Synesthesia is a perceptual phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.[3][4][5][6] People who report a lifelong history of such experiences are known as synesthetes.

The term is from the Ancient Greek σύν syn, "together", and αἴσθησις aisthēsis, "sensation".[7]

The earliest recorded case of synesthesia is attributed to the Oxford University academic and philosopher John Locke, who, in 1690, made a report about a blind man who said he experienced the color scarlet when he heard the sound of a trumpet.[7] However, there is disagreement as to whether Locke described an actual instance of synesthesia or was using a metaphor.[8] The first medical account came from German physician, Georg Tobias Ludwig Sachs in 1812.[8][9][10]

Synæsthesia, synaesthesia
How someone with synesthesia might perceive certain letters and numbers. Synesthetes see characters just as others do (in whichever color actually displayed) but may simultaneously perceive colors as associated with or evoked by each one.
SpecialtyPsychiatry, neurology


In one common form of synesthesia, known as grapheme-color synesthesia or color-graphemic synesthesia, letters or numbers are perceived as inherently colored.[11][12] In spatial-sequence, or number form synesthesia, numbers, months of the year, or days of the week elicit precise locations in space (for example, 1980 may be "farther away" than 1990), or may appear as a three-dimensional map (clockwise or counterclockwise).[13][14] Synesthetic associations can occur in any combination and any number of senses or cognitive pathways.[15]

Little is known about how synesthesia develops. It has been suggested that synesthesia develops during childhood when children are intensively engaged with abstract concepts for the first time.[16] This hypothesis – referred to as semantic vacuum hypothesis – explains why the most common forms of synesthesia are grapheme-color, spatial sequence and number form. These are usually the first abstract concepts that educational systems require children to learn.

Only a few types of synesthesia have been scientifically evaluated.[17] Awareness of synesthetic perceptions varies from person to person.[18]

Difficulties have been recognized in adequately defining synesthesia.[19][20] Many different phenomena have been included in the term synesthesia ("union of the senses"), and in many cases the terminology seems to be inaccurate. A more accurate but significantly less common term may be ideasthesia.

Signs and symptoms

Some synesthetes often report that they were unaware their experiences were unusual until they realized other people did not have them, while others report feeling as if they had been keeping a secret their entire lives.[17] The automatic and ineffable nature of a synesthetic experience means that the pairing may not seem out of the ordinary. This involuntary and consistent nature helps define synesthesia as a real experience. Most synesthetes report that their experiences are pleasant or neutral, although, in rare cases, synesthetes report that their experiences can lead to a degree of sensory overload.[21]

Though often stereotyped in the popular media as a medical condition or neurological aberration, many synesthetes themselves do not perceive their synesthetic experiences as a handicap. To the contrary, some report it as a gift—an additional "hidden" sense—something they would not want to miss. Most synesthetes become aware of their distinctive mode of perception in their childhood. Some have learned how to apply their ability in daily life and work. Synesthetes have used their abilities in memorization of names and telephone numbers, mental arithmetic, and more complex creative activities like producing visual art, music, and theater.[17]

Despite the commonalities which permit definition of the broad phenomenon of synesthesia, individual experiences vary in numerous ways. This variability was first noticed early in synesthesia research.[22] Some synesthetes report that vowels are more strongly colored, while for others consonants are more strongly colored.[21] Self reports, interviews, and autobiographical notes by synesthetes demonstrate a great degree of variety in types of synesthesia, intensity of synesthetic perceptions, awareness of the perceptual discrepancies between synesthetes and non-synesthetes, and the ways synesthesia is used in work, creative processes, and daily life.[17][23]

Synesthetes are very likely to participate in creative activities.[24] It has been suggested that individual development of perceptual and cognitive skills, in addition to one's cultural environment, produces the variety in awareness and practical use of synesthetic phenomena.[18][23] Synesthesia may also give a memory advantage. In one study conducted by Julia Simner of the University of Edinburgh it was found that spatial sequence synesthetes have a built-in and automatic mnemonic reference. So the non-synesthete will need to create a mnemonic device to remember a sequence (like dates in a diary), but the synesthete can simply reference their spatial visualizations.[25]


There are two overall forms of synesthesia:

  • projective synesthesia: people who see actual colors, forms, or shapes when stimulated (the widely understood version of synesthesia).
  • associative synesthesia: people who feel a very strong and involuntary connection between the stimulus and the sense that it triggers.

For example, in chromesthesia (sound to color), a projector may hear a trumpet, and see an orange triangle in space, while an associator might hear a trumpet, and think very strongly that it sounds "orange".

Synesthesia can occur between nearly any two senses or perceptual modes, and at least one synesthete, Solomon Shereshevsky, experienced synesthesia that linked all five senses. Types of synesthesia are indicated by using the notation x → y, where x is the "inducer" or trigger experience, and y is the "concurrent" or additional experience. For example, perceiving letters and numbers (collectively called graphemes) as colored would be indicated as grapheme → color synesthesia. Similarly, when synesthetes see colors and movement as a result of hearing musical tones, it would be indicated as tone → (color, movement) synesthesia.

While nearly every logically possible combination of experiences can occur, several types are more common than others.

Grapheme-color synesthesia

Number Form--colored
From the 2009 non-fiction book Wednesday Is Indigo Blue.[5] Note this example's upside-down clock face.

