Synesthesia, It's All in the Mind
What effect does synesthesia have on people?
Another view of synesthesia
When you read a newspaper or listen to someone speaking do you see a rainbow of colors? If so, you might have synesthesia.
Synesthesia is a strange blending of the senses in which the stimulation of one modality simultaneously produces sensation in a different modality. Synesthetes hear colors, feel sounds and taste shapes. What makes synesthesia different from drug-induced hallucinations is that synesthetic sensations are highly consistent: for particular synesthetes, the note F might be a reddish shade of rust, a 3 can always be pink or truck can always be blue.
All synesthetes are not the same
The estimated occurrence of synesthesia ranges from rarer than one in 20,000 to as many as one in 200. Of the various manifestations of synesthesia, the most common involves seeing monochromatic letters, digits, and words in unique colors—this is called grapheme-color synesthesia. One rather striking observation is that such synesthetes all seem to experience very different colors for the same graphemic cues. Different synesthetes may see 3 in yellow, pink or red. Such synesthetic colors are not determined by meaning, because 2 may be orange but two can be blue and 7 may be red but the word seven will be green. Even more perplexing is that synesthetes typically report seeing both the color the character is printed in as well as their synesthetic color.
Synesthetes report having unusually good memory for things such as phone numbers, security codes, and polysyllabic anatomical terminology because digits, letters and syllables take on such a unique panoply of colors. Synesthetes also report making computational errors because 6 and 8 have the same color and claim to prejudge couples they meet because the colors of their first names clash so hideously.
Are synesthetes overly imaginative?
For too long, synesthetes were dismissed as having rather overactive imaginations, confusing memories for perceptions or taking metaphorical speech far too literally. Recent research, however, has documented the reality of synesthesia and is beginning to make headway into understanding what might cause such unusual perceptions.
In one experimental task, people were asked to say the color of the ink a word is printed in as quickly as possible (for example, responding "pink" to and "blue" to ). For lexical synesthetes, these words take on unique colors. When the synesthetic color matches the ink color, responses are fast, but when the synesthetic color mismatches the ink color, responses are slow, presumably because subjects need to resolve the conflict over which color name to respond with. Although such results demonstrate that synesthesia is automatic, in the sense that they cannot turn off their synesthesic experience even when it interferes with a task, these results do not reveal whether synesthetic colors are perceptions or memories.
Claims for the perceptual reality of synesthetic colors have been bolstered by recent functional brain imaging studies by researchers in the U. K. showing that synesthetic color activates central visual areas of the brain thought to be involved in perceiving real colors.
No one claims to know what causes synesthesia
The causes of synesthesia remain unknown. Some scientists have suggested that everyone is born synesthetic but that the typical developmental trajectory results in these highly interconnected brain areas have become far more segregated. We do not know why synesthetes retain some of these anomalous connections. A biological determinant may be partially at work in certain cases of synesthesia, because the condition tends to run in families; moreover, nearly six times as many women as men report synesthesia. Whatever its causes or origins, synesthesia provides cognitive neuroscientists with a unique opportunity to learn more about how the brain creates our perceptual reality.
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