What Is Synesthesia Disorder And How To Cope With It
Updated May 23, 2019
Reviewer Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC
"What color is your seven?" It might seem like a strange question to ask, but If you have synesthesia, you'll have an answer. If you or someone you know has a different way of experiencing the world through their senses, you could benefit from learning about what synesthesia is and how to cope with it.
What Is Synesthesia?
What is synesthesia? The word comes from Ancient Greek and means "perceive together." It's a neurological condition in which one sensory or cognitive stimulation brings about another sensory or cognitive experience.
Synesthesia is out of the ordinary, but it's not a disorder. We know that because it isn't listed in the DSM 5 as an illness or disorder. Synesthesia causes little or no problems for most people who have it. It is atypical, but many synesthetes object to its being called a disorder because, to them, it's just a different way of experiencing life. Rather than wanting to stop having synesthesia, they often say they would not know how to function without it.
Types of Synesthesia
There are several different types of synesthesia.
Synesthesia can either be projective or associative:
- Projective synesthesia - seeing actual colors, forms, or shapes after perceiving sensory or cognitive stimulation.
- Associative synesthesia - feeling a strong, involuntary connection between stimulation and sensory
Synesthesia can start in any of three different ways:
- Developmental, or genuine, synesthesia - starts in birth or early childhood.
- Acquired synesthesia - happens after brain injury or after artificial technologies are used to create sensory substitution.
- Drug-induced synesthesia - after taking a psychedelic and other drugs.
Specific types of associations or projections in synesthesia include:
- Grapheme-color synesthesia - associating a letter or number with a color.
- Sound-to-color synesthesia - associating sounds with colors, usually colored shapes.
- Number-form synesthesia - visualizing a number map image when thinking of a number.
- Ordinal-linguistic personification - associating numbers, letters, or months, etc., with certain personality traits.
- Lexical-gustatory synesthesia - associating a word or phoneme with a certain taste.
- Auditory-tactile synesthesia - sounds elicit tactile sensations in various parts of the body.
- Mirror-touch synesthesia - when someone else touches something, you feel what they would feel.
Examples of Synesthesia
The kinds of synesthetic experiences you might have would depend on the type of synesthesia you have. Some examples of synesthesia are:
- Seeing colorful music notes when you hear the music
- Seeing all 7s as blue or all sevens as yellow
- Seeing all As as red
- Seeing specific colored shapes when you hear a dog barking or a door being slammed
- Thinking of R as a shy or evil letter
- Feeling the sound of trumpets as a brush on your calves
- Feeling a smooth surface when your friend touches a glass tabletop
Who Has Synesthesia?
Synesthesia disorder is fairly uncommon, and certain types of synesthesia are even rarer. The rate of synesthesia varies depending on the language and culture. Estimates have ranged from 1 in 4 to 1 in 100,000. The most respected study so far was from Edinburgh and Glasgow Universities, and it showed the prevalence of 4.4% of the population. The most commonly quoted rate is 1 in 2000, as was shown in a Cambridge study.
Synesthesia is more common in people with autism as well as artistic people, such as visual artists, musicians, and actors. Some famous people with synesthesia disorder include: Billy Joel, Marilyn Monroe, Itzhak Perlman, Duke Ellington, Nikola Tesla, Mickey Hart (The Grateful Dead drummer), and Vincent Van Gogh.
How Is Synesthesia Diagnosed?
Several tests have been devised to discover whether someone has synesthesia. Many of these tests are time-sensitive, meaning that you have to answer quickly. Because they go so quickly, they reveal the automatic responses you have if you're a synesthete.
For example, if you select an exact color that you associate with a number and then select the same color for that number again very quickly, you show your automatic association between the two.
A neurologist named Richard Cytowic suggested the following diagnostic criteria for synesthesia:
- The associations must be automatic and involuntary
- The synesthetic perceptions are consistent
- It's very easy to remember synesthesia experiences
- There is a great deal of emotion related to synesthesia
What Causes Synesthesia?
