Heard of synesthesia, and not sure what it is? Well, imagine a world where you don’t just hear music — you can see it, taste it, or smell it. Or you can see the letters of the alphabet in different colors.
It might sound like the plot of that superhero anime you binge-watched on Crunchyroll, but it could be that you actually have synesthesia.
We’re going to look at what synesthesia is, what causes it, and how some of your favorite musicians have used it to create their masterpieces.
The word “synesthesia” comes from a Brangelina-esque mashing of two Greek words: “synth, which means “together,” and “ethesia,” which means “perception.”
And that really is the perfect word for describing it. Your brain is essentially thinking “I want to feel everything all at once!”
Different parts of your brain respond to different things. So if people without synesthesia see a yellow rubber duckie, the visual part of your brain lights up and says yellow.
With synesthesia, your brain lights up in two (or more) different places at once. So your visual sense says yellow, but your taste sense also lights up and chimes in with chocolate cake.
There doesn’t have to be any connection between color and taste: for instance, yellow could taste of chocolate cake, and brown could taste of lemon. The rulebook goes out the window.
Although people have known about synesthesia and been conducting studies into it since 1876, researchers still don’t fully understand it. That’s partly because synesthesia is not very common — an earlier study estimated that only 4 percent of people live with it.
If you’re someone who lives with synesthesia, there’s good news — you can live a completely normal life with synesthesia, and experience the world around you on a multi-dimensional level.
Spare a thought for the 96 percent of muggles and squibs who don’t share that talent, will you?
So, now we know what synesthesia is. But what’s it really like?
There’s lots of different types, and you can live with more than one of them. These include:
- Grapheme-color synesthesia. When you “see” specific colors in your mind in association with numbers or letters.
- Chromesthesia. Associating sounds with colors. These can be musical notes, or even just everyday noises such as a door shutting.
- Number form. When you have a mental map of numbers, with each one having a specific place (such as on a line).
- Mirror touch. When you see someone touching their leg and feel a touch on your own leg.
- Lexical-gustatory. When certain words evoke a sensation of taste. (So if you hear the word “city,” you might taste strawberries.)
And that’s not the full list! An earlier study identified over 60 types of synesthesia, with grapheme-color being the most common. You may also be able to taste shapes, or even see specific colors when you think about something that makes you emotional.
Most people have some experiences of synesthesia in association with very specific stimuli, but someone who is synesthetic experiences this more commonly — to a degree that makes it a trait.
What synesthesia is like — according to people who have it
Synesthesia is such a unique way to take in the world. We reached out to people who live with it to describe it in their own words.
Keita, a marketing coordinator for an art gallery
Type: Visual auditory synesthesia
Keita sometimes “hears” visual stimuli. This usually happens with rhythmic motions and patterns that loop — like a YouTube thumbnail, for example.
If it goes on for more than a few seconds, they explained the following: “It can start to feel quite disorienting and intrusive — quite hypnotic on occasion. Sometimes, it’s difficult to concentrate on anything other than the imagined sound when I’m experiencing it.”
On top of sounds in the environment, this can be quite disruptive for Keita.
Juhie, a social media marketing manager
Type: Grapheme-color synesthesia
Juhie has an entirely different experience with synesthesia, saying it made math fun at school. “I pictured simple math problems like 3+4=7 as magenta, red, and blue, subconsciously blending creativity with numbers to create these colorful visions in my head.”
They find that rather than being disruptive, Grapheme-color synesthesia connects them to heightened awareness, improved cognitive function, and enhanced memory processing.
Juhie told us: “I am very good at memorizing number sequences, and I associate people and places with these number sequences. Someone’s birthday and phone number will stick with me because I think of my friend, and I envision their persona as this combination of colors.”
Michele, a retired nurse
Type: Color synesthesia
Michele sees not only numbers in color, but also words, days of the week, and months of the year.
It can sometimes be more surprising for synesthetes that others don’t see the world this way. Michele says: “Until a chance chat with family, I had no idea this was unusual. I didn’t realize that not everyone had the same visual sense.”
The associations between specific colors and certain words/numbers stay fairly consistent for Michele. Often, there’s a thematic link — for example, the summer months generally appear as gold/red or pink. Winter months take on dull, chilly hues of grey.
Michele finds that, unlike Juhie and Keita, synesthesia has virtually no effect on her life. “I enjoy the interest other people show in my synesthesia,” she says, “but, otherwise, it doesn’t influence my life in any way.”
Famous people with synesthesia
Did you know that a higher than average number of synesthetes (people with synesthesia) are artists?
It doesn’t just apply to visual artists such as Vincent van Gogh and Wassily Kandinsky. There’s a high number of very popular musicians who have synesthesia.
If there was a synesthesia-only music festival, you certainly wouldn’t be disappointed. Famous synesthetes include:
- Billie Eilish
- Lady Gaga
- Kanye West
- Pharrell Williams
- Duke Ellington
It’s common for musicians to use their synesthesia as a composition tool. Lorde matches the notes to correspond with the colors she sees for each song, while Billie Eilish associates a color, texture, day of the week, and number with every song she writes.
There’s no research yet explaining what Kanye was thinking when he recorded the “poopedy scoop” part of “Lift Yourself.”
