Synesthesia

Synesthesia is a rare genetic disorder in which the sensory passages in the brain are crossed allowing for total trippage all the fuckin' times.

Photo courtesy of terrymockler, Photobucket

Just The Facts

  1. Synesthesia would be awesome to have.
  2. It would also be horrible.
  3. Still though, I'd like to have chicken that would taste triangular.

Synesthesia (with author notes!)

There is a group of people that walk among common society, but are anything but normal. This group of people displays no physical detail that distinguishes them from anything other than the norm, but these people are very special indeed. They are a group of people called synesthetes and are afflicted with a disorder known as synesthesia. People with synesthesia are often misunderstood. Though this disorder is mysterious, new research says that it might hold the key to some radical new treatments and behavioral studies.

Ignored for a great part of its history, synesthesia was first written about in 1880. This disorder's controversial history began when Francis Galton, a cousin and acquaintance of Charles Darwin, wrote and published a paper about it. Many scientists paid very little attention to this article or the disorder. In fact, most scientists regarded it as a complete hoax (Ramachandran, Hubbard 53). Approximately a century ago, there was a plethora of research followed by a sharp decline. Synesthesia for the greater part of the century was nothing more than a New Age falsity, akin to treating cancer with large doses of vitamin C (Dann IX). Some philosophers, Dann notes, used synesthesia to explain dichotomies within the brain, sociological disorders and the like (IX).

As the 1900's sank into the 2000's, many psychologists were paying closer attention to this obscure disorder, as evidenced by the rash of books about it or referencing it published at that time. With the advent of fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) technology, researchers have been able to look inside the brain of synesthetes (Ramachandran, Hubbard 56). Psychologists and neuroscientists alike have been looking back through the years to see if they missed anything. At the same time, though, they are looking forward, in that they are finally deducing what synesthesia is, a question that has dogged synesthesia since its humble beginnings as a discredited article in Nature (Ramachandran, Hubbard 53, 54).

Synesthesia is, as already mentioned, a mental disorder. Its name, when translated, means 'to perceive together.' This name is incredibly apt; synesthesia is, essentially, the response of two or more senses to one type of stimulus (Reisberg 499). This can take form in a couple of different ways; the first is a simple case that consists perhaps of letters or numbers having specific colors. (Ramachandran, Hubbard 55) Another is seeing a particular shape, color, action, etc. and associating it with a taste, smell, etc. (Ratey 203-204). Dr. Richard Cytowic puts the latter in an almost humorous perspective when a synesthete, while eating, mentions that "there aren't enough points on the chicken." (1)

The advent of fMRI and PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scans hastened the acceptance of synesthesia. Essentially, fMRI lights up the part of the brain that is being used in real time (or occasionally with slight delay). A study concluded the existence of synesthesia after the researchers noticed that the visual cortex of a synesthete responded to verbal stimulus; a normal brain would have merely registered it with the part of the brain responsible for hearing and processing audible stimulus (Hameroff 287). A study that compared 6 synesthetic women to 6 normal women by the use of PET scans found nearly the same result (Hameroff 287).

Brain scans can only do so much, and actual studies need to be applied. Modern research has stated the following: What synesthetes perceive remains constant (Hoffman 193). In other words, if the taste of a taco made a hypothetical synesthete hear C#, that synesthete would always hear C# when a taco was eaten. Differing estimates state that synesthetes are consistent throughout their lives from 90% to 100% of the time (Ramachandran, Hubbard 54; Hameroff 286). One woman was tested 46 years apart and she was, amazingly, still consistent (Hoffman 193). There was a study that found, when questioned twice with a year in between, synesthetes are far more consistent than their normal counterparts (in this particular case it was found to be an 83% difference) (Hameroff 287).

Even though synesthesia's existence is widely accepted by today's scientific community, it is not without its critics. Some scientists claim that synesthesia is merely a product of memory. Say that there is a person that, as a child, played with a green-colored number six; any association this hypothetical person has between the number six and the color green is brought about by memory and not by synesthesia (Ramachandran, Hubbard 53). A much larger faction of scientists believe that people merely are being metaphorical when describing objects (Cytowic 51). This can be explained using simple language already in use in the vernacular; when someone says their taco is hot, they would often mean it in the sense that the taco is spicy. The taco does not make that person physically "taste" hot in temperature (as if it was synesthesia in its purest sense, the union of two senses), but just means that the chef added too many jalapenos to the salsa (Ramachandran, Hubbard 53).

Science now knows that synesthesia exists, but the legions of doctors still have very little idea about what synesthesia is. What is known, is that synesthesia is mental illness that crosses sensory boundaries and is involuntary. In the past, some silly language was thrown around; take for example, "a tangle of the optic� fibers" (Cytowic 51). Scientists today know that is mere nonsense and, fortunately, are making headway in discovering the true cause of synesthesia.

