emotions to experiencing others' pain or another physical feeling they may have. For example, if you see someone touch your friend on the back and you feel a touch on your back even though nobody is there, you may have mirror-touch synesthesia. This can be the most severe type of synesthesia because you may experience so many other feelings and emotions that you are unable to function. People with this form of synesthesia are sometimes so affected by other people's feelings that they isolate themselves because it is too physically and emotionally stressful. Can you imagine being able to feel what other people are feeling?

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Dealing With Synesthesia

Are you or someone you know experiencing any of these feelings? Or maybe you are concerned about something else that you are experiencing. Dealing with emotional issues can be much more difficult than dealing with physical issues because you cannot see emotional issues. That is why mental health disorders are called the invisible illnesses.

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