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The Strange World Of Synaesthesia


By James Donahue


There isn’t a lot written about people who hear and even taste color, but they are among us. In addition to his many other talents, our son, Aaron C. Donahue, possesses this remarkable gift.


Synaesthetes are relatively rare. Some estimates are perhaps one in 2000 possess some degree of synaesthesia, but it is difficult to get an exact handle on the numbers. That is because synaesthetes often don’t make their talents known, and may go through life not realizing there is anything different about their perception of the world.


Aaron says he thought everybody was as sensitive to colors and sounds as he is until he was nearly an adult. I think the revelation came to him in high school or in his college years.


He says he perceives sound as color and foods in terms of geometric shapes. Thus Aaron avoids bright gaudy colors and enjoys food in a different way than most of us. When around Aaron, those of us who know his sensitivities dress mostly in black, grey and white so that we don’t disturb his thoughts any more than necessary. At times the smell of food cooking, or harsh sounds interrupt his thoughts.


From what I have been able to learn about Synaesthesia, it can manifest in a variety of ways. I read one interesting account of a woman that recognized the days of the week in color. For her, Mondays are red instead of our usual perception of blue.


Another man, like Aaron, perceived the taste of the things he ate in shape and form.


Neurologist Dr. Richard Cytowic did an extensive study of this phenomenon in 1980 and concluded that synaesthesia is an actual experience. metaphors such as seeing red when we are mad, feeling blue when we are depressed, or saying a cheese tastes sharp.


Cytowic also found that the sensory perceptions are different in each synaesthete. They also remain vivid and constant throughout the lifetime.


His experiments found that the cerebral cortex of the brain shuts down with synaesthetes, and the limbic nerves take over. The limbic system is a circuit of nerves that regulate the body, control memory, emotions and survival functions.


Studies also have shown that most synaesthetes are left handed and experience difficulty perceiving directions.


The theory is that in most people the cortex is dominant, so we are not aware of the multi-sensory processing going on in the limbic region of our brain. But in synaesthetes, Cytowic suggests that the limbic system becomes dominant and the data filtering going on here is revealed.


A recent study with synaesthetes who became blinded in mid-life, conducted a team led by Megan Steven at the University of Oxford, discovered that the blind continue to “see” colors with word associations after learning Braille. This suggests that the brain can be trained to adapt this condition to change.


The question still remains dangling out there for us to answer . . . can all brains adapt to synaesthetesia, or is the ability limited to just a select few? And once we have become comfortable with the world as we know it, would we want to change?


Also of curious interest; the English language is filled with off metaphors involving colors and food. For example, we say things like “seeing red” to express anger, or “feeling blue” when we are down. And then we often say a cheese tastes “sharp,” or a soup is “flat.”


Where did these expressions come from? Can it be that we all are synaesthetes in the subconscious sense, but need to relearn how to open that third eye to experience the effect?


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