Mixed senses

1 08 2011

When I think of the letter ‘C’ I think of the number 6. A certain texture will remind me of the smell of biscuit icing from my childhood (they were Nursery Rhyme biscuits – similar to the Tick Tock biscuits of today). And a certain smell (which I can’t quite identify) reminds me of the texture of a plasticky kind of play-dough that I can’t quite place.

In terms of synaesthesia, these are all fairly mild and amuse rather than confuse. I’m not sure of the first example even qualifies! It would seem from the literature that synaesthesia is a condition – if it can be called such – that does little harm. I like to think of it as a little window into creativity, like déjà-vu, a little unsolvable puzzle about how my brain works – or mis-works, if such a word exists!

So what is it? Essentially, crossed wires between the senses. Stimuli in one sense (visual, taste, hearing etc) stimulates another sense. A musical note might evoke a taste. Letters might have specific colours or textures. Numbers might have positions or directions. A colour might evoke a sound. Synaesthesia is said to affect approximately 1 in every 2000 people, so essentially it is very common.

Synaethesic connections are automatic and consistent, not transitory. They often evoke mild emotion – for me it is a mild elation, like recalling a happy memory, albeit one that I can’t quite place.

Synaethesia may be a language and a linkage we can’t understand, but is not meaningless. An interesting explanation from a synaesthete who sees letters as having colours notes that when seeing text that he cannot read – say Chinese script – he does not have the same links. Also, when he understands words, they sometimes change colour. If you are interested in this subject, it is worth reading.

Perhaps it originates when as babies and small children we are first experiencing the world. Perhaps, at the time when our brain is full of connections and some are being hard-wired and some are being eliminated – wires cross and the wrong things are linked up.

Either way, it is an interesting puzzle, and intriguing look into the brains we understand so little of, and a reminder that we can’t assume that the people around us experience the world the same way we experience it.

Other interesting web resources on this subject:
Mindhacks (The taste of musical notes)
Wikipedia has a very good explanation of different types of synaethesia
MIT – also has a listing of journal articles
and a rather lovely poem about syneasthesis by Annette Snyckers