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Synesthesia: The Blended Sensory Experiences That May Hold Clues to Consciousness and Ills

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, March 1, 2012

Do you see some letters and numbers in color? Do you see colors when you hear certain musical notes or chords? Do you ever taste words or feel the texture of flavors or smells? If you do, you may have synesthesia, a blending or intermingling of senses, in which one sensory experience involuntarily triggers others.

A Los Angeles Time story by Lily Dayton features a young college student who sees the number five as red, two as yellow, and three as purple. She also sees five as a mischievous brat, and eight as a noble parental mentor. She also thinks Vaseline smells like the color burgundy and green apples taste yellowish-orange.

The story explains it is an inherited condition, which up to four percent of the general population may have, caused by increased connectivity among regions of the brain that are usually separated. No one is looking for a cure, because the condition is not a disability, and many synesthetes enjoy their unconventional experience. David Brang, a neuroscientist at the University of California San Diego thinks synesthesia may provide cognitive advantage, and may be related to enhanced perceptual acuity, creativity, and overall smarts.

Scholars have identified different forms of synesthesia in the works of many artists, musicians and writers. Emily Dickinson mixes sight, sound and movement in "Light laughs the breeze in her castle of sunshine,” a line from her poem Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers. The poet Edith Sitwell has been described as synesthetic, and the first line of her poem At the Fair, "Green wooden leaves clap the light away” could be an example. The French writer Marcel Proust made madeleine cookies famous when he wrote in Remembrance of Things Past how a taste of the pastry crumbs in a teaspoon of tea elicited an involuntary cascade of childhood memories. Greg Brian, writing for Yahoo! says the composer Franz Liszt and jazz pianist Eroll Garner were powerful synesthetes who saw colors with music, and Baudelaire and Rimbaud saw colors with words. He thinks Kanye West may be a synesthete too.

Scientists studying synesthesia today think the condition may help researchers develop new ways of looking at the brain and offer a window into consciousness. It may also hold clues to understanding neurological disorders such as autism, schizophrenia, depression, epilepsy and Alzheimer’s, which have been linked to abnormal communication between brain regions.

At David Eagleman’s lab at Baylor College is Medicine, researchers studying synesthesia are investigating the way specific genes influence the way people experience the world. The site describes research, sources, and Eagleman’s book Wednesday is Indigo Blue. The LA Times story says Eagleman has identified a region on chromosome 16 that is linked to colored sequence synesthesia. The story quotes Eagleman as saying, "Here we have a condition where some very small change, presumably a very tight genetic change, causes the internal experience to be completely different from someone else’s.” It’s no longer sufficient to think of individual areas of the brain in isolation, he says. The entire organ has to be viewed as a tapestry of interwoven connections.

If you think you might be a synesthete, the Baylor Lab offers a test you can take, the opportunity to participate in research, and invites contact. David Brang’s team also invites synesthetes to get in touch.

UPDATE: Linda Barton shared these links on synesthesia in fiction -

Wikipedia - Synesthesia in Fiction

Goodreads - Synesthesia Fiction

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