In the words of synesthete Lady Gaga, “You were born this way, baby!”
That’s right: most people with synesthesia are born with it or develop it very early in their life. It can also run in families. Billie Eilish’s brother FINNEAS also has it and uses it to write his music.
An earlier study suggested that it’s possible to develop it later in life too, although it’s incredibly rare. So if you’re an adult and you start seeing colors when you hear music? You might just be a unicorn.
And yes, before you ask, some illicit substances can cause a temporary, synesthesia-lite sensation for some people.
Psychedelic drugs such as LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin are the obvious suspects, but cannabis, alcohol, and even caffeine can give some people a temporary window into certain aspects of a synesthete’s world.
However, it can be difficult to appreciate these feelings of synesthesia when they’re artificially induced due to the physical, cognitive, and behaviorally adverse effects of some substances.
Is synesthesia a type of autism?
It’s pretty common for people to wonder if synesthesia is a form of autism. There’s some overlap in the way people with the two neurodivergences respond to stimuli.
But autism and synesthesia are two different things. You can have one or both.
But a higher than average number of autistic people do also have synesthesia. A 2020 study showed that among autistic people, that figure may be as high as 20 percent.
Because there’s so many different types of synesthesia, it’s difficult to nail down the exact symptoms.
You might experience sudden associations between colors and specific letters or numbers, or tastes you weren’t expecting. Over time, you would begin to expect them. And remember that you can experience more than one type of synesthesia at the same time!
There are a few common symptoms among synesthetes, though, as well as few factors which can make you more likely to have it. These include:
- uncontrollable sensations which ping more than one of your senses at a time
- perceptions that become fixed, such as the letter A always appearing red
- finding it tricky to describe what you’re seeing to other people
And those factors we mentioned? A 2018 study found that if you’re left-handed, strongly interested in arts and creativity, and female, you’re more likely to be a synesthete.
Is synesthesia a bad thing?
It’s not uncommon to see synesthesia described as a “superpower,” and it’s easy to see why.
Musical geniuses use it in their work. Synesthetes can see a rainbow of colors when they hear music. And who doesn’t want to taste ice cream every time you see the color blue?
Studies have also shown that grapheme-color synesthetes in particular can have better memories than the average person, that synesthetes in general can be more imaginative, and even that the study of synesthesia could lead to a better understanding of human consciousness.
But synesthesia isn’t all about cool abilities — there can be downsides, too. We rounded up some of the pros and cons of synesthesia.
|You might see awesome colors when you see words or hear music.||You might not like those colors. Synesthetes can be put off by a person because they don’t like the colors of their name, for example.|
|You can have improved memory.||Synesthesia can be lonely — other people don’t see the world the same way, and it can be difficult to describe.|
|You’re more likely to be interested in and good at creative pursuits.||You can be stereotyped — not all synesthetes are interested in, or good at the arts, which can lead to a feeling of pressure.|
|Listening to music can be a beautiful, visual experience.||Listening to music can be a terrible experience, if the colors you associate with the notes or instruments clash with each other.|
|Mirror touch can make you more empathetic.||Mirror touch can also be very upsetting — for instance, if you see someone get injured, you may experience a pain sensation yourself.|
Although a number of synesthetes enjoy some effects of synesthesia, others find some aspects of it disconcerting and distressing.
What if you associate the color beige with the smell of vomit, and then need to take a long-haul flight in a very beige airplane interior? You can see the potential problems.
There’s no treatment for synesthesia. Even worse, a lot of neurotypical people don’t understand what synesthesia is, or possibly haven’t even heard of it, meaning that synesthetes can become isolated in their discomfort.
If that sounds like you, one option is speaking to a mental health professional. This can really help you improve your self-esteem and learn to deal with sensory overload in overstimulating environments.
They might also be able to help you to reposition your synesthesia as a gift, by exploring how it helps your everyday life, or makes experiences — such as listening to music — richer than you realized.
If things are starting to ring some large, pizza-flavored bells, you might want to test if you’re a synesthete.
While there’s some online assessments you can do, these might not be super conclusive. After all, they may focus more on grapheme-color synesthesia, when you might be a mirror touch synesthete instead.
In that case, the assessment probably won’t help much.
A home test you can do
Instead of the online assessment, how about carrying out a simple test for synesthesia at home? It’s not super official, but it can help you become self-aware about how you take in the world.
- Close your eyes, relax, and think of all the letters of the alphabet. Do you associate a particular color with them? Or do they seem to be in a particular place, or a specific pattern, like the dots of a dice? If so, write it down.
- Now, do the same test again a few hours later, and write down your answers again. Compare your two sets of answers — have you written down the same colors or patterns on both sets? If so, you may well have synesthesia!
You can do the same test when listening to music, highlighting whether notes or instruments have a consistent color in your mind.
Some people see synesthesia as a superpower. For others, it can be a disconcerting and lonely experience. This is not a common neurodivergence, and everyone with it has an individual experience.
Mental health professionals and support groups can help you if synesthesia gets in the way of daily life.
Or if you’re not a synesthete yourself, keep the knowledge you’ve gained in mind — you might be able to help someone who is, and allow them to share their multidimensional world.