In one of the most common forms of synesthesia, individual letters of the alphabet and numbers (collectively referred to as graphemes) are "shaded" or "tinged" with a color. While different individuals usually do not report the same colors for all letters and numbers, studies with large numbers of synesthetes find some commonalities across letters (e.g. A is likely to be red).[21]


Another common form of synesthesia is the association of sounds with colors. For some, everyday sounds such as doors opening, cars honking, or people talking can trigger seeing colors. For others, colors are triggered when musical notes or keys are being played. People with synesthesia related to music may also have perfect pitch because their ability to see/hear colors aids them in identifying notes or keys.[26]

The colors triggered by certain sounds, and any other synesthetic visual experiences, are referred to as photisms.

According to Richard Cytowic,[5] chromesthesia is "something like fireworks": voice, music, and assorted environmental sounds such as clattering dishes or dog barks trigger color and firework shapes that arise, move around, and then fade when the sound ends. Sound often changes the perceived hue, brightness, scintillation, and directional movement. Some individuals see music on a "screen" in front of their faces. For Deni Simon, music produces waving lines "like oscilloscope configurations – lines moving in color, often metallic with height, width and, most importantly, depth. My favorite music has lines that extend horizontally beyond the 'screen' area."

Individuals rarely agree on what color a given sound is. B flat might be orange for one person and blue for another. Composers Franz Liszt and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov famously disagreed on the colors of music keys.

Spatial sequence synesthesia

Those with spatial sequence synesthesia (SSS) tend to see numerical sequences as points in space. For instance, the number 1 might be farther away and the number 2 might be closer. People with SSS may have superior memories; in one study, they were able to recall past events and memories far better and in far greater detail than those without the condition. They also see months or dates in the space around them. Some people see time like a clock above and around them.[27][28]

Number form

Galton number form
A number form from one of Francis Galton's subjects (1881).[13] Note how the first 12 digits correspond to a clock face.

A number form is a mental map of numbers that automatically and involuntarily appears whenever someone who experiences number-forms synesthesia thinks of numbers. Number forms were first documented and named in 1881 by Francis Galton in "The Visions of Sane Persons".[29]

Auditory-tactile synesthesia

In auditory-tactile synesthesia, certain sounds can induce sensations in parts of the body. For example, someone with auditory-tactile synesthesia may experience that hearing a specific word feels like touch in one specific part of the body or may experience that certain sounds can create a sensation in the skin without being touched. It is one of the least common forms of synesthesia.[30]

Ordinal linguistic personification

Ordinal-linguistic personification (OLP, or personification for short) is a form of synesthesia in which ordered sequences, such as ordinal numbers, week-day names, months and alphabetical letters are associated with personalities or genders (Simner & Hubbard 2006). For example, the number 2 might be a young boy with a short temper, or the letter G might be a busy mother with a kind face. Although this form of synesthesia was documented as early as the 1890s (Flournoy 1893; Calkins 1893) researchers have, until recently, paid little attention to this form (see History of synesthesia research). This form of synesthesia was named as OLP in the contemporary literature by Julia Simner and colleagues [31] although it is now also widely recognised by the term "sequence-personality" synesthesia. Ordinal linguistic personification normally co-occurs with other forms of synesthesia such as grapheme-color synesthesia.


Misophonia is a neurological disorder in which negative experiences (anger, fright, hatred, disgust) are triggered by specific sounds. Richard Cytowic suggests that misophonia is related to, or perhaps a variety of, synesthesia.[32] Miren Edelstein and her colleagues have compared misophonia to synesthesia in terms of connectivity between different brain regions as well as specific symptoms. They formed the hypothesis that "a pathological distortion of connections between the auditory cortex and limbic structures could cause a form of sound-emotion synesthesia."[33]

Mirror-touch synesthesia

This is a rare form of synesthesia where individuals feel the same sensation that another person feels (such as touch). For instance, when such a synesthete observes someone being tapped on their shoulder, the synesthete involuntarily feels a tap on their own shoulder as well. People with this type of synesthesia have been shown to have higher empathy levels compared to the general population. This may be related to the so-called mirror neurons present in the motor areas of the brain, which have also been linked to empathy.[34]

Lexical-gustatory synesthesia

This is another rare form of synesthesia where certain tastes are experienced when hearing words. For example, the word basketball might taste like waffles. The documentary 'Derek Tastes Of Earwax' gets its name from this phenomenon, in references to pub owner James Wannerton who experiences this particular sensation whenever he hears the name spoken.[35][36] It is estimated that 0.2% of the population has this form of synesthesia.[37]

Other forms

Other forms of synesthesia have been reported, but little has been done to analyze them scientifically. There are at least 80 different types of synesthesia.[38]

In August 2017 a research article in the journal Social Neuroscience reviewed studies with fMRI to determine if persons who experience Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response are experiencing a form of synesthesia. While a determination has not yet been made, there is anecdotal evidence that this may be the case, based on significant and consistent differences from the control group, in terms of functional connectivity within neural pathways. It is unclear whether this will lead to ASMR being included as a form of existing synesthesia, or if a new type will be considered.[39]


Regions thought to be cross-activated in grapheme-color synesthesia (green=grapheme recognition area, red=V4 color area)[40]

As of 2015 the neurological correlates of synesthesia had not been established.[41]

Dedicated regions of the brain are specialized for given functions. Increased cross-talk between regions specialized for different functions may account for the many types of synesthesia. For example, the additive experience of seeing color when looking at graphemes might be due to cross-activation of the grapheme-recognition area and the color area called V4 (see figure).[40] This is supported by the fact that grapheme-color synesthetes are able to identify the color of a grapheme in their peripheral vision even when they cannot consciously identify the shape of the grapheme.[40]

