How do you pronounce that?: What I learned about synesthesia

The synee behind 'Lisha Danae

Hello. Dusty sky blue, yellow, rusty red, rusty red, white. H-E-L-L-O. Had my parents not shown me a documentary about synesthesia, I might not have discovered that I was a synesthete myself for quite some time. I was 14 when I realized I had this amazing gift, and I immediately rushed to my computer and did a bunch of Google searches. Since then, I've discovered more and more types that I have and have made lots of friends.

This Hub is a quick, easy-to-understand summary of the neat information I found online and in books I've read about it. For more information, I suggest your own Google and library searches. Dr. Cytowic's books are great, and Wendy Mass's A Mango Shaped Space is a fiction book with a fun take on synesthesia. If you have never heard of synesthesia or want to know the basics, you've come to the right place.

How I (roughly) see the word 'synesthesia'.
How I (roughly) see the word 'synesthesia'. | Source

What I Learned 01: Definition and Pronunciation

Synesthesia.  Alternate spelling - synaesthesia.  Pronunciation: sĭn'ĭs-thē'zhə

Synesthesia is a neurological condition where a trigger in one sense (a sound, a touch, a taste) elicits another response in a different sense (a color, a touch, a sound). Common stimulus -> responses include:

  • letters and numbers (graphemes) -> color, personality
  • music -> color, shape, touch
  • time (year, week) -> color, shape, personality
  • touch (hug, tickle) or pain (headache, toothache) -> color, shape

There are too many combinations to list. The taste of broccoli could make someone feel a light touch on his shoulder. An emotion could cause someone to see a specific color, so anger could be purple and sadness could be pink. The combinations are endless. What's more, each synesthete's responses are unique. While two synesthetes may agree that E is yellow and 5 is green, there are no two synesthetes who have the entire alphabet colored the same. No two synesthetes will see the same colors in the same way with the same shapes for the same song. Every response is unique, and the conversations and friendly debates between synesthetes over their responses are lively, animated, and very fun all around. It is great to hear about everyone's different responses, try to imagine them, then smile to yourself because they are "wrong". 5 is green, everyone! Green! Not yellow - that's 3!

What I Learned 02: Terms to Know

Before we go any further, I want to share some terms I learned with you.

  • Associator: a person who sees their synesthetic responses in their "mind's eye". Try picturing a rose. You can see the rose, but it isn't actually in front of you. That is 'associated'.
  • Chain responses: where one trigger elicits a synesthetic response which then elicits another response. An example "When I smell fluoride, I get a headache, and that headache then is colored dark red." The chain is smell -> pain -> color.
  • Non-synesthete: a person without synesthesia.
  • Projector: a person who sees their synesthetic responses as projected in front of them. Imagine a projector placing a picture of your imagined rose up on a screen. That is 'projected'.
  • Response: the synesthetic response to a stimulus. This could be a sound, a song, a touch, a color, a taste, and more.
  • Stimulus: the trigger that sets off the synesthetic response: This could be a sound, a song, a touch, a letter, an emotion, and much more.
  • SUI: stands for Syn Under Influence. I learned this term on the synesthesia message board The Nexus and MixSig.net. This is where a synesthetic response is affected by outside influences. An example would be "The colors of my numbers are the same as the colors of the numbers on the blocks I had as a child." Some of those colors may actually be synesthetic responses, but chances are you are just remembering the colors on the blocks and associating them with the numbers. This is different than "associated synesthesia".
  • Syn types: the type(s) of synesthesia you have. Often, synesthetes will have more than one. The type is named after the trigger. If sound causes a response in you (color, taste, etc.), then that is sound-syn. If letters cause a response in you (color, personality, etc.), then that is sight-syn.
  • Synesthesia: a neurological condition where a stimulus in one sense elicits a response in another.
  • Synesthete: a person with synesthesia. Shortened forms: synee/synnie

My upper- and lower-case As. Normally my upper- and lower-case letters are the same color, but this is one of the few cases where they are different.
My upper- and lower-case As. Normally my upper- and lower-case letters are the same color, but this is one of the few cases where they are different. | Source
The colors of my R.  I could not get the right combination of red and blue without it becoming purple. One of the two letters I have that is multi-colored.
The colors of my R. I could not get the right combination of red and blue without it becoming purple. One of the two letters I have that is multi-colored. | Source
My V. My second multi-colored letter. It is green-grey at the bottom and gets less green and more grey as you move to the top.
My V. My second multi-colored letter. It is green-grey at the bottom and gets less green and more grey as you move to the top. | Source
Source

