When I told my doctor that the sight of a starfish tastes like copper she sat across from me in silence, waiting for the punchline.
“I’m dead serious.” I laughed. “It tastes like a penny in my mouth.”
For as long as I can remember I have experienced an overlapping of senses of some sort. Sometimes sight is combined with taste, and the sight of colors is often combined with touch. My initial discovery of this was so substantial that it captured my attention, but minor enough for me to go on living with it for years without asking questions. For me, some stimulation produces a more vivid sensation than others. For example, the feel of ice on my skin looks like the color brown, and when I view hedgehogs it feels like someone is vigorously tickling my back– it’s this reason I shy away from images of them. It makes me uncomfortable.
I’ve always been an odd bird, I’ll admit it. I tend to think differently and I relate to all things odd with ease. This being the reason I considered my experiences an idiosyncrasy. In fact, I created a term for it: “a sensory allergy”. It wasn’t until my love of neuroscience blossomed out of bounds three years ago that I found out that what I was experiencing had a name: Synesthesia.
Synesthesia is considered “a union of senses”. It is a neurological phenomenon where one type of stimulation evokes the sensation of another. Roughly 4 percent of the population’s senses dance together in a cross wiring circumstance in the brain. It is a rare phenomenon that occurs when neurons and synapses in the brain are supposed to contain one sensory system (for instance, touch) cross over to another sensory system (for instance, taste), causing a dual sensory experience. It’s not uncommon for people with synesthesia to view days of the week in color like blue, hear sounds when people touch them, and even taste certain flavors when they hear certain sounds.
Although it is unclear which part of the brain is involved in synesthesia, neurologist Richard Cytowic’s research suspects that the limbic system is the primary area involved. The limbic system is the area of the brain involved in regulating our emotional experience. However, other research shows significant activity in the cerebral cortex during synesthetic experiences. Other studies have shown an interesting effect in the cortex: the brain scans of colored-hearing individuals have been shown to display activity in several areas of the visual cortex when they hear certain words. In particular, areas of the visual cortex associated with processing color are activated when these individuals hear words. Those without synesthesia do not show activity in these areas of the brain, even when asked to imagine colors or to associate certain colors with certain words.
This knowledge led me to wonder if I sat with this condition for years without questioning it, could there be others with synesthesia who don’t even know it? The answer is yes– it’s possible. There’s growing evidence that synesthesia could be more common than we think, and it’s my theory that everyone has some small form of synesthesia. For example, when most people hear nails on a chalkboard they involuntarily cringe. Still, there are those of us who experience synesthesia a lot stronger than others. Musician Pharrell Williams associates music with colors and says he can’t imagine life without this “gift.” He’s not the only one either; Billy Joel, Vincent Van Gogh, and Nabokov all claim to have experienced synesthesia.
There are skeptics, of course who doubt the legitimacy of synesthesia and those who simply can’t understand it because they don’t live it. Most people experience sensations individually and will never hear colors or taste images, but for those of us with synesthesia the reality is real. It’s not a hallucination, nor does one need to be medically treated for it. It’s simply a unique perception. It can be uncomfortable at times, but when this happens I try to remember that the feeling comes from the fact that I’m experiencing something that my head deems as abnormal. But what is normal anyway? After all, the discovery of synesthesia reveals that the brain has the capacity to create our own perceptual reality. And those of us who experience synesthesia should at times feel lucky that we get to experience the world, twofold, in a sense.
NeuroscienceNews.com would like to thank D’Arcy Brishon Carter for submitting this original article to us for inclusion.
Author Information: D’Arcy Brishon Carter is a freelance writer and student.
Source: D’Arcy Brishon Carter
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