Commonly Asked Questions about Synesthesia
Synesthesia - the linking of two or more senses, where the first sense elicits an automatic and involuntary response in the second sense - is a relatively recent neurological rediscovery made by Dr. Richard Cytowic in 1980. Very little is widely known about this fascinating condition, and there are many inaccurate understandings about and portrayals of what synesthesia actually is. Because of this, many questions and stereotypes about synesthesia have arisen. The focus of this Hub, then, is to answer some of these recurring questions and dispel any misconceptions about such a unique and intriguing trait.
General Questions About Syn
How do I know if I have synesthesia? A self-diagnosis is the best way to determine if you have synesthesia or not. Many doctors are not familiar with synesthesia, and even if they are, there isn't much they can do in the way of testing other than some brain scans to show what parts of the brain light up when a certain stimulus is provided. A self-diagnosis is easier, faster, and cheaper. Depending on the type of synesthesia, drawing a picture of the response might be easier than writing it down, so do whatever works best for you. However, here is a very common method for self-diagnosis.
- Ask yourself "Is this reaction involuntary and consistent?" This means that the reaction (ex. experience a white O) happens each time the stimulus (in this case, the O) occurs and happens without you thinking about it.
- Make note of your reactions. If you believe you have colored letters or numbers (known as graphemes), make a list of the graphemes and write your reactions to each one in as much detail as possible. If drawing a picture or something works better, do that instead.
- Put the list or picture away for a few weeks, make a new one, and then compare the two. If you have synesthesia, then almost all of your answers should be the same. If, in two weeks, white O was blazing orange, your green 5 was baby pink, or your purple spiral was a highlighter-yellow cube, then you most likely do not have synesthesia. If one or two changed somewhat but the vast majority stayed the same, then chances are good that you have synesthesia. This may be a tedious process, but it is the best way to diagnose yourself. Don't be in too much of a rush to pin down your reactions - they'll come with time.
Can I only have one type of synesthesia? While some do have only one type of synesthesia, synesthetes are not 'limited' to only having one syn-type. In fact, most synesthetes have more than one. For instance, someone may have just sound -> touch, but another person may have sound -> touch plus sound -> color, grapheme (letter, number) -> color, and concept (numbers, years, movie genres...) -> sight. There are more types and sub-types of synesthesia than one might first think, too. Sound -> touch seems pretty specific, right? Well, what about sound -> texture? Sound -> temperature? How about a chain response such as sound -> texture -> color (where the texture response elicits a second synesthetic response, which is color)?
Can I get synesthesia if I don't have it? No, you can't, although in rare cases head injuries can cause synesthesia. Also, drugs like LSD can cause synesthetic-like reactions. However, drug-induced synesthetic reactions are not true synesthesia, and under no circumstances should you do drugs or try to hurt yourself in any way, shape, or form to gain synesthesia.
Can I lose synesthesia if I have it? Sometimes head injuries can make one temporarily or permanently lose his or her synesthesia.Other times conditions such as high levels of stress or depression can cause synesthesia to temporarily disappear; once that stress, depression, and so on is gone, then synesthesia usually returns to normal.
Can my responses change? Yes, sometimes they can; however, the changes would most likely be subtle, slow changes rather than sudden, obvious ones. So, a V might be dark grey, but dark green may slowly begin to creep up from the bottom to the middle towards the top, until the V is all dark green or a mix of grey and green. It is highly unlikely that a white 0 will suddenly turn bright red. When first discovering a certain type of synesthesia, figuring out what responses occur for what triggers can lead to a shifting of colors. One letter might seem to be a bright ice blue, but, as one starts to really pin down what each letter color truly is, the letter might turn out to be a dark grey. Other than during this initial discovery phase, though, synesthetic responses rarely change, and too much frequent fluctuation in synesthetic responses can mean the responses are not truly synesthetic.
What if I don't see my responses out in front of me? Am I still a synesthete? Absolutely! Seeing responses out in front of you, perhaps on a screen or as a cloud of color, is called projected synesthesia, and you would be a projector. If you see a response in your mind's eye (that is, in your head, just like when you would recall a memory), then that is called associated synesthesia, and you would be an associator. Both associated and projected synesthesia are real and equally valid types of synesthesia.