Some things to know

  • Having only a few responses in a syn type still counts. You can have only a handful of colored letters or only a dozen sound->shape responses. As long as it is involuntary and consistent, then it still counts as synesthesia.
  • Synesthetic responses often do not relate to the trigger. If R is red, B is blue, Y is yellow, O is orange, G is green, P is pink and so on, chances are that the colors of the letters are only those colors because they begin the words of the colors. So, G is green because green starts with G; O is orange because orange starts with O. This would not be synesthesia. Synesthetic responses are usually unrelated. For me, R is a combination of navy blue and rusty red. B is navy blue. Y is silver. O is white. G is a dark purple. P is a purple-pink. Only some are related, and even then only slightly.
  • Synesthetic responses are not elaborate. Hearing Bach may make you image a complex story that unfolds in relationship to the music. Great, but that happens for everyone. This is not a synesthetic response. If, however, Bach makes you see swirls of green, wavy lines that are purple, and spots of yellow that flash when the music crescendos, then great! That's synesthetic.
  • But synesthetic responses are very specific and often very difficult to describe.It does not suffice to say it is "a green 5". No. It is a "forest green 5". Not "leprechaun green" or "shamrock green". "Forest green". The shape of the year isn't a circle. It's more of an oval. Well, the top is really elongated. And the shape is smooth and perfectly curved, yet it has points to it.
  • Memory and smell, memory and taste, and smell and taste are strongly related.This means be extra careful when trying to distinguish between an synesthetic and non-synesthetic response. The smell of rain on certain days makes me think of my grandmother's house, but that's only because I'm remembering the smell as similar to the smell I am currently experiencing. It is not synesthetic. If I smelled spaghetti and pictured spaghetti, that's not synesthetic either. However, if rain smells like blue and green swirls and spaghetti smelled like yellow spikes, then that is synesthetic.
  • What may seem as overwhelming extra senses are nothing unusual to synees.  Non-synesthetes might wonder how we synees can "deal with all the extra stuff" we experience. What people who aren't familiar with synesthesia should realize is that these experiences aren't "extra stuff" to us. It is perfectly normal, just like hearing is normal to us. A deaf person could ask you how you "deal with all the added noise" and "wouldn't it be chaotic to always be hearing things?" But to you, hearing is normal. You only have to "deal with it" when it gets too loud. The same is true of synees. We only "deal with" our syn when we get a shocking or negative response that we weren't expecting or when we have "sensory overload". That is when too many responses are happening at one time, like a noisy room can overload your ears. Those responses are few and far between, though. 

  • Consistent: Synesthetic responses are the same over many trials. If the color of 3 changes from a yellow to a lighter yellow, that's not a big deal. However, if it changes from yellow to purple to blue, that's another thing and it is probably not synesthesia. That said, when figuring out responses, sometimes it can take you a while to pin down the most accurate description. Patience. Run more trials. 
  • Involuntary: Not forcing yourself to think up a response. If you have to sit and say "Is 3 yellow? Or purple? Blue? No, black?" then it's likely that it's not synesthesia. That said, if you are saying "Is 3 a sunflower yellow or a lemon yellow?", then it is most likely synesthesia.

Do I have it? How do I tell others about it?

Maybe. Not many doctors know about it, though, so the best way to tell is through self-diagnosis. Write down your responses and their triggers. Put it away in a drawer somewhere for a month or so. After a month, write down the same responses you got to the same triggers. Compare the lists, and see how they match up. It takes patience. The two basic tests your responses need to pass are (1) is it consistent? and (2) is it involuntary?

Another great way to test your could-be synesthetic responses is the long, time-consuming, but very wonderful test on Synesthete.org. It is called the Synesthesia Battery. You get to select your personal responses to the triggers the program provides based on what you said where your syn types. After three times through the list, you get to see the results. I believe less than 90% isn't considered to be a synesthetic response.

Even if you are a non-synesthete, bringing up synesthesia in a conversation can be awkward for both parties. Many synesthetes I know who mention it, myself included, get responses ranging from "Oh, really?" with a hesitant smile and a quick topic change to "You're crazy" to a short, polite, somewhat genuinely interested conversation. If you are looking for a way to bring up the conversation, I suggest providing scientific articles, documentaries, books - anything you can get your hands on. Begin with something like "So, I happened across this neat scientific thing the other day. It is where senses cross and (define as long as you like). Here are some print-offs (or links or lists of books, etc.)" Scientific documents like that are a great basis because then you can segway into "Guess what? I have it" without people assuming you are making it up.

I want more information

Of course you do! A quick Google search will pull up tons of information. There will be book links, scholarly articles, quick blurbs on news websites, personal experiences, documentaries, online communities, and much more. Dr. Cytwoic a leading expert on synesthesia, and he's published numerous books on the subject. YouTube has plenty of documentaries and personal videos. Online communities such as The Nexus at MixSig.net bring together synees and non-synees alike. Take a look for yourself!