The roots of synesthesia lie deep within the brain. Almost the entire scientific community believes that synesthesia is a purely neurological disorder, but there are a few theorists, such as Dann, who believe that it is partly to wholly a psychological disorder. Most of these neurologists who think that it is purely neurological believe synesthesia comes from superfluous connection between two or more cortexes (Martinez-Conde 259). When examined using any of the previously mentioned scans, the most common form of synesthesia (colored-text synesthesia, in which the afflicted sees different words/letters in different colors) shows that both the graphemic and visual cortex are lit up when a stimulus is given. This means that the parts of the brain that are responsible for reading and colors are both in active use (Martinez-Conde 259). The fact that synesthesia is involuntary seems to lend credence to this.

It is unknown whether or not synesthesia is genetic or not. Some scientists do postulate that synesthesia is genetic due to a plethora of synesthetes who have relatives who are also synesthetes (Hameroff 288). However, some scientists believe that synesthesia can also be acquired, in addition to being passed on genetically. These scientists say that it can come from a few different causes. Naturally, a brain injury can cause latent synesthesia, as can hallucinogen flashbacks. People who lose one sense may also develop synesthesia. Some people who practice meditation also develop synesthesia (Martinez-Conde 260).

Throughout human history, some people have ingested certain substances that have changed their perceptions. Natural hallucinogens and designer drugs both can produce a type of synesthesia (i.e. hallucinations); mainly these are called hallucinogens or psychedelics ("psychedelic" denotes mind-changing), but there are some exceptions. Some of the natural drugs that cause synesthesia are hashish, ergot (a toxic fungus that grows on wheat germ), opium, ayahuasca (a substance used by South American tribes), coca (a tropical plant that natives often chew), psilocybin/psilocin mushrooms (commonly called magic mushrooms), peyote, mescaline, fly agaric, plus many others from around the world (Dann 184; Martinez-Conde 260). Many of the synthesized (designer) drugs are derivatives of the natural psychedelics, such as the making of cocaine from coca. LSD is derived from ergot (Dann 184). Some of the man-made drugs that cause synesthesia, excluding the aforementioned LSD and cocaine, are morphine, ecstasy, MDMA, heroin, pure psilocybin, and many others (Dann 184). The drug most often associated with synesthesia is LSD; the extended trips that it brings about are often characterized by a melding of the senses, such as seeing sound. Some of the more lunatical of the scientists who study synesthesia postulate that the spiritual being is moved between the etheric planes; these "scientists" do not have much say in the rest of the scientific community and are often regarded as hacks and idiots by their peers (Dann 185). Many people who legitimately have synesthesia often write it off as a lingering side-effect of LSD or any of the other mentioned drugs (Ramachandran Hubbard 53). It is important to make the connection between drugs and synesthesia because scientists know how drugs work; thus, they can postulate more about where in the brain synesthesia works its mischief.

There are also many prescription/over-the-counter drugs that list synesthesia (or something similar) as side-effects. The drugs that will be mentioned here create enough distortion in the brain to affect the perception of color; many do not cause full hallucinations, but they often cause a type of graphic-color synesthesia, which will be explained later (Feldman 166). Many drugs that are very widely used can have synesthetic properties; thiazides (a type hypertension drug), streptomycin (a common antibiotic), antihistamines (an anti-allergen), and others exhibit this side-effect (Feldman 166). Some antidiarrheal compounds and a Parkinson's drug (levopoda) have also been implicated.

It would also seem that people who are deprived of one sense or have certain disorders also are afflicted with synesthesia; because of this, researchers now have a general idea of where to look inside the brain. Dr. Ramachandran recounts his memory of a blind man who had developed synesthesia; this man would experience vivid hallucinations whenever he touched something, which means that he had a rare form of synesthesia (Ramachandran, Blakeslee 298). It is hypothesized from this information that this man's Penfield map (area that is in command of somatosensory experience) scrambled its own signals and sent sensory "messages" to the visual cortex (Ramachandran, Blakeslee 298). Ramachandran and Blakeslee believe this is because the visual cortex was starved for input and took signals from the Penfield map, although this idea has yet to gain traction with other neurologists (298). If an individual also has an epilepsy of the temporal lobe, it is possible that they would also develop synesthesia; some neurologists believe this points towards the idea that synesthesia is not only limited to cortexes, but also certain limbic areas as well (Ramachandran, Blakeslee 298).

There are a few different kinds of synesthesia. All of them are about the union of the senses, provided the word "sense" is used as broadly as possible. The most common of which is graphic-color synesthesia; almost all of the synesthesia research is being conducted on this particular type of synesthesia. Conceivably, any other combination of senses could be subject to a combination, and, thus, synesthetic complications would arise. As previously mentioned, there is also touch-sight synesthesia. Matthew Blakeslee has a case of synesthesia in which he tastes touch (Ramachandran, Hubbard 54). There are also reported cases of sound-color (and vice versa) and thought-color synesthesia (Ramachandran, Hubbard 54; Martinez-Conde 259). Thought-color synesthesia is not nearly as exotic as it sounds, and it refers to how certain concepts have certain colors; hungry might be perceived as purple, and Monday might be perceived as black.

