A strange condition where the senses are entangled or overlapping in the mind, causing a situation where things that stimulate one sense can cause the others to trigger in ways also. This can also affect other parts that depend on sensory data, such as the part of the brain that handles language.

People with this condition (a synesthete) commonly see letters as being of various colors, see shapes when they hear sounds, or hear sounds when they are touched. The correlations between the senses vary from one individual to another - while one may see a letter "e" as a deep red, another may see it as white.

Personally, I am jealous of those people with this condition. While I am aware that it can be an inconvience at times, the additional life and depth the world would have seems to be a very attractive idea.

My girlfriend did research on a woman who had colors for letters, but was also bilingual - she spoke Russian as well as English, and she had a different set of colors for the letters of the Cyrillic alphabet. Interestingly, the colors for the Cyrillic letters had no clear relation to the colors for the letters of the Latin alphabet - sometimes two letters which sounded alike would have similar colors, but sometimes they would be completely different. sometimes letters which looked alike would have similar colors, but not always. fascinating.

For an interesting case study, read the man who tasted shapes by Richard E. Cytowic.

Unlike many mental abnormalities, synesthesia actually seems to positively enrich the lives of many who have it; one woman I spoke to compared it to seeing in color, while normal folk see it in black and white.


Synaesthesia is an involuntary physical experience of cross-modal association. That is to say, stimulation of one sense causes perception of another (e.g. hearing light, seeing sound, etc.)

As a genetic disorder it is a dominant gene on the X chromosome. Usually, two senses are crossed in a single direction making 20 different possible combinations of sense.

Synaesthesia is rare, effecting about 1 in every 250,000 people. It is more common with left handed people, women, and is often seen in people with autism or ADHD.

Synaesthesia can be induced by seizure, drug use (especially hallucinogens like LSD or peyote,) neuron degeneration, brain damage or spinal cord damage.

Synesthesia affects approximately 1 in 25,000 individuals. It seems to be a genetic disorder (or gift as the case may be) as it runs in families. In the US the ratio is about 3:1 female to male synesthetes, while in Britain is is 8:1. Synesthetes are predominantely left-handed1.

Vladimir Nabokov was synesthethetic. For instance as a toddler he complained that the colours of his blocks were "all wrong". Both his mother and his father were synesthetes, so Vladomir undoubtably received the condition from one of them.

Electronic musician Richard D. James (a.k.a. Aphex Twin, AFX, Polygon Window, etc.) is a synesthete2. This fits the music he makes as most of his songs and albums seem to have a dominant "colour". For instance, Selected Ambient Works Volume II is decidedly brown, which is also the dominant colour of the album's cover, which Richard designed.

Another possibly synesthetic artist is Syd Barrett, early guitarist and songwriter of the band Pink Floyd. Barrett, however, was also a painter and used classical and free jazz music to inspire his paintings. Andrew King, one of the band's managers in the late 1960's, said of Barrett's song "Interstellar Overdrive":

It was all very much part of Syd's approach not to separate things into categories. He saw art and music as complementary ideas and he was always trying to get his music to sound like his art and visa versa.3

Syd Barrett's synesthetic experiences may have come from LSD. His use of the drug was well known, and is said to have caused him to "freak out" permanently to a degree that he was kicked out of the band by the other members.

It's possible that everyone is a little bit synesthetic. Use of drugs such as LSD or mush, and some other psychedelic drugs can bring on synthestetic effects. However, there's no need to go to those extremes to get an idea of what it's like. Just close your eyes and think of the number one. Does it have a colour? Now, think of the number two. Then three and four. What colours are they? Most people associate a definite colour to each number, and the colours you associate can be used as a crude personality test. The Lüscher Color Test by Dr. Max Lüscher is one example, which is described in a book of the same name. This is a mild synesthetic effect.

You can also try this with music. Listen to some good, complex, instrumental music. (I would recommend Aphex Twin or Squarepusher, but that's just me). As you listen to the song, ask yourself "what colour is this chord?" or "what shape is that drum beat?" Electronic music is good for this as it often deals more with raw sound than form, melody or lyrics as much pop music does. For me, a song like Squarepusher's "Beep Street" conjures up shades of blue and green in the bass melody. The treble melodies are orange, yellow and red and the drums explode like white firework flashes. But that's my personal interpretation, and it's probable that you will see something totally different. YMMV.

If I had to have a mental abnormality, I'd go for this one.

1 Richard E. Cytowic "Synesthesia: Phenomenology And Neuropsychology"

2 Aphex Twin Artist Information, Warp Records Website. http://www.warprecords.com/.

3 Cliff Jones Echoes 1996 Carlton Books.

Sitting on a cold curb after a John Mayer concert, I casually remarked that I absolutely detested his song "Your Body is a Wonderland" due to the layers of encrusted sentimentality and sugar it was coated in. "Exactly," someone said, "The song is crystalline white, almost translucent." I glanced over just in time to see Mayer himself walking away from me. My shock and blushing cheeks soon faded, and I was left wondering what exactly he had meant.