An alternative possibility is disinhibited feedback, or a reduction in the amount of inhibition along normally existing feedback pathways.[42] Normally, excitation and inhibition are balanced. However, if normal feedback were not inhibited as usual, then signals feeding back from late stages of multi-sensory processing might influence earlier stages such that tones could activate vision. Cytowic and Eagleman find support for the disinhibition idea in the so-called acquired forms[5] of synesthesia that occur in non-synesthetes under certain conditions: temporal lobe epilepsy,[43] head trauma, stroke, and brain tumors. They also note that it can likewise occur during stages of meditation, deep concentration, sensory deprivation, or with use of psychedelics such as LSD or mescaline, and even, in some cases, marijuana.[5] However, synesthetes report that common stimulants, like caffeine and cigarettes do not affect the strength of their synesthesia, nor does alcohol.[5]:137–40

A very different theoretical approach to synesthesia is that based on ideasthesia. According to this account, synesthesia is a phenomenon mediated by the extraction of the meaning of the inducing stimulus. Thus, synesthesia may be fundamentally a semantic phenomenon. Therefore, to understand neural mechanisms of synesthesia the mechanisms of semantics and the extraction of meaning need to be understood better. This is a non-trivial issue because it is not only a question of a location in the brain at which meaning is "processed" but pertains also to the question of understanding—epitomized in e.g., the Chinese room problem. Thus, the question of the neural basis of synesthesia is deeply entrenched into the general mind–body problem and the problem of the explanatory gap.[44]


The genetic mechanism of synesthesia has long been debated. Due to the prevalence of synesthesia among the first-degree relatives of synesthetes,[45] there is evidence that synesthesia might have a genetic basis, however the monozygotic twins case studies indicate there is an epigenetic component. Synesthesia might also be a oligogenic condition, with Locus heterogeneity, multiple forms of inheritance (including Mendelian in some cases), and continuous variation in gene expression. It has been found that women have a higher chance of developing Synesthesia, and in the UK females are 8 times more likely to have it (reasons are unknown). When people are left handed it is inherited, and researchers have discovered that synesthetes have a stronger possibility of being left handed than the general population. Neuroscience


Although often termed a "neurological condition," synesthesia is not listed in either the DSM-IV or the ICD since it most often does not interfere with normal daily functioning.[46] Indeed, most synesthetes report that their experiences are neutral or even pleasant.[21] Like perfect pitch, synesthesia is simply a difference in perceptual experience.

Stroop interference
Reaction times for answers that are congruent with a synesthete's automatic colors are shorter than those whose answers are incongruent.[5]

Synesthesia Test Variations A number of tests exist for synesthesia. Each common type has a specific test. When testing for Grapheme-color synesthesia a visual test is given. The person is shown a picture that includes black letters and numbers. A synesthete will associate the letters and numbers with a specific color. An Auditory test is another way to test for Synesthesia. A sound is turned on and one will either identity it with a taste, or envision shapes. The audio test correlates with Chromesthesia (sounds with colors). Since people question whether or not Synesthesia is just tied into memory the "Retest" is given. One is given a set of objects and is asked to assign colors, tastes, personalities, or more. After a period of time, the same objects are given back to the person and are asked again to do the same job. The synesthete is able to assign the same characteristics, because that person has already made neural associations which involves a permanent solution in the brain, rather than it just being a memory that the person had to a certain object. The simplest approach is test-retest reliability over long periods of time, using stimuli of color names, color chips, or a computer-screen color picker providing 16.7 million choices. Synesthetes consistently score around 90% on reliability of associations, even with years between tests.[3] In contrast, non-synesthetes score just 30–40%, even with only a few weeks between tests and a warning that they would be retested.[3]

The automaticity of synesthetic experience. A synesthete might perceive the left panel like the panel on the right.[40]

Grapheme-color synesthetes, as a group, share significant preferences for the color of each letter (e.g. A tends to be red; O tends to be white or black; S tends to be yellow etc.)[21] Nonetheless, there is a great variety in types of synesthesia, and within each type, individuals report differing triggers for their sensations and differing intensities of experiences. This variety means that defining synesthesia in an individual is difficult, and the majority of synesthetes are completely unaware that their experiences have a name.[21]

Neurologist Richard Cytowic identifies the following diagnostic criteria for synesthesia in his first edition book. However, the criteria are different in the second book:[3][4][5]

  1. Synesthesia is involuntary and automatic.
  2. Synesthetic perceptions are spatially extended, meaning they often have a sense of "location." For example, synesthetes speak of "looking at" or "going to" a particular place to attend to the experience.
  3. Synesthetic percepts are consistent and generic (i.e. simple rather than pictorial).
  4. Synesthesia is highly memorable.
  5. Synesthesia is laden with affect.

