What if we could see music and taste textures? That’s exactly what synesthetes can do.
Picture this: You’re in the backseat of a car and you turn up the radio. But, instead of just listening to music, you start seeing colours associated with the notes. Cool, right?
This condition is not rare at all - in fact it even has a name: musical synesthesia or cromesthisia. So what exactly is synesthesia?
The word “synesthesia” comes from the Greek words syn which means “together” and aisthesis which means “sensation”. According to Google, synesthesia is “the production of a sense impression relating to one sense or part of the body by stimulation of another sense or part of the body”.
Let's put it another way. Say you are about to eat a scoop of delicious chocolate ice cream. You know that the ice cream scoop is round right? Because you can see it with your own two eyes. Certain synesthetes—that is, people with a certain type of synesthesia—can actually taste the roundness of the scoop!
More generally, this kind of synesthetes have the ability to taste shapes and textures as a sensation on their tongue. That is synesthesia in a nutshell: taking a sense, like sight, and applying or relating to it with another sense, like taste. It’s like a hybrid of the two senses forming.
If you’re like me, the first question that’ll spring to your head is: what if I have synesthesia?
That’s actually not impossible, since there are around eighty types of synesthesia—a pretty long list to pick from! Which leads us to the question: how many people actually experience synesthesia? And what type is the most common?
According to some studies, about 1 in 2000 people have synesthesia. Research further suggests that 1 in 300 people experience a more diluted version of synesthesia, which makes it quite likely that someone in your friends’ circle has it. One person can experience more than one form of it. Women are more likely to have synesthesia than men.
The most commonly found form of synesthesia is… (drumroll please) grapheme-colour synesthesia, which means you associate letters and numbers to colours.
Not a lot is known about how synesthesia is developed. Some cases suggest that it develops early in life, similar to how we learn to walk. Other cases suggest that people are born with it. Synesthesia can also be developed later in life or can even be geneticcomes fromally inherited.
Although we know quite a lot about synesthesia overall, the exact cause of synesthesia is unknown. In fact, most people are so used to synesthesia, they’re unable to recognize their synesthetic abilities. Just like how babies cannot say “oh hey mum, can I have a snack?”, most synesthetes are unable to describe their perception of the world to other people.
To most synesthetes, the senses they experience seem natural to them—so what’s there to report?
Like I mentioned before, there are eighty different types of synesthesia. They range from calendar synesthesia, where you view the calendar as a certain image, based off of the important events in your life such as your birthday, to Auditory-Tactile Synesthesia which means touching sound.
Now, that may sound a bit scary, but when you really think about it, you would be perceiving the world in a way only possible to about five percent of the population! Most synesthetes are thrilled to have such an ability but that isn't always the case. There are some “glass half empty people” out there, who feel differently about their abilities. They feel that their ability to experience synesthesia can isolate them from the rest of the world.
Which begs the question: is there a cure for synesthesia? How does one “switch it off”?
The question of a “cure” for synesthesia has two parts. If by “cure” we mean medicine, then no. There is no medicine you can take that will magically get rid of your synesthetic senses.
However, those who feel that their synesthesia is negatively affecting their life can see a mental health professional who will try to help them see how they can use synesthesia for the greater good. (Insert heroic music here).
Of course, the world isn’t all black and white.
Imagine that you have musical synesthesia. And you have the type in which everyday sounds can trigger you seeing colours. On days when you feel good, you probably wouldn't be bothered by it. But on bad days, maybe you’d get sick of all the colours, right? There's no way synesthesia is all good or all bad.
When I first heard of synesthesia I had it pegged down as something incredible, that could never have a downside. I would be perceived as some sort of genius who understood the world at an entirely different level! I daydreamed about what life would be like if I was a synesthete.
As we saw, that's not the case. But it’s not all bad either—in fact it balances more towards an asset than an irk.
There are several musicians who experience musical synesthesia and put it to good use in their music. Famous musicians like Duke Ellington, Billy Joel, Charli XCX, Billie Eilish, and Lorde all experienced cromesthisia (musical synesthesia)—as does Oliva Rodrigo!
The nineteen-year-old rising star states that she experiences—in her words—“tiny baby cromesthisia”. This means she’s probably one of those people who experience a milder version of synesthesia.
There is one famous example for the negative side of synesthesia: Vincent van Gogh.
Van Gogh was one of the people who thought his chromesthesia made him different from others. The year is 1885, and Van Gogh sits at his piano lesson. At this point, his teacher realises that he is associating each colour with different notes. But instead of approaching the matter with curiosity, his teacher deems him insane and asks him to leave. Yikes!
Synesthesia is fascinating, and lets you see the world in a different sense. Some people view it as an asset and others as a difference from the rest of the world. Imagine an alternate dimension in which we could only see sounds or taste textures. We would taste what we see, see what we hear, and any other combination you please. I think that would be interesting—don’t you?
In my mind’s eye, I can almost hear it.