No clear and singular cause has yet been discovered that explains exactly why synesthesia happens. It can be induced by using psychedelic drugs. It can happen during the growth and development stages of childhood. You can acquire it later in life as well.
There may be a genetic component, as many people who have synesthesia disorder also have one or more family members who have it. Brain structure and function are different in synesthetes. People with synesthesia typically have excessively high serotonin levels.
How to Cope with Synesthesia
Many people who have synesthesia feel that it's the most normal and natural thing in the world for them. They may have little or no problems with functioning, and in fact, they may find that their synesthesia helps them function better and enhances their experiences.
However, that isn't always true of everyone. If you have synesthesia, you may feel like it's something you have to be ashamed of or hide from others. You may have learned long ago that the way you perceive things isn't acceptable to many people.
Another problem some people with synesthesia may struggle with is sensory overload. Because each stimulation elicits multiple sensations, they may have trouble in a very stimulating environment.
The first thing you need to do if you have synesthesia is to learn all you can about it. The more you know, the better you'll understand that your synesthesia is natural for you. You can become an expert on your condition so that you aren't swayed by people who think it means there's something "wrong" with you.
Accept Your Synesthesia as A Gift
Even if you're not happy about your synesthesia, it can be helpful to look for ways it improves your life. Does it help you enjoy music more fully? Does it help you remember things better? Does it enhance your emotional experiences? If you can see your synesthesia as a gift or a talent, you can take advantage of what it brings to you.
Build Your Self-Esteem
Perhaps your parents, siblings, teachers, or other children at school taught you that your synesthesia made you somehow inferior. If so, it's important to work on your self-esteem. Do things that you enjoy and feel proud to share with others. List your good qualities. Appreciate yourself, not only as a synesthete but also as a person who is like others in many important ways.
Learn Techniques to Deal with Sensory Overload
If you do feel overwhelmed by your synesthetic experiences, you need to find a way to deal with the sensory overload when it happens. Many synesthetes practice meditation or deep breathing exercises when they need to limit outside stimulation. Talking to someone who has experience with synesthesia can be helpful, as well, because they may have learned about techniques for getting away from too much outside input.
Share Your Unique Perspective
Someone with synesthesia does have a unique perspective. That can be a very good thing. You have experiences to share that no one else does. So, share your special way of experiencing life with others who can only imagine it. You can do it through art, music, theater, writing, or other arts. Or, you can simply describe what you see to a trusted friend. If you choose to do so, you can make life a little richer for others who don't share your gift. At the same time, you can find an expression of your unique vision.
Connect with Other Synesthetes
No one can understand someone with synesthesia in the same way as another person who has it. Connecting with other synesthetes can help you in many ways. You can learn to value yourself as you come to value others with the same condition. You can learn how they manage problems like sensory overload or being misunderstood.
It's easier to keep up with the latest research on synesthesia when you're a part of the larger community of people with synesthesia. Who knows? You may even find self-actualization by helping others who are suffering because of their synesthesia.
Do I Need Therapy for Synesthesia?
You don't need to go to therapy for synesthesia. You may be perfectly happy, well-adjusted, and pleased with your synesthetic capabilities. There's nothing wrong with that at all.
However, if you are having problems due to your synesthesia or others' attitudes towards it, you can benefit from talking to a therapist. A therapist can help you find the good in yourself and your unique ability. They can teach you relaxation techniques and help you build your self-esteem. They can offer emotional support and help you connect with others in the synesthetic community.
You can talk to a licensed counselor at BetterHelp.com if you need assistance with this or other mental health questions. You'll be matched with a therapist who is suited to help you with your issues in a way that works for you. Online therapy is flexible, affordable, and confidential. You can take your synesthesia as a curse or a gift. With the right help, you can learn to see, appreciate, and take full advantage of the unique perspective you have that others can only imagine!