Cytowic's early cases mainly included individuals whose synesthesia was frankly projected outside the body (e.g. on a "screen" in front of one's face). Later research showed that such stark externalization occurs in a minority of synesthetes. Refining this concept, Cytowic and Eagleman differentiated between "localizers" and "non-localizers" to distinguish those synesthetes whose perceptions have a definite sense of spatial quality from those whose perceptions do not.[5]


Estimates of prevalence of synesthesia have ranged widely, from 1 in 4 to 1 in 25,000 - 100,000. However, most studies have relied on synesthetes reporting themselves, introducing self-referral bias.[47] In what is cited as the most accurate prevalence study so far,[47] self-referral bias was avoided by studying 500 people recruited from the communities of Edinburgh and Glasgow Universities; it showed a prevalence of 4.4%, with 9 different variations of synesthesia.[48] This study also concluded that one common form of synesthesia—grapheme-color synesthesia (colored letters and numbers) – is found in more than one percent of the population, and this latter prevalence of graphemes-color synesthesia has since been independently verified in a sample of nearly 3,000 people in the University of Edinburgh.[49]

The most common forms of synesthesia are those that trigger colors, and the most prevalent of all is day-color.[48] Also relatively common is grapheme-color synesthesia. We can think of "prevalence" both in terms of how common is synesthesia (or different forms of synesthesia) within the population, or how common are different forms of synesthesia within synesthetes. So within synesthetes, forms of synesthesia that trigger color also appear to be the most common forms of synesthesia with a prevalence rate of 86% within synesthetes.[48] In another study, music-color is also prevalent at 18–41%. Some of the rarest are reported to be auditory-tactile, mirror-touch, and lexical-gustatory.[50]

There is research to suggest that the likelihood of having synesthesia is greater in people with autism.[51]


The interest in colored hearing dates back to Greek antiquity, when philosophers asked if the color (chroia, what we now call timbre) of music was a quantifiable quality.[52] Isaac Newton proposed that musical tones and color tones shared common frequencies, as did Goethe in his book Theory of Colours.[53] There is a long history of building color organs such as the clavier à lumières on which to perform colored music in concert halls.[54][54][55]

The first medical description of "colored hearing" is in an 1812 thesis by the German physician Georg Tobias Ludwig Sachs.[56][8][9] The "father of psychophysics," Gustav Fechner, reported the first empirical survey of colored letter photisms among 73 synesthetes in 1876,[57][58] followed in the 1880s by Francis Galton.[13][59][60] Carl Jung refers to "color hearing" in his Symbols of Transformation in 1912.[61]

In the early 1920s the Bauhaus teacher and musician Gertrud Grunow researched the relationships between sound, color and movement and developed a 'twelve-tone circle of colour' which was analogous with the twelve-tone music of the Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951).[62] She was a participant in at least one of the Congresses for Colour-Sound Research (German:Kongreß für Farbe-Ton-Forschung) held in Hamburg in the late 1920s and early 1930s.[63]

Research into synesthesia proceeded briskly in several countries, but due to the difficulties in measuring subjective experiences and the rise of behaviorism, which made the study of any subjective experience taboo, synesthesia faded into scientific oblivion between 1930 and 1980.

As the 1980s cognitive revolution made inquiry into internal subjective states respectable again, scientists returned to synesthesia. Led in the United States by Larry Marks and Richard Cytowic, and later in England by Simon Baron-Cohen and Jeffrey Gray, researchers explored the reality, consistency, and frequency of synesthetic experiences. In the late 1990s, the focus settled on grapheme → color synesthesia, one of the most common[21] and easily studied types. Psychologists and neuroscientists study synesthesia not only for its inherent appeal, but also for the insights it may give into cognitive and perceptual processes that occur in synesthetes and non-synesthetes alike. Synesthesia is now the topic of scientific books and papers, PhD theses, documentary films, and even novels.

Since the rise of the Internet in the 1990s, synesthetes began contacting one another and creating web sites devoted to the condition. These rapidly grew into international organizations such as the American Synesthesia Association, the UK Synaesthesia Association, the Belgian Synesthesia Association, the Canadian Synesthesia Association, the German Synesthesia Association, and the Netherlands Synesthesia Web Community.

Society and culture

Notable cases

As mentioned before, one of the most notable synesthetes is Solomon Shereshevsky, a newspaper reporter turned celebrated mnemonist, who was discovered by Russian neuropsychologist, Alexander Luria, to have a rare fivefold form of synesthesia.[64] Words and text were not only associated with highly vivid visuo-spatial imagery but also sound, taste, color, and sensation.[64] Shereshevsky could recount endless details of many things without form, from lists of names to decades-old conversations, but he had great difficulty grasping abstract concepts. The automatic, and nearly permanent, retention of every little detail due to synesthesia greatly inhibited Shereshevsky from understanding much of what he read or heard.[64]

Ramachandran, a neuroscientist and author, studied the case of a grapheme-color synesthete who was also color blind. While he couldn't see certain colors with his eyes, he could still "see" those colors when looking at certain letters. Because he didn't have a name for those colors, he called them "Martian colors."[65]


Other notable synesthetes come particularly from artistic professions and backgrounds. Synesthetic art historically refers to multi-sensory experiments in the genres of visual music, music visualization, audiovisual art, abstract film, and intermedia.[17][66][67][68][69][70] Distinct from neuroscience, the concept of synesthesia in the arts is regarded as the simultaneous perception of multiple stimuli in one gestalt experience.[71]

Neurological synesthesia has been a source of inspiration for artists, composers, poets, novelists, and digital artists. Vladimir Nabokov writes explicitly about synesthesia in several novels. Wassily Kandinsky (a synesthete) and Piet Mondrian (not a synesthete) both experimented with image-music congruence in their paintings. Alexander Scriabin composed colored music that was deliberately contrived and based on the circle of fifths, whereas Olivier Messiaen invented a new method of composition (the modes of limited transposition) specifically to render his bi-directional sound-color synesthesia. For example, the red rocks of Bryce Canyon are depicted in his symphony Des canyons aux étoiles... ("From the Canyons to the Stars"). New art movements such as literary symbolism, non-figurative art, and visual music have profited from experiments with synesthetic perception and contributed to the public awareness of synesthetic and multi-sensory ways of perceiving.[17]