Naturally, these sensory cross-overs, since they are involuntary and extreme, can seriously affect someone who has synesthesia. Often synesthesia is associated with high amounts of creativity and memory. It is also associated with insanity and inability to function. There are both positives and negatives to synesthesia, but scientists are looking at mainly the positives. Occasionally, scientists postulate that synesthetes demonstrate evolution in our current society (Dann 46-47). Some doctors who practice holistic medicine believe that synesthesia represents "shamanic" privileges (Dann 104).

One of the most known cases of synesthesia comes from a man named S. V. Sherevski. Mr. Sherevski was one of the foremost mnemonists of the twentieth century. He had full synesthesia; all of his senses were crossed. However, he took this in stride and used the synesthesia as a way to perfect his memory; he only had to think of a taste to remember what it pertained to. Say for example tacos brought out the days of the week; when he thought of the days of the week he would taste a taco and vice versa. Some people with eidetic memories have synesthesia (whole paragraph, Ratey 203-204).

Many people believe there is a connection between synesthesia and creativity. Heilman believes that more creative people have a greater amount of connectivity between cerebral connections (52). Synesthetes have more cerebral connections (Heilman 53). Some studies even go as far as to suggest that synesthesia is up to seven times as prevalent in creative people as it is in the unaffected population (Ramachandran, Hubbard 57). This disease is amazingly credited with furthering Romantic ideals (Dann 180). Famed composer Olivier Messiaen had synesthesia. Alexander Scriabin, who was also a composer, had synesthesia as well (Reisberg 499).

Alexander Scriabin is considered by many to be one of the best, if not the best, composer of the twentieth century. He also had synesthesia, which many people credit as the source of his genius. Some people argue that he had no synesthesia, but many others say it was "very clear" (Dann 71; Reisberg 499). When Scriabin was composing, he sought to match the tonal qualities to his particular synesthesia (which was color-sound); his Prometheus: The Poem of Fire contained a light show to go along with it, which foreshadowed the creation of colored ink projectors that dominated Haight-Ashbury ballrooms during the 1960's (Dann 71). Some people say the synesthetic composers, which include Scriabin and Messiaen, as the forerunners of modern psychedelic music; only the composers were influenced by the colors around them, instead of the drugs that brought on the colors (van Campen 20).

Many young children and adults benefit from graphic-color synesthesia (specifically dealing with numbers). Seeing in colors allows some people to memorize formulas with ease and compute numbers quickly (van Campen 65-66). One synesthete recalls that he could memorize math tables with far more ease and speed than his peers (van Campen 66). Having synesthesia also makes it incredibly easy to pick out certain numbers or letters (Ramachandran, Hubbard 57).

Synesthesia, though, is certainly not without its drawbacks. Occasionally, a synesthete finds it impossible to memorize numbers because they "are not in harmony;" other synesthetes feel this way as well (van Campen 67). One synesthete, a woman named Veerle Provoost, would often board the wrong bus because she interpreted the colors of the bus incorrectly. (In Bruges, Brussels, buses are color coded to facilitate traveler identification (van Campen 66).) Earlier, a blind man who had developed synesthesia was mentioned; his case of touch-sight synesthesia was incredibly severe, and the images were frequently "intrusive." This blind man's case of synesthesia ruined his Braille reading ability, effectively preventing him from reading information portrayed on signs, et cetera (Ramachandran, Blakeslee 298). There is also an apparent social stigma that goes along with synesthesia; many people believe synesthetes to be lunatics, and the trodden-upon synesthetes often become reclusive. Once these synesthetes become reclusive, they will rarely share their experience with the scientists who study synesthesia (Cytowic 119).

Synesthesia is guaranteed a place in the future of neurology. There are those who see it as the key to consciousness and the next evolutionary step of humanity (Dann 47, 186). Emblazoned broadly by the media as a "bizarre medical oddity," synesthesia will continue to struggle for widespread acceptance in the common society, as will those afflicted with it (Cytowic 111). Presently, there is research being conducted at Cambridge University that is studying the link between synesthesia and number cognition (Green). Judging by the amount of literature produced on synesthesia in the past 15 years, there will be no shortage of similar studies. Synesthesia both destroys and creates minds; it is a fascinating disorder. Science may soon prove synesthetes blessed, but, for now, synesthetes are cursed. Yet, they walk, as phantoms among us, onwards to transcendental knowledge and an unending sensory wonderland: a whisper in a cataclysmic cacophony.

"The Situation must necessarily appear to a single observer much like a diagram

in four dimensions to an eye conditioned to seeing the world in only three."

--Thomas Pynchon