Wednesday, June 23, 2004

"Also" is Kinda Crunchy

I was at out with my daughters, Hannah and Rose, recently when Hannah suddenly turned to us and said, "When I hear words it means a kind of food in my head." We said, "Huh?" (so eloquent). It turns out that ever since she can remember most words link to a food texture and image in her head. For example "also" is pretzels, "mother" is chocolate milk, "listen" is orange Triaminic. It isn't always food and it doesn't happen with every single word (for instance "squirrel" is just a squirrel) but it happens for practically every word she hears.

Luckily, Rose had heard something recently on the radio about people who see colors when they hear words. Thank heavens! I was seriously wondering what was wrong with Hannah.

Like most people in similar situations, Hannah knew this wasn't normal. After mentioning it once to a friend and her mother in the second grade, she kept it to herself. She only brought it up now because for some reason she told one of her friends at school. The friend "tested" her for a while and then said, "That is weird because for me every word means a number and a square or circle." The one person Hannah elects to confide in after all this time and she has a form of synesthesia too. What are the odds of that?

It has turned into a parlor trick where she will suddenly say, "'Julie' is pecan pie" or "'lady' is heavy folds of a skirt." There are little details that make it even more interesting (to me anyway). There are some words she simply will not use because they "link" to very unpleasant things. Also, Hannah told me today that the sensation is much stronger when she says the word than when she hears it. She said that is why she won't talk very much when she's sick. Even stranger is when she'll say that a certain word is a food but she can't describe it. She thinks it is something she hasn't had yet. She told us that a few years ago I suddenly started making this hamburger-gravy thing and that was when she knew what was in her head for a certain word. It always had been there but she hadn't eaten it before.

Anyway, I looked it up on the internet. You wouldn't believe how many word combinations I had to use to get a description but finally I found "synesthesia." It is a recognized condition of several senses being linked together. The most common variation is people who see colors when they hear words or sounds. It is genetically linked. I started wondering who else had this but never said anything because it is so strange. I told eight people over the next couple of days and always got one of two different reactions. Either no one had heard of it and had trouble understanding the concept OR they suddenly got a funny look on their faces and would admit to some sort of the same thing. One friend sees people's names as colors, one sees abstract art shapes when she hears loud music, and so on. I found a person on each side of our family who had a version of it. Hannah felt very free after hearing there actually was a scientific definition and started talking about it at school. Yep. She found a couple more people with different types.

So what is synesthesia? Most of the research about synesthesia has been done by Richard Cytowic who wrote a book about his findings, The Man Who Tasted Shapes. As he is a neurologist it has a lot of science but it is interspersed with chapters that are easy to read about the people he worked with in studying this condition. The first thing I found that was understandable and remains the easiest to read was a transcript of an interview with Cytowic done on ABC Radio National.
Richard Cytowic: You know the word 'anesthesia' which means no sensation; well 'synesthesia' means joined sensation. And what is joined is two, three, or all five senses together. So that my voice, for example, to a synesthete is not just something that they hear, but also something that they see, or smell, or touch.

Music for example is not just a sound and a melody, but it's like a visual fireworks that they see in front of them on a little screen, rather than in the mind's eye.

...we don't know why some people get it any more than we know why some people get migraine headaches or why some people are left-handed. They just are. And synesthesia is fairly rare; it happens in about one in 25,000 individuals world-wide. My initial estimate was like one in a million, but as people made themselves known to me over the course of 15 years, the incidence has dropped down, and we might find that in fact it's more common.

It occurs in women more than men; women are twice as likely to be synesthetic than men, and it also runs in families. So most synesthetes are surprised to discover as children that their playmates and families don't perceive the world in the same way. And they might make some innocent comment like, 'Oh Mummy, look I've drawn an airplane sound, or a helicopter sound' or they might talk about the colors of the individual letters - that 'A' is red and 'C' is blue, and things like that. And then they'll get a strange response like 'Are you crazy?' and then they'll learn to not talk about it for a long, long time, not quite sure about the reality of it themselves. But it is quite real.

Finding out that such a thing exists has left me full of wonder at the world we live in. Once again, God's creation has me laughing at the sense of possibility, surprise and playfulness that is all around us. It reminds me that our ways are not His ways and our thoughts are not His thoughts. Who would want to be boxed in by mere human imagination when we can have something like synesthesia lurking to jump out and add a whole new dimension to life?


  1. I think everyone has synesthesia ( in some degree) but don't realize it. Philosophical psychology teaches us that all five senses are integrated through a central sense after passing through the sensory nerve channels. This coordinating center of the brain useses sense information to identify and/or name an external object that has been percieved. One can experience a dog through all but one of the senses. Sometimes, all at once. These experiences are retained in the brain and remembered by the central sensory center of the brain. We may have met a particulaly smelly dog at some time. And hereafter, whenever we encounter a similar smell we may well conjure up an image of that particular smelly dog, when in fact the offender may be some hambuger grease going bad in the frying pan we neglected to clean three days ago. We thus tend to associate a sensation with some other incident which left a powerful impression. This is quite normal, you could say it is a law of our nature. And this is exactly why the Church continually warns us to avoid occasions and people and things, and thoughts and desires which cause us to sin. I am sure I needn't explain that, it should be obvious.

    I think the examples you cited illustrate nothing more than that some people learn more or perhaps better through one sense rather than another. Perhaps these are the gifted ones who become scientists, artists, poets, etc.

  2. What you are describing is not at all like true synesthesia.

    When I hear a word I do not actually experience the texture of heavy silk in my mouth. Which is what happens to my daughter. It is much more complicated than your explanation ... and although much more common than scientists think, it is not so common that everyone has it.