Contemporary artists with synesthesia, such as Carol Steen[72] and Marcia Smilack[73] (a photographer who waits until she gets a synesthetic response from what she sees and then takes the picture), use their synesthesia to create their artwork. Brandy Gale, a Canadian visual artist, experiences an involuntary joining or crossing of any of her senses – hearing, vision, taste, touch, smell and movement. Gale paints from life rather than from photographs and by exploring the sensory panorama of each locale attempts to capture, select, and transmit these personal experiences.[74][75][76]

David Hockney perceives music as color, shape, and configuration and uses these perceptions when painting opera stage sets (though not while creating his other artworks). Kandinsky combined four senses: color, hearing, touch, and smell.[3][5] Nabokov described his grapheme-color synesthesia at length in his autobiography, Speak, Memory, and portrayed it in some of his characters.[77] In addition to Messiaen, whose three types of complex colors are rendered explicitly in musical chord structures that he invented,[5][78] other composers who reported synesthesia include Duke Ellington,[79] Rimsky-Korsakov,[80] and Jean Sibelius.[67] Michael Torke is a contemporary example of a synesthetic composer.[67] Physicist Richard Feynman describes his colored equations in his autobiography, What Do You Care What Other People Think?[81]

Other notable synesthetes include musicians Billy Joel,[82]:89, 91 Itzhak Perlman,[82]:53 Alexander Frey, Ida Maria,[83] Brian Chase[84][85] and Patrick Stump; actress Stephanie Carswell (credited as Stéphanie Montreux); inventor Nikola Tesla;[86] electronic musician Richard D. James aka Aphex Twin (who claims to be inspired by lucid dreams as well as music); and classical pianist Hélène Grimaud. Drummer Mickey Hart of The Grateful Dead wrote about his experiences with synaesthesia in his autobiography Drumming at the Edge of Magic.[87] Pharrell Williams, of the groups The Neptunes and N.E.R.D., also experiences synesthesia[88][89] and used it as the basis of the album Seeing Sounds. Singer/songwriter Marina and the Diamonds experiences music → color synesthesia and reports colored days of the week.[90]

Some artists frequently mentioned as synesthetes did not, in fact, have the neurological condition. Scriabin's 1911 Prometheus, for example, is a deliberate contrivance whose color choices are based on the circle of fifths and appear to have been taken from Madame Blavatsky.[5][91] The musical score has a separate staff marked luce whose "notes" are played on a color organ. Technical reviews appear in period volumes of Scientific American.[5] On the other hand, his older colleague Rimsky-Korsakov (who was perceived as a fairly conservative composer) was, in fact, a synesthete.[92]

French poets Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire wrote of synesthetic experiences, but there is no evidence they were synesthetes themselves. Baudelaire's 1857 Correspondances introduced the notion that the senses can and should intermingle. Baudelaire participated in a hashish experiment by psychiatrist Jacques-Joseph Moreau and became interested in how the senses might affect each other.[17] Rimbaud later wrote Voyelles (1871), which was perhaps more important than Correspondances in popularizing synesthesia. He later boasted "J'inventais la couleur des voyelles!" (I invented the colors of the vowels!).[93]

Daniel Tammet wrote a book on his experiences with synesthesia called Born on a Blue Day.[94]

Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat, is a synesthete who says she experiences colors as scents.[95] Her novel Blueeyedboy features various aspects of synesthesia.

Ramin Djawadi, a composer best known for his work on composing the theme songs and scores for such TV series as Game of Thrones, Westworld and for the Iron Man movie, also has synesthesia. He says he tends to "associate colors with music, or music with colors."[96]


Synesthesia is sometimes used as a plot device or way of developing a character's inner life. Author and synesthete Pat Duffy describes four ways in which synesthetic characters have been used in modern fiction.[97][98]

  • Synesthesia as Romantic ideal: in which the condition illustrates the Romantic ideal of transcending one's experience of the world. Books in this category include The Gift by Vladimir Nabokov.
  • Synesthesia as pathology: in which the trait is pathological. Books in this category include The Whole World Over by Julia Glass.
  • Synesthesia as Romantic pathology: in which synesthesia is pathological but also provides an avenue to the Romantic ideal of transcending quotidian experience. Books in this category include Holly Payne’s The Sound of Blue and Anna Ferrara's The Woman Who Tried To Be Normal.
  • Synesthesia as psychological health and balance: Painting Ruby Tuesday by Jane Yardley, and A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass.

Many literary depictions of synesthesia are not accurate. Some say more about an author's interpretation of synesthesia than the phenomenon itself.


Tests like this demonstrate that people do not attach sounds to visual shapes arbitrarily. Which shape would you call "Bouba" and which "Kiki"?

Research on synesthesia raises questions about how the brain combines information from different sensory modalities, referred to as crossmodal perception or multisensory integration.