It has come to my attention, thanks to those lovely folks at Rolling Stone, that Mayer suffers from a truly intriguing disorder called Synaesthesia. Synaesthesia is a complicated condition that manifests itself in many ways, all of which entail the linking of the sensory modalities to one another. For example, Chromaesthesia is the specific name for people who hear words and perceive colors that are in no way linked to any real visual perception. These colors are consistent; if Mayer hears the word blister and it elicits the palest of shell pinks, he will always see the word blister as pink. The most common of these Chromaesthesia associations involve numbers, but not all people with the disorder even see all words as colored.

There have been cases of the connection of other sense as well, such as touch to color,(your touch feels like the palest blue), taste to sound, (Caesar salad tastes like the swing of a golf club), smell to color, (Issey Miyake perfume smells like lemon yellow), taste to color, (Hummus tastes like dark green), taste to touch, (Chocolate Turtle Truffle Torte tastes like a stubbed toe), touch to sound, (punching you in the face feels like a pop song), sight to taste, (llamas look like sweet and sour sauce), smell to touch: (lilac smells like soft kissing), sound to smell, (leaves rustling sounds like baseball diamond dirt), sound to taste, (lambs screaming sounds like kettle corn, sight to smell,(sailboats on the Columbia river look like gasoline fumes), sound to touch, (an alarm clock sounds like (breaking a bone), touch to smell, (running your fingers through her hair feels like mint,sight to hearing, amber waves of grain look like gunshots, touch to taste, (holding hands feels like vegetarian pizza), smell to sound, (the naknek river smells like the braying of donkeys, and sight to touch, (your eyes feel like fingers running down my spine).

Note that the associations between the two senses are usually contrary to expectations, in the sense that a person suffering from Chromaesthesia will probably not hear the word "frog" and picture the word as green. In fact, a person with Synaesthesia may have no knowledge that they perceive the world in a special way, which is why estimates of the number of humans with the disorder range from 1 in 250,000 to 1 in 2,000. Those that are diagnosed report no ill effects from the disorder, and in fact many, such as Mayer, are highly gifted in many artistic fields. In fact, the label of disorder seems almost a misnomer.

None the less, the American Synaesthesia Association, along with a select group of psychologists, is highly interested in discovering the cause of the disorder. The first of three prominent theories is Neonatal Synaesthesia, which seeks to explain the associations through experiences in very early childhood, claiming that Synaesthesia is a natural stage of childhood development that remains in the brain of a select few. On a more physical level, Limbic Mediation Theory, seeks to explain the condition with a complicated theory involving the interruption of cortical blood flow, leading to sensations to emerge that usually remain the limbic system, specifically the hippocampus. Cortical Disinhibition Feedback Theory posits that all brains experience feedback relating to the other senses, but a synesthete)'s brain does not block these crossmodal sensations.

In any case, Synaethesia is possibly the most interesting and desirable of disorders. I listened to Room for Squares while writing this, wondering what color Comfortable glows in Mayer's mind. Honey gold splashed on denim blue, in my normal brain.

Baron-Cohen, S., and Harrison, J. (Eds.). Synaesthesia: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers. www.doctorhugo.org/synaesthesia/
I think I can smell music.

The olfactory bits are said to trigger memory the strongest, and alongside ginger, petroleum and babies wafts odorous notes into the holes of my face.

It’s been this way a long time now. It seems to be a lingering side-effect from my years of massive speed-snorting. Sometimes while high the synesthesia would kick in strong- distinguished modes of perception gradually burned and melted together until the feel of leather upholstery became a taste on my cut lips, and I could hear Picasso’s “Violin” peel pieces of cubed requiems.

After months of coming down the mush has greatly unmushed, but the aroma of song lingers. I don’t know if the ailment will last, but I kind of like it this way. Absorbing some bits and sections of living across multiple senses can feel good when clean.

Using’s hurt still pinches up my skin in moments, although this bruising gets calamined when scents of brass and percussion are cooked just right.

Can you hear the colors 
Can you see the sound 
Can you listen to another 
And hear what is profound 
Will you take a bother 
Or will you turn around 
Will you explore the clutter 
And search for what hasn't been found 
Will you search the world 
Will hear them speak 
Or will you lie on the floor 
Because you feel weak 
Will you look for more 
Continue till it's complete. 
Will you walk in, fly, and soar 
Let your heart lead your feet
Take a risk, make the score 
Even search the side streets 
Theres a world to explore 

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