What is synesthesia?

The term synaesthesia comes from the Greek: syn = together and aisthesis = sensation. Synaesthesia is a special ability that mixes sensory input. This means that when a sensory organ is stimulated, sensations from another sensory organ also occur in addition to the sensory perceptions that belong to it: For example, music takes on forms and structures that change with the melody and timbre before the inner eye.

With all your senses

Such connections are possible between all five sensory areas. However, the “colored hearing” is the most common. Sounds, music or language are experienced at the same time as colors. Synesthesia occurs much more frequently in women than in men (ratio 8:1) and is much more common in some families than others. Scientists suspect that there is a genetic change in the X chromosome in synesthetes. However, concrete evidence is still lacking. The frequency in the population is approximately 1:1000.

There are many theories to explain how mixed sensory perceptions can come about. For example, that synaesthesia is caused by so-called “cross talk” between otherwise separate nerve tracts. This means that the signals come into contact with each other on the way from the sensory organs to the processing centers in the brain.

types of synesthesia

Researchers distinguish “genuine” synesthesia, which usually begins in early childhood and in which a sensory stimulus is tightly coupled to a specific color or shape perception, and acquired synesthesia, which occurs with neurological diseases or with drugs such as  LSD  or mescaline and mostly not permanent. A third form is emotional synaesthesia: it is not necessarily triggered by a stimulus; those affected can cause it voluntarily.

Finally, there is “associative pseudosynesthesia”: Here people actively learned to associate letters with colors in childhood.


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