An example of this is the bouba/kiki effect. In an experiment first designed by Wolfgang Köhler, people are asked to choose which of two shapes is named bouba and which kiki. 95% to 98% of people choose kiki for the angular shape and bouba for the rounded one. Individuals on the island of Tenerife showed a similar preference between shapes called takete and maluma. Even 2.5-year-old children (too young to read) show this effect.[99] Recent research indicated that in the background of this effect may operate a form of ideasthesia.[100]

Researchers hope that the study of synesthesia will provide better understanding of consciousness and its neural correlates. In particular, synesthesia might be relevant to the philosophical problem of qualia,[6][101] given that synesthetes experience extra qualia (e.g. colored sound). An important insight for qualia research may come from the findings that synesthesia has the properties of ideasthesia,[19] which then suggest a crucial role of conceptualization processes in generating qualia.[16]

Technological applications

Synesthesia also has a number of practical applications, one of which is the use of 'intentional synesthesia' in technology.[102]

The Voice

Peter Meijer developed a sensory substitution device called The vOICe (the capital letters "O," "I," and "C" in "vOICe" are intended to evoke the expression "Oh I see"). The vOICe is a privately owned research project, running without venture capital, that was first implemented using low-cost hardware in 1991.[103] The vOICe is a visual-to-auditory sensory substitution device (SSD) preserving visual detail at high resolution (up to 25,344 pixels).[104] The device consists of a laptop, head-mounted camera or computer camera, and headphones. The vOICe converts visual stimuli of the surroundings captured by the camera into corresponding aural representations (soundscapes) delivered to the user through headphones at a default rate of one soundscape per second. Each soundscape is a left-to-right scan, with height represented by pitch, and brightness by loudness.[105] The vOICe compensates for the loss of vision by converting information from the lost sensory modality into stimuli in a remaining modality.[106]

See also


  1. ^ article for synaesthesia, accessed 2017-12-27
  2. ^ "Synaesthesia Research" in Macquarie University's Department of Cognitive Science, accessed 2017-12-27
  3. ^ a b c d e Cytowic, Richard E. (2002). Synesthesia: A Union of the Senses (2nd edition). Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-03296-4. OCLC 49395033.
  4. ^ a b Cytowic, Richard E. (2003). The Man Who Tasted Shapes. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-53255-6. OCLC 53186027.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Cytowic, Richard E; Eagleman, David M (2009). Wednesday is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia (with an afterword by Dmitri Nabokov). Cambridge: MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-01279-9.
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Further reading

External links

A Mango-Shaped Space

A Mango-Shaped Space is a 2003 young adult novel by Wendy Mass. The book received the American Library Association Schneider Family Book Award in 2004. It has since been nominated for, and received, a number of other awards. The hand lettering for the cover is by Billy Kelly. The book is recommended for grades 5-8. A 7 hours long audiobook version, narrated by Danielle Ferland, has been produced.

The plot centers around Mia Winchell, a thirteen-year-old girl living with synesthesia, a jumbling of the senses: Words and sounds have color for her. The novel is about her experiences with synesthesia and the problems it causes her in school, with friends, and her ultimately winning the understanding of her family and peers.

American Synesthesia Association

The American Synesthesia Association (ASA) is a not-for-profit academic and public society whose mission is to foster and promote the education and the advancement of knowledge of the phenomena of synesthesia, a neurological condition in which stimulation in one sensory modality leads to experiences in a second, unstimulated modality. The ASA attempts to promote and provide a means for the people who experience and/or study synesthesia to be in contact with each other. As part of its educational mission, the ASA provides information to scientists, health professionals, academicians, researchers, artists, writers, musicians, lay persons and people who experience synesthesia.

Autonomous sensory meridian response

Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) is an experience characterized by a static-like or tingling sensation on the skin that typically begins on the scalp and moves down the back of the neck and upper spine. It has been compared with auditory-tactile synesthesia and may overlap with frisson.

ASMR signifies the subjective experience of "low-grade euphoria" characterized by "a combination of positive feelings and a distinct static-like tingling sensation on the skin". It is most commonly triggered by specific auditory or visual stimuli, and less commonly by intentional attention control.


Chromesthesia or sound-to-color synesthesia is a type of synesthesia in which heard sounds automatically and involuntarily evoke an experience of color. For the purpose of disambiguation, this article will refer to this chromesthesia in inducer-concurrent terms used to describe other forms of synesthesia. With sounds inducing color concurrents, chromesthesia is more accurately termed sound-color synesthesia. Individuals with sound-color synesthesia are consciously aware of their synesthetic color associations/perceptions in daily life. Synesthetes that perceive color while listening to music experience the colors in addition to the normal auditory sensations that would be triggered in the average person. That is, the synesthetic color experience supplements, but does not obscure real, modality-specific perceptions. As with other variations of synesthesia, individuals with sound-color synesthesia perceive the synesthetic experience spontaneously, and without effort, and in a way that the individual learns to accept as normal within their realm of experience.

David Eagleman

David Eagleman (born April 25, 1971) is an American neuroscientist, author, and science communicator. He teaches as an adjunct professor at Stanford University and is CEO of NeoSensory, a company that develops devices for sensory substitution. He also directs the non-profit Center for Science and Law, which seeks to align the legal system with modern neuroscience. He is known for his work on brain plasticity, time perception, synesthesia, and neurolaw. He is a Guggenheim Fellow and a New York Times bestselling author published in 32 languages. He is the writer and presenter of the Emmy-nominated international television series, The Brain with David Eagleman.