Can you turn responses off or on? Responses are involuntary and automatic and thus cannot be turned off. A synesthete will always see the same letter as the same color or see the same shape to the same car alarm sound. He cannot decide: 'Today I'm not going to feel that annoying jab in my left side when that dog howls, but I guess I can live with it tomorrow.' With a lot of practice, however, some synesthetes can tune out certain responses. This is a particularly common thing students do to help them concentrate more. For example, a girl might learn to 'tune out' the color of her teacher's voice so she can focus on the lesson. This is the same concept as tuning out a loud conversation behind you so you can focus on watching TV. The color of the teacher's voice is still there, just like the conversation is still going on behind you, but, like the conversation, the color is tuned out. This is as close to 'turning off' a response as can be reached.
Dr. Cytowic's website containing information on synesthesia, related books, articles, media, and his own written works.
Is it a disability? In the sense of being incapacitated by synesthetic responses, generally the answer is no. Most synesthetes find their responses great or just simply normal. There are certain circumstances when responses are unpleasant, overwhelming, or distracting to the synesthete, and it is these responses that, at times, can be incapacitating. For example, a synesthete may not be able to be in a crowded room without being overwhelmed with response after response after response; or another synesthete may not be able to listen to the radio, talk, and drive at the same time because all the sounds could literally be clouding their vision. However, many synesthetes learn to "tune out" unpleasant or distracting responses, much like one would tune out the radio while trying to type a paper.
Is it a disease? Can I catch it? No, it is not a disease and cannot be caught. It is a genetic trait often passed down in families, much like eye color or hair color are passed down from parent to child. For more on this, visit Dr. Cytowic's site; he has many great books on the topic.
Is synesthesia related to a specific disease, disorder, etc? No. Synesthesia is a trait one is born with where two or more (typically just two) senses mix. It has been documented as running in families, where (for example) grandmother, daughter, granddaughter and grandson all have some form(s) of synesthesia.. For more on this, visit Dr. Cytowic's site.
Is synesthesia genetic? Though the specific gene for synesthesia has not been discovered, synesthesia tends to run in families and is believed to be a genetic trait. If you have synesthesia, chances are someone else in your family has it and doesn't even know! For more on this, visit Dr. Cytowic's site.
Statistics, Misconceptions, and Generalizations about Synees
How many people actually have this? There is no accurate number. It ranges from 1 in 200 to 1 in 23, with Dr. Richard Cytowic supporting this last number. (Cytowic.net) Reasons for this discrepancy could include ways of gaining information, types of people responding to interviews, and so on. For example, women are more likely than men to discuss something as personal as synesthesia. An internet survey would attract the attention of those already interested in synesthesia and those willing to speak up about it. Many synesthetes say that when they mentioned something about their synesthesia as children, they were not believed or they were mocked, and this can lead to these people keeping quiet about their synesthesia for decades. In short, there are a variety of factors involved in gaining these numbers, but the rough estimates are between 1 in 23 and 1 in 200.
I've heard that synesthetes are typically female, artistic, left-handed, bad at math, and have no sense of direction. Is that true? Many people just learning about synesthesia will take these for fact. Yes, there may be an artistic, left-handed female synesthete, but that doesn't mean all synesthetes have these characteristics. The fact is that most of these are probably not very accurate; it is very likely that there are a ton of synesthetes who just haven't spoken up about their synesthesia, which can cause inaccurate results (see the question above for more on this).
Are synesthetes making this up for attention? What if I don't believe the synesthete? What if non-synesthetes don't believe me? Unfortunately, there are people who will pretend to have synesthesia for attention. However, for an overwhelming majority, this is not the case. If someone claims to have synesthesia, they most likely do and should be listened to respectfully and with an open mind. Synesthesia is something very personal, and it can be difficult for some synesthetes to work up the courage to mention it, even to someone they trust like a parent or best friend. To spend months working up the courage to share something so personal only to be disbelieved or laughed at does nothing to help the synesthete. If you find yourself in a situation where you don't believe someone who claims to have synesthesia, please be considerate of their feelings and how much it might have taken for them to open up about it.
If you find yourself being disbelieved by someone to whom you just confided in, try not to get discouraged. There could be many reasons for the person to be skeptical, so ask them why they don't believe you. If they want scientific evidence, print off some articles or introduce them to a book on synesthesia. If they believe the science, but want proof of your synesthesia, get them to test you by making lists and comparing them. (See "Is it my imagination or do I have synesthesia?" or more on testing for synesthesia.) In the end, there may be some people who still will not believe you, but with scientific research and your own tests to back up your claims, most people will believe you. Some may even be jealous! Just remember - never let another's disbelief make you doubt yourself. You know your synesthesia is real, and, ultimately, that's what matters.