Have you ever heard a smell?


A few weeks ago I coincidentally came around two interesting articles dealing with a phenomenon I’ve never heard about and which I find really interesting. Synesthesia. Does it ring a bell with you?

We all have 5 senses and they operate independently of one another. But there are people whose senses are combined in such a way that they can e.g. taste sound, see coloured numbers or letters of the alphabet, hear smells, see colours when hearing musical tones or sounds generally, etc. Any senses and any number of them can be combined but commonly just two of them are involved. Even in this case, perception is rather complex.

Karen Chenausky who sees letters to be coloured says that words are not just a compilations of those letters. The individual letters influence one another: their colours bleed into each other, change shades of the neighbouring letters and importantly, initial letters influence the final look of words more than the final letters.

James Wannerton who tastes sound says that he gets fairly complex mixture of tastes and textures on his tongue and when someone speaks slowly, he is even getting too many tastes to focus on what the person is saying.

These people are called “synesthetes”. They often inherit this feature and realise its existence in their childhood or adolescence after finding out that not everybody possesses it. Probably many of them never go public and keep it as a secret, on the other hand many take it for granted that it is something entirely ordinary.

For synesthesia, it is typical that

  • you can’t influence its occurrence, it’s automatic and involuntary
  • the perception is the same all the time and doesn’t change throughout the person’s life so e.g. if you see the letter “a” as orange, the colour of the letter will never change
  • the perception is remembered better than the trigger itself so you will rather remember the colour of the word than the word itself
  • the perception is unique for each individual, i.e. if you see the letter “a” as orange, I can see it green
  • the perception may cause emotional reactions, often pleasurable ones

Synesthesia is not a medical condition. Many synesthetes regard it as a gift and many say that it helps them in their everyday life as it supports remembering and increases creativity. It is interesting that in case of family occurrence, the types of synesthesia usually differ which means that you don’t inherit the particular type but just the capability of “crossed-wiring”.

While reading about synesthesia, the following quote expressed by Patricia Lynne Duffy appealed to me:

“Nature, so endlessly creative, has managed things so that each of us, hosts of synesthesia or not, perceives a slightly different world… a world colored by our one-of-a-kind pattern of neurons and experiences.”

Plain truth, isn’t it?

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