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What is Synesthesia?

By Lorna W.
Updated May 17, 2024
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You may have heard of synesthesia (or synaesthesia) in an English class while discussing poetic language. In literature, it is a description of one sense in terms of another. In the health field, though, the word has a different, yet highly similar, definition. Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which one sense is experienced through the perception of another sense.

Sure, you've often smelled something and tasted it at the same time, but have you ever smelled something and seen colors? Or heard a noise and tasted something? These are the kinds of connections that the mind of a synesthete creates. They may hear music and see colors or feel pain and smell something that is nowhere in the room.

The perceptions of a person with synesthesia aren't always a direct trading of two senses. Many also associate colors with letters and numbers, insisting that the number 7 is green or that the letter P is a yellowish orange. Entire words will have a unique color based on the colors of their component letters. This isn't a matter of simply associating a letter or number with a color; they will actually see the colors when presented with text or even when thinking of letters and numbers.

The possible link between synesthesia and creativity has been studied in the past. If the person experiencing synesthesia is able to channel their extra perceptions into a creative work, the results can share their vision with the world and create unique connections. Vladimir Nobokov, the author of Lolita, has been recognized as a synesthete, along with the painter David Hockney and the composer Olivier Messiaen. Countless others have perhaps simply not been recognized.

Despite being a "condition," synesthesia is not a handicap or disability. It is simply a different way of processing sensory information. A synesthete may feel a bit strange the first time she tries to describe the colors of her alphabet or the things she tastes when listening to music, but will typically embrace the richness of the overall experience.

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Discussion Comments

By anon352928 — On Oct 26, 2013

I have this condition along with Asperger's Syndrome, and it means that I can feel myself touching things, even when I'm not physically touching anything. I also associate letters and numbers with certain colours, such as the number 26 being purple.

I've also always seen number patterns as paths. It's a little hard to describe, but it goes upwards to 10, curves left through the teen numbers, and curves round clockwise at 100. I have no idea why.

By anon337364 — On Jun 04, 2013

I think that I might have a rare form of synesthesia. Whenever I taste anything, I hear the taste of it and the same tastes always have the same sounds. I've always thought it was just part of tasting something but now I'm wondering if I have some kind of synesthesia.

By anon337239 — On Jun 04, 2013

While talking to my two kids, we realized we all categorize days of the week as shapes and colours, months as specific (strange) shapes and lengths running in specific directions similar with years. My wife was like, what the heck are you all on about? Though I think this is probably more of a memory representation than synasthesia. Still, it's very interesting to read other people's amazing experiences with sensory crossover.

By anon337188 — On Jun 03, 2013

I'm not entirely sure if I have synesthesia or not. I see whole words, and pieces of music, as colours, and they also seem to have a texture as well - for example, Vivaldi's Springtime feels like silk. This has always helped me in learning to spell or memorize pieces of music, as I can remember what color they should be and match my spelling/playing accordingly. However, I don't really see individual letters as having colours, and numbers don't trigger this either. Is there such a thing as selective synesthesia?

By anon331841 — On Apr 25, 2013

I see numbers and all words in color. I don't know if this is synesthesia, but when I listen to music or a book on tape, I can often remember exactly where I was the first time I heard it. Or sometimes if I pass a certain place while I'm driving, I can remember exactly what I was listening to a time before. For example, I once listened to Narnia's Prince Caspian while going up a hill, and that hill will always remind me of that book.

I also remember people's houses, mostly by the size of whatever room I spend the most time in and the color of the room. Sometimes all I will remember about a house that I visited when I was very young is that it had brown wood paneling and a step down into the room. Is there anyone else who has experienced this?

By anon325460 — On Mar 16, 2013

Since I was a kid, I saw days of the week in shapes and color. For instance, Sunday is a rectangle and white and Thursday is yellow. But, I only do this for days and nothing else. Is this still considered a synesthesia?

By anon324015 — On Mar 07, 2013

This is exactly what I have! Well only with the letters/numbers and colours. It's the coolest thing ever.

By anon316070 — On Jan 26, 2013

I was reading a white text book when the text just started flashing blue and purple, and I wasn't high.

By anon309814 — On Dec 18, 2012

I think I might have some form of synesthesia. When I see colors or designs, especially ones I have to choose between, I see in my mind either an emotion, and then how my entire day is going to go, if I choose that color over the other.

For example, I spend twenty minutes a day deciding whether or not to choose the green cereal bowl or the orange cereal bowl. Some days, when I look at the green one, I see a day completely filled with good luck, and other days I see a day filled with sickness and horror. If this isn't what I think it is, can anyone tell me what it really is? -Confused

By anon303621 — On Nov 15, 2012

When I look at objects or people, I see strings and shapes with numbers. I like seeing them, but what is it?

