Synaesthesia—troubling affliction or underrated superpower?


Syna-what-ia? Maybe you’ve heard of “synaesthesia”, but more than likely you haven’t. This complex neurological condition affects just 3–5% of Australians, so it isn’t commonly known or understood by the majority of the population. Looking to learn more? Read on to discover this incredibly interesting condition, its different presentations, and its potential benefits.

What is synaesthesia?

Synaesthesia—pronounced syn-ness-the-sia—is a neurological condition that affects how individuals experience senses. If someone is a synesthete, it means that their neural pathways, in the context of the five senses, are somewhat crossed. Depending on what kind of synesthete the person is, two of their senses will work in conjunction with each other, creating, for example, auditory or visual associations with words or numbers. This is an automatic and involuntary response and affects between 3 and 5% of the Australian population.

Although synaesthesia as a condition is usually genetic, generations of families do not necessarily share the same associations. On scans such as x-rays, synesthetes have differences in their brain compared to non-synesthetes, such as different amounts of white and grey matter.    

A synesthete’s brain will look different to a non-synesthete’s brain
A synesthete’s brain will look different to a non-synesthete’s brain

What are the different types of synaesthesia?

There are many different types of synaesthesia, some more common than others. An individual can have more than one type of the condition involving different senses, such as:

  • Grapheme colour (numbers/letters to colours)

Touted as one of the most common types of synaesthesia, this is when individuals associate specific letters and/or numbers with certain colours. For example, an A might be mint green, while the number 19 is orange. Synesthetes will not necessarily have the exact same number/letter and colour associations, although it has been shown that certain letters have similar colour associations across the board.   

  • Chromesthesia (sound to colour)

This is where individuals will hear music or spoken words and see specific colours. For example, the discordant sound of a child practising their flute could conjure up the colour purple, while the sound of a friend talking could be bright yellow.  

  • Spatial sequence or time and space

This is when individuals associate words or numbers with a specific space around them or a visual display. For the former, if looking at a calendar, January might appear above a person’s head, and then February at their left hip. For the latter example, if drawing years on a piece of paper, 2020 could be in the left corner, and then subsequent years spiralling out.  

  • Mirror-touch 

This type of synaesthesia is when individuals can feel a sensation of touch when they see someone else being touched, as a mirror-image reflection. So, if person A (a non-synesthete) is being touched on the left cheek, person B (a synesthete) will feel it on their right cheek. 

These are just some of the types of presentations of this neurological condition. There are also presentations where numbers, letters, or days of the week are, for example, associated with personalities or genders. Words and letters can also be associated with taste, and specific sounds can result in a bodily sensation; the latter is known as auditory-tactile synaesthesia. 

Most of the time, synesthetes see colours (and words, days of the week etc.) internally—but some will see these concepts externally. However, this does not pose a threat to any daily activities, such as driving or socialising. 

Non-synesthetes may also intuitively link colours and numbers/letters together or use the memory bank technique to keep track of certain dates or locations. However, to qualify as a synesthete, these actions have to be involuntary and automatic. 

Benefits of synaesthesia 

There have been many studies into this condition, with some findings outlining the benefits some synesthetes experience. Some such benefits include enhanced memory, strong mental imagery, and an increased ability to tell very similar colours apart. 

Some synesthetes are able to detect minute differences in colours that may look the same to non-synesthetes
Some synesthetes are able to detect minute differences in colours that may look the same to non-synesthetes

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