Synesthesia is a neurological condition where the boundaries between the senses blur together, so that when one sensory modality is stimulated, this evokes sensations in another.
Although popularly portrayed as “seeing music” or “tasting rainbows,” for individuals who experience synesthesia, it is often more complex than it sounds at first.
Musical notes may evoke particular taste sensations.
A C-sharp might taste minty, and an F-minor might taste sweet, so--for those of us unable to experience synesthesia--we can only imagine what kind of a tasty experience a good concert must be.
Touch can evoke the perception of both colors and shapes, and some people with synesthesia say that acupressure, acupuncture, and massage can provide a corresponding visual experience.
There are different types of synesthesia, and in one of the more common types people report seeing black-hued numbers and letters in different colors.
For example, the number “3” may look red, and the letter “p” may look blue, even though the ink is black.
The shape of the symbol affects the perception of someone with synesthesia, giving it a particular color.
Although colors of each letter or number are not consistent between individuals, they remain consistent within the individual.
How do we know that people are telling the truth about this?
Psychologists have created displays of printed symbols, with black ink, interspersing two specific, equal-sized letters or numbers together.
The symbols used in these displays are ones that the subject said appeared in different colors to them.
Hidden images were encoded into the layout of the symbols, so that they would only be visible to someone who saw the symbols in different colors--similar to the tests used to determine red-green color blindness.
The average person had great difficulty finding the hidden images amongst the black letters, whereas individuals experiencing synesthesia could spot the images immediately.
Although synesthesia was long thought to be a rare condition, new research reveals that it’s not that uncommon.
Around 4 percent of the population is naturally synesthetic all of the time, and many people experience synesthesia temporally when they use psychedelic drugs.
According to the M.I.T. web page about synesthesia--which provides a wealth of information on the subject--artists and other creative people who experience synesthesia can use these abilities “to make a living and bring significant contributions to the world.”
Several studies show that people who are synesthetic are likely to engage in creative activities.
Although this condition occurs naturally in some people, many people experience it while under the influence of psychedelic drugs, like LSD and psilocybin.
Computer programs that display shifting patterns that morph, dance, and flash to the sound of music, mimic the synesthetic effect of seeing music, which is commonly experienced on psychedelics.
Synesthesia may not only help to foster the creation of art, it may also allow for new forms of artistic expression.
The sacred hallucinogenic jungle juice, known in the Amazon as ayahuasca, often produces synesthetic experiences.
When I interviewed the late ethnobotanist Terence McKenna, he had this to say about ayahuasca:
“...when ingested...[ayahuasca] allows one to see sound, so that one can use the voice to produce, not musical compositions, but pictorial and visual compositions.”
McKenna said that this is being done by shamans in the Amazon:
“The songs they sing sound as they do in order to look a certain way. They are not musical composition as we’re used to thinking of them. They’re pictorial art that is caused by audio signals.”
To learn more about synesthesia see The Man Who Tasted Shapes by Richard Cytowic, or check out: http://web.mit.edu/synesthesia/www/
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