Grapheme-color synesthesia

Grapheme-color synaesthesia or colored grapheme synesthesia is a form of synesthesia in which an individual's perception of numerals and letters is associated with the experience of colors. Like all forms of synesthesia, Grapheme-color synesthesia is involuntary, consistent, and memorable. Grapheme-color synesthesia is one of the most common forms of synesthesia, and because of the extensive knowledge of the visual system, one of the most studied.While it is extremely unlikely that any two synesthetes will report the same colors for all letters and numbers, studies of large numbers of synesthetes find that there are some commonalities across letters (e.g., "A" is likely to be red). Early studies argued that grapheme-color synesthesia was not due to associative learning, such as from playing with colored refrigerator magnets. However, one recent study has documented a case of synesthesia in which synesthetic associations could be traced back to colored refrigerator magnets. Despite the existence of this individual case, the majority of synesthetic associations do not seem to be driven by learning of this sort. Rather, it seems that more frequent letters are paired with more frequent colors, and some meaning-based rules, such as ‘b’ being blue, drive most synesthetic associations.

There has been a lot more research as to why and how synesthesia occurs with more recent technology and as synesthesia has become more well known. It has been found that grapheme-color synesthetes have more grey matter in their brain. There is evidence of an increased grey matter volume in the left caudal intra- parietal sulcus (IPS). There was also found to be an increased grey matter volume in the right fusiform gyrus. These results are consistent with another study on the brain functioning of grapheme-color synesthetes. Grapheme-color synesthetes tend to have an increased thickness, volume, and surface area of the fusiform gyrus. Furthermore, the area of the brain where word, letter, and color processing are located, V4a, is where the most significant difference in make-up was found. Though not certain, these differences are thought to be part of the reasoning for the presence of grapheme-color synesthesia.


Ideasthesia (alternative spelling ideaesthesia) is defined as a phenomenon in which activations of concepts (inducers) evoke perception-like experiences (concurrents). The name comes from the Ancient Greek ἰδέα (idéa) and αἴσθησις (aísthēsis), meaning "sensing concepts" or "sensing ideas". The main reason for introducing the notion of ideasthesia was the problems with synesthesia. While "synesthesia" means "union of senses", empirical evidence indicated that this was an incorrect explanation of a set of phenomena traditionally covered by this heading. Syn-aesthesis denoting also "co-perceiving", implies the association of two sensory elements with little connection to the cognitive level. However, according to others, most phenomena that have inadvertently been linked to synesthesia in fact are induced by the semantic representations. That is, the meaning of the stimulus is what is important rather than its sensory properties, as would be implied by the term synesthesia. In other words, while synesthesia presumes that both the trigger (inducer) and the resulting experience (concurrent) are of sensory nature, ideasthesia presumes that only the resulting experience is of sensory nature while the trigger is semantic. Meanwhile, the concept of ideasthesia developed into a theory of how we perceive and the research has extended to topics other than synesthesia — as the concept of ideasthesia turned out applicable to our everyday perception. Ideasthesia has been even applied to the theory of art. Research on ideasthesia bears important implications for solving the mystery of human conscious experience, which according to ideasthesia, is grounded in how we activate concepts.

Lexical-gustatory synesthesia

Lexical-gustatory synesthesia is a rare form of synesthesia in which spoken and written language (as well as some colors and emotions) causes individuals to experience an automatic and highly consistent taste/smell. The taste is often experienced as a complex mixture of both temperature and texture. For example, in a particular synaesthete, JIW, the word jail would taste of cold, hard bacon. Synesthetic tastes are evoked by an inducer/concurrent complex. The inducer is the stimulus that activates the sensation and the taste experience is the concurrent.

List of people with synesthesia

This is a list of notable people who have, or had, the neurological condition synesthesia. Following that, there is a list of people who are often wrongly believed to have had synesthesia because they used it as a device in their art, poetry or music (referred to as pseudo-synesthetes). Finally, there is a short list of people who have received a speculative, posthumous diagnosis of synesthesia, or who are thought to possibly be synesthetes based on second or third hand sources. These are listed as "still under review" in the expectation that additional data will help to clarify their status.

Mirror-touch synesthesia

Mirror-touch synesthesia is a rare condition which causes individuals to experience a similar sensation in the same part of the body (such as touch) that another person feels. For example, if someone with this condition were to observe someone touching their cheek, they would feel the same sensation on their own cheek. Synesthesia, in general, is described as a condition in which a stimulus causes an individual to experience an additional sensation. Synesthesia is usually a developmental condition; however, recent research has shown that mirror touch synesthesia can be acquired after sensory loss following amputation.The severity of the condition varies from person to person. Some individuals have intense physical synesthetic responses to any physical touch they see, while others describe their experiences as feeling an "echo" of the touch that they see. This appears to be comparable to the projective versus associative distinctions found in other forms of synesthesia. In addition, some mirror-touch synesthetes feel the phenomenon only in response to other humans being touched, while others also perceive it when animals or even inanimate objects are being touched.Mirror-touch synesthesia is found in approximately 1.6–2.5% of the general population. Mirror-touch synesthetes have higher levels of affective and pain empathy than those without the condition, though cognitive empathy differs from person to person. Their emotional experience of the observed touch may differ from the emotional experience of the person being touched (a pleasant touch may be perceived as unpleasant or vice versa). Mirror-touch synesthesia may also co-occur with autism spectrum disorders.


Misophonia, literally "hatred of sound", was proposed in 2000 as a condition in which negative emotions, thoughts, and physical reactions are triggered by specific sounds.

