A September 2006 Scientific american article describes the phenomenon of synesthesia as
an anomalous blending of the senses in which the stimulation of one modality simultaneously produces sensation in a different modality.
In other words, the brain receives one sense and converts it into another. For instance, the sound of a car passing by having a strong paint smell, or the number 16 tasting sweet.
Synesthesia can present itself in many, many different ways, and there is no specific method of telling whether you or someone you know is experiencing it or not. A triangle might taste like a dry wine for one synesthete, but smell like a sunflower for another. However, despite these wide ranging differences, the sense to sense mappings that synesthetes have are often very much the same. I.E. synesthete A will always think a triangle tastes like dry wine, and synesthete B will always think it smells like a sunflower. This is what sets synesthesia apart from things such as psychotic or drug/medication induced hallucination episodes.
Synesthesia is a fascinating and bizarre phenomenon, but it can be quite jarring, maybe even overwhelming, to deal with at times. For instance, imagine your synesthesia is turned up so high that literally every sense, and all forms of it, have a synesthetic mapping. You hear a plane flying overhead, as well as 50 people talking in 50 different languages and accents, all with different sounding voices. Oh and the smell of cooking food too. It’s a nice smell, but that’s not the point. Your brain is having to process thousands of stimuli and synesthetically map each one. If that doesn’t make your brain crash like Windows 95 after a Blue Screen of Death error, I have no idea what will!
I’ve known what synesthesia is for quite a while, but have never taken any serious notice of it. That is until I got chatting to someone online about it after reading some of their social media posts. Like me, this person is totally blind, but more to the point, he’s a synesthete. He’s an adaptable synesthete, meaning his synesthesia can effectively be turned up and down. Part of his synesthesia involves words having different textures, depending on both the language and accent in which the word is spoken. We eventually formed a kind of bond over our synesthesia, and now I consider us to be close friends. Well, as close as an online friendship can be. 🙂
After chatting with him for a bit, I eventually realized that he’d helped unlock a part of me that I never really knew existed, my own synesthetic tendencies.
How my synesthesia works
I have quite a unique, but also highly confusing, form of synesthesia in which every word, in either English or any other language, is mapped to one or more musical notes in which I imagine that word being said. Now, here’s where it gets confusing. One word can have more than one musical note mapping, and each syllable, I.E. the parts that make up a word, also have their own mapping.
The only way for me to demonstrate this is with a piano recording. The following sound file shows how the word ‘Sweden’ is mapped to musical notes. The first note you hear is A4, which is the swee syllable. The second note, G4, is the den syllable. It might help if you sing along with the notes so you can get an idea of how the word maps to the notes.
If you’ve made it this far without your brain blowing up, first of all, congratulations! Secondly, here are some more piano examples of my synesthetic word to musical note mappings. Again, singing along with the notes might help you understand the mappings better.
For screen reader users, each word will be listed as a level 2 heading, and the mappings will be level 3 headings. This will allow you to quickly jump between them using the appropriate heading navigation keys for your screen reader.
Beat (music)/beet (beetroot)
Mapping 1, F4
Mapping 2, G4
Mapping 3, C5
Mapping 1, A4
CD (compact disk)/Seedy (full of seeds)
Mapping 1, D3, C3
Mapping 2, F3, D3
Mapping 3, F4, D4
Mapping 4, D5, C5
Mapping 5, F5, D5
Feet (legs)/feat (achievement)
Mapping 1, A4
Scene (movie)/seen (with your eyes)/h2>
Mapping 1, E4
Sea (ocean)/See (with your eyes)
Mapping 1, D4
Mapping 2, F4
Mapping 3, G4
Mapping 4, D5
Mapping 5, F5
Mapping 1, A4
mapping 1, a4>
Synesthesia can be a very confusing concept to wrap your head around; even the best scientists are still finding their way around it!
I hope this blog post has been as intriguing and insightful as it has been mind boggling. Below is a citation link to the 2006 Scientific American article that I used as a research point for this blog post.
Scientific American. (2006). What is synesthesia?. [Online]. scientificamerican.com. Last Updated: 11th September, 2006. Available at: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-is-synesthesia/ [Accessed 13th July, 2023].