What is Synesthesia?


“It’s like an acid trip.”

Let me first clarify my previous statement before I explain what synesthesia actually is: synesthesia is not related to or directly caused by LSD in any way. According to Dolan, founder, publisher and editor of psypost.org, the psychedelic drug produces a synesthesia-like response, but the effects are not “consistent and specific,” which is the criteria for synesthesia. To put in the simplest terms, synesthesia is the interconnectivity of two or more senses; the stimulation of one sense causes another. It isn’t nearly as harmful as it sounds— in fact, it’s actually not harmful at all. 

Photo courtesy of pixabay

The most common type, or at least the most well-known and researched, is grapheme-color synesthesia— which is what I have. With this type, letters and numbers, graphemes, have associated colors that do not change, contrary to how the aforementioned drug effects the senses. The sensation is different per person: some people say they can physically see the color, while others just know the color exists as it does. 

The colors are different for each person. For me seven is orange, but for someone else it can be blue. The response is consistent and specific, meaning seven will always be orange and will always be that shade of orange. 

Photo courtesy of pixabay

There are many different types of synesthesia. It can be in the form of sounds that have tastes, music that has color, even as far as ordinal linguistic personification, where numbers or months or letters have personalities. Perhaps the most unsettling, yet still harmless, is mirror-touch, where watching someone touch their cheek or seeing a friend rub their shoulder makes the observer feel that sensation too. 

There are so many different kinds of synesthesia— some sources say 60, others say 80. You may have a form of synesthesia and just never knew it. It took me until junior year of high school to realize that people don’t recognize letters and numbers the same way I do, or in colors at all.

The cause of synesthesia isn’t well studied. Some sources I’ve read mention that genetics plays a role, although no one else in my family has it or maybe someone does but has a different type. Other sources have said that there is physical interconnectivity in the brain and not just between senses.

Not to worry— while synesthesia can sound scary, it is not a disease or a disorder and in no way indicates mental illness. Speaking from experience with the grapheme-color type, it can actually help with memory and recalling information. Studying or remembering information is so much easier by making connections to previous knowledge or similar information, with synesthesia, that connection is already there whether it be in the form of colors or by sounds.

Wonder if you have it? 

You can take this short synesthesia color quiz that evaluates mostly grapheme-color responses. Like the site says, don’t take the results too seriously.

Even if you don’t think you have synesthesia, or don’t know what an acid trip feels like, it might help to illustrate what it looks like to have the grapheme-color type.