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What is Synethesia: Can you become a Synesthete

How would it feel if you realized the world you grew up in, filled with colors, sound, taste, and sensation was just all in your head. I’m not referring to confusing the realms of reality with your dreams, or being enlightened about different senses  from some advanced alien society. What I’m referring to is your brain physically being wired differently so that the world you see and hear has a completely different truth to it.

For example, if you are a  math lover  then solving a few homework problems like this should be no problem right. It might even be somewhat entertaining.

The problems seem  simple. How could anyone see anything but the simple numbers?? Well, imagine how much fun math would be if that very same problem looked like this:

This is just one example of the different world you could perceive if you were a synesthete.

However cool, or mystifying synesthesia may seem, it is simply a rewiring of the brain. You might want to look into Broca’s Aphasia if you want a brief overview related to the translation of sight into a cortical pathway in the brain. Different synesthetes may have one, two, or all of their senses associated with color, but the most common forms of synesthesia can range from:

  • Taste associated with sound
  • Numbers, sound, or words are associated with colors
  • Days of the week, months of the year, or ordered sequences are experienced as three-dimensional map [Hubbard]

“How does the brain wiring occur”

The true mystery of synesthesia is how this rewiring actually develops. Even though synesthesia is believed to be inherited[Hubbard]. I believe that environmental factors during childhood development play a key role in establishing the extent of the synesthesia.

Take the American English alphabet as an example. The alphabet is learned during childhood and is a common manifestation of synesthesia. I recently  questioned a synesthete who saw colored words depending on the first letter in the words. Much like this entire sentence appears. The color of the word is dependent on the first letter; learned during childhood. I can assume that every shape or letter has a specific neural(cortical) connection to its corresponding color in the brain.

However, when looking at non English characters that were not learned during childhood (Ω ), assuming they don’t look similar to any English characters, they produce NO color.  To me this shows that synesthestes must create their neural map during childhood based on information they have learned.

“How to become a synesthete”

If you are past the stage of childhood then the chances of you suddenly developing synesthesia are very low. There is hope  for people, like myself, who eagerly want to experience what it would be like to have synesthesia. An experimental device is being developed by the MIT Media Lab[Fonner] to simulate synesthesia by sonification of visual input.

“[it] enables people to use it long enough to build up a natural mapping between sight and sound, e.g., “Oh yes, my lawn always sounds that way,” “

The possible implications I can see from a device like this can range from digital media, e.g. video games, that is designed  to provide a much more immersive experience. The device could also be implemented as a tool to differentiate seemingly similar objects for military or consumer purposes. Whatever the eventual application of this or similar devices, I  will be watching with anticipation.

 

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1 Anonymous Synesthete.  Personal Interview by Demarcus Briers . 6 May 2011.

2 Foner, Leonard. “Artificial synesthesia via sonification: A wearable augmented
sensory system”. Mobile Networks and Applications, Volume 4, Number 1, pages 75-81

3 Holly, . “Synesthesia Interview.” Ask Me How it Works. TypePad, Web. 11 May 2011. http://drholly.typepad.com/synesthesia_interview/.

4 Hubbard, “Neurophysiology of Synesthesia”  Current Psychiatry Reports, 2007, Volume 9, Number 3, Pages 193-199

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5 comments

  1. What is this device callled? where can i find information on it

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  2. Info on the device can be found here: link to a pdf file with some info about it:

    You can also search for Google for the phrase “Artificial synesthesia via sonification”

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  3. dnaatwork@gmail.com

    The best I’ve developed synesthesia is an odd phenomena where I’m in a deep state of thought when it’s dark and black will turn purple. I’ve figured what caused it was red lights from tailgates. (Then again I’ve seen it around teles and laptop screen.

    The most synthetic was listening to the drinking fountain after being in collage, I saw drops of yellow and randomly spot of this amazing blue in the back of my mind.

    At the moment I will get a fast flash of color when I’m in depth though reading.

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  4. you have a wicked cool story of how you found out about synesthesia. Does this happen to you often or just spontaneously?

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  5. If I am a synesthete than it is surely minimal, and it is most likely related with ASMR.

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