This is 'Lisha Danae saying, "Navy blue - silver - yellow!" ("B-Y-E!")

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Comments 10 comments

Heather 6 years ago

Thank you so much for this article. It helped me a lot. I'm trying to figure out if the associations I get with music/sounds>shapes/colours and some numbers>colours is normal.

This is the first thing I've found where they mentions associated synesthesia, which is what I believe I may have.

Thanks~


'Lisha Danae profile image

'Lisha Danae 6 years ago Author

Heather,

Thanks for your comment. I'm glad this helped you! What sort of associations do you have? Plenty of people I've met online who have synesthesia have associated responses for all their types. It's just as much synesthesia as projected responses are.


Topher 5 years ago

I think I have emotion-color synesthesia: I see outlines around everything and depending on my mood the outlines are either transparent and wispy or colorful.

Nice article - there aren't many like it on the net.


'Lisha Danae profile image

'Lisha Danae 5 years ago Author

Topher,

Thanks for the comment. I really appreciate it! Emotion-> color syn - how exciting! That's one type I don't have. From what little you've told me, it does sound like it could be emotion-syn. If you're still not sure, you might try writing down/drawing your responses, hiding the list/picture in a drawer, making a new list/picture a month later, and then comparing the old and new ones. I also recommend visiting the Nexus forum I mentioned in the article. You can talk about your syn and meet others who have that type of syn - as well as a ton of others who have different types or no syn at all! Thanks again for your comment.


dragupine 4 years ago

we're doing a speech about something that we consider an "issue" today in social studies, and i was wondering if synesthesia would be something to write about, because a lot of people have no clue what it is. I was thinking it would raise awareness, but...


'Lisha Danae profile image

'Lisha Danae 4 years ago Author

dragupine: When you say "social studies", do you mean something like a world history class? Or do you mean "social SCIENCES", which would be psychology, sociology, and so on? If you mean "social sciences", then synesthesia would be an appropriate topic. If you mean a history type of class, then I doubt that synesthesia would fit and I would imagine your teacher would mean a political, moral, or social issue facing society today. But this all depends on exactly what class you are in.


dragupine profile image

dragupine 4 years ago

social studies as in both. I ended up doing prejudice and hope to sneak a paragraph about synesthesia in... :)


Clara 3 years ago

Thank you for writing this! I read "A Mango Shaped Space" about a year ago, which is about a girl with synesthesia. I didn't realize I might have it until then. However the girl in the book had projection synesthesia, and when I read words, I don't literally see the colors on the words. I know A is red plastic, and H is sunflower yellow and kind of squishy, but I have a bunch of inconsistencies. Names have colors, but it's different if I'm reading it or hearing it. Ana reads red orange red but it sounds like an almost white yellow that soft like feathers. Also, I play this game with music, where I close my eyes and picture the music, and it looks like a synesthetic experience is described, but I do have to actually be thinking about the music. Only certain songs work too. And I often can't tell you exactly what part is what color, or shape. Sometimes, only overall songs have colors. But it's not very involuntary if I have to think about it to see it, is it?


Bree 2 years ago

I never knew that Synesthesia existed until recently; I've always associated colours and genders with numbers and to some extent the alphabet. Also, certain foods have very strong feeling and associations; coffee for example is very strongly the colour maroon or deep red, the colour nine, and female. The highest note on the piano sounds like chalk (which I thought was normal until everyone looked at me weird after I said it). Overly happy songs are associated with tall grass and the colour red; it's just things like that. I'm trying the test where you write down what you associate different things with, and I'll come back and re write it a month or so later. Thank you so much for giving me a way to test if I have Synesthesia!


'Lisha Danae profile image

'Lisha Danae 2 years ago Author

Apologies for the very late replies for some of you. Life has been quite busy.

dragupine: That sounds like it was a good topic!

Clara: Thank you for your comment. I'm glad you like my article. Your responses to letters sound great (and so different from my own!). Some of my letter colors changed or became more specific (I and H changed, and R and V became more specific), so don't worry all too much. And wow, your responses for names! I don't really get anything from hearing them, so I'm jealous. As for music, do you mean you have to be hearing the music for the response? Because that's natural. Also, you don't have to have a response for every song or sound or letter to have that kind of synesthesia. Can you explain more about what you mean by "think about it"? I know that I have to focus on the responses really hard sometimes so I can actually pay attention to it and determine what I'm seeing.

Bree: I'm glad I could help! Your responses sound really neat! I've never thought about the highest notes sounding like chalk.

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