Misophonia is not classified as an auditory or psychiatric condition, and so is different from phonophobia (fear of sound); there are no standard diagnostic criteria, and there is little research on how common it is or the treatment. Proponents suggest misophonia can adversely affect the ability to achieve life goals and to enjoy social situations. As of 2018 there were no evidence-based methods to manage the condition. Management generally consists of helping the person develop coping strategies; cognitive behavioral therapy and exposure therapy have also been used.

Ordinal linguistic personification

Ordinal-linguistic personification (OLP, or personification for short) is a form of synesthesia in which ordered sequences, such as ordinal numbers, days, months and letters are associated with personalities and/or genders (Simner & Hubbard 2006). Although this form of synesthesia was documented as early as the 1890s (Flournoy 1893; Calkins 1893) researchers have, until recently, paid little attention to this form (see History of synesthesia research).

Peter Himmelman

Peter Himmelman (born November 23, 1959 in St. Louis Park, Minnesota) is an American singer-songwriter and film and television composer from Minnesota, who formerly played in the Minneapolis indie rock band Sussman Lawrence before pursuing an extensive solo career. Himmelman is also the founder of Big Muse, a company which helps individuals and organizations unlock their creative potential.He is married to Maria Dylan, a lawyer and adopted daughter of Bob Dylan. They have four children.

Richard Cytowic

Richard E. Cytowic is an American neurologist and author who rekindled interest in synesthesia in the 1980s and returned it to mainstream science. He was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for his New York Times Magazine cover story about James Brady, the Presidential Press Secretary shot in the brain during the assassination attempt on President Reagan. Cytowic’s writing ranges from textbooks and music reviews, to his Metro Weekly "Love Doctor" essays and brief medical biographies of Anton Chekhov, Maurice Ravel and Virginia Woolf. His work is the subject of two BBC Horizon documentaries, “Orange Sherbert Kisses” (1994) and “Derek Tastes of Earwax” (2014).In Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks writes:

In the 1980, Richard Cytowic made the first neurophysiological studies of synesthetic subjects... In 1989, he published a pioneering text, Synesthesia: A Union of the Senses, and this was followed by a popular exploration of the subject in 1993, The Man Who Tasted Shapes. Current techniques of functional brain imaging now give unequivocal evidence for the simultaneous activation or coactivation of two or more sensory areas of the cerebral cortex in synesthetes, just as Cytowic’s work predicted.

Of Wednesday is Indigo Blue, co–authored by Cytowic and David Eagleman, Sacks said, “Their work has changed the way we think of the human brain, and [it] is a unique and indispensable guide for anyone interested in how we perceive the world.” The book won the 2011 Montaigne Medal.Cytowic is a Professor of Neurology at George Washington University Medical Center, a Mentor at the Point Foundation, and a member of the Advisory Board for Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law.

Synesthesia (Buck 65 album)

Synesthesia is a studio album by Canadian hip hop musician Buck 65. It was originally released on Endemik Music in 2001 and then re-released with additional songs and music on WEA in 2002.

Synesthesia in art

The phrase synesthesia in art has historically referred to a wide variety of artists' experiments that have explored the co-operation of the senses (e.g. seeing and hearing; the word synesthesia is from the Ancient Greek σύν (syn), "together," and αἴσθησις (aisthēsis), "sensation") in the genres of visual music, music visualization, audiovisual art, abstract film, and intermedia (Campen 2007, Jewanski & Sidler 2006, Moritz 2003, 1999, Berman 1999, Maur 1999, Gage 1994, 1999). The age-old artistic views on synesthesia have some overlap with the current neuroscientific view on neurological synesthesia, but also some major differences, e.g. in the contexts of investigations, types of synesthesia selected, and definitions. While in neuroscientific studies synesthesia is defined as the elicitation of perceptual experiences in the absence of the normal sensory stimulation, in the arts the concept of synaesthesia is more often defined as the simultaneous perception of two or more stimuli as one gestalt experience (Campen 2009).

The usage of the term synesthesia in art should, therefore, be differentiated from neurological synesthesia in scientific research. Synesthesia is by no means unique to artists or musicians. Only in the last decades have scientific methods become available to assess synesthesia in persons. For synesthesia in artists before that time one has to interpret (auto)biographical information. For instance, there has been debate on the neurological synesthesia of historical artists like Kandinsky and Scriabin (cf. Jewanski & Sidler 2006, Ione 2004, Dann 1999, Galeyev 2001).

Additionally, Synesthetic art may refer to either art created by synesthetes or art created to elicit synesthetic experience in the general audience.

Synesthesia in literature

Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which one or more sensory modalities become linked. However, for over a century, the term synesthesia has also been used to refer to artistic and poetic devices which attempt to express a linkage between the senses. To better understand the influence of synesthesia in popular culture and the way it is viewed by non-synesthetes, it is informative to examine books in which one of the main characters is portrayed as experiencing synesthesia. In addition to these fictional portrayals, the way in which synesthesia is presented in non-fiction books to non-specialist audiences is instructive. Author and synesthete Patricia Lynne Duffy has described four ways in which synesthete characters have been used in modern fiction.

Not all of the depictions of synesthesia in the fictional works are accurate. Some are highly inaccurate and reflect more about the author's interpretation of synesthesia than about the phenomenon itself. The scientific works are intended to be accurate depictions of synesthetic experiences. However, as research advances some of the specific details in those accounts may be superseded or corrected by subsequent studies.

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