By anon296147 — On Oct 09, 2012

I'm not sure if I have this exactly but I think I might have a small version, maybe. Ever since I was little I always thought certain numbers had personalities and lives.

Like for instance, I thought that 4 was the daughter of 5 and was a bit shy and quiet. Number 5 is a good mom but after her divorce from 9, she has a new boyfriend, and 6, who is really good and sweet to 5, but he and 4 don't get along even a little. Number 9, 4's real dad and 4 get along really well, and she misses him. Number 11 seems like 4's really fun great uncle. There's not much more that I thought about numbers but that's all I remember. Could this be a form of synesthesia?

By anon290490 — On Sep 09, 2012

I became a synesthete due to treatment for my epilepsy. The way it was explained to me was that my brain repaired itself in a way that linked my visual/auditory sense with a touch response. When I listen to music, mostly with string instruments, I can feel the vibrations as a warm buzz that starts on the left side of my face. Sometimes I get the same feeling when I pass by certain locations or images. It doesn't happen all the time, but when it does it is noticeable and feels awesome.

By anon288634 — On Aug 30, 2012

It's fascinating. I sometimes have similar experiences, but when I do, they're not very strong. I compose music, and sometimes when I'm playing a melody be it in my head or on the piano, I can sometimes smell a certain scent, usually related to my past. Or if I hear songs, I sometimes see flashes of color - usually reds or blues. I also sometimes see a color and smell something. For example, when I see the new Air Canada livery (the icy green color on the aircraft body), I can almost smell the scent of fresh spring roses.

Anyway, it's all very interesting and neat to read so many other people's experiences with the phenomenon!

By anon288289 — On Aug 29, 2012

I did know what it as called, but I have always felt pain in colors. Nice to know what it is after 55 years.

By anon280422 — On Jul 17, 2012

I experience colors and numbers when I look at people. I haven't read about this from anyone else until now maybe.

By anon274474 — On Jun 11, 2012

@anon244325: I am very similar. The days of the week, for me, have pale colors but I haven't made them distinct for all of the days of the week yet. I know Sunday is a pale blue. And they're all in a circle and flat like when you play hop-scotch. When I'm on Saturday, I see it from Saturday's angle. So I see the other days of the week all 3-D at Saturday's angle. Every time I realize it's a new day, I see the ring at a different angle.

It's the same with the months of the year except they're in a U-shape, January being on the top right of the U and December on the other side respectively. Each month has a different color but they don't necessarily match or anything. They just match with that particular month.

When I listen to music with no words, I can see, in my mind, shapes and colors that move. Like if the music is light and sweet, I see light colors that seem delicate. When it's intense, the colors get darker and more violent.

With numbers, I see different colors for numbers each time but they aren't just black and white, as with letters.

All of this has existed since I was little and it was only natural. It's so weird. I just thought it was because I'm creative (I love artsy stuff). And so I thought that everyone had some degree of it but apparently, some people don't have it all. Bizarre.

By anon266431 — On May 05, 2012

@Anon152660: When I listen to music, I see songs in both color and movement. The music plays like an old fashioned piano player roll, sometimes from left to right and sometimes from top to bottom, and sometimes it even goes at an angle. My favorite music to watch is the theme from Star Trek: The Next Generation because watching that is like seeing fireworks.

By the way, how many people here who are synesthetes also have Asperger's Syndrome?

By anon244325 — On Jan 31, 2012

Ever since I was young I've always seen the days of the week in colours (a color for each day) and not only that, but I see them horizontally lined up a specific way. I see the months of the year that way, too (each with a different color). Every person also has a color! Weird, because I thought I wasn't the only one, until I asked people if they thought the same and they always looked at me with a 'what the?!' look, until one day in recent years, I'd asked someone and they responded saying 'My mother has that condition too!' and I said 'condition?! There's a name for this?' She said, 'Yes, it's called Synesthesia and to her I have always been green' and without even thinking, I said 'No, you're re!' and that's when I realized I also see people as colours as well.

When I started thinking more about this, I realized that I also see continents, suburbs and places as specific colours as well, along with each letter of the alphabet. Then I made the connection that the color of each letter (which can't ever change) is associated to anything and everything! So for me, "S" is always red, so "Sally" and "South America" and "satin" are always red. I always wondered whether this was a 'learned' thought process which could have stemmed back to playing with those coloured alphabet fridge magnets when I was younger.

It's comforting knowing I'm not the only one who thinks this way (or similar). On the other hand, numbers have always been just black but I see and count them from right to left (possibly from learning to count on each hand/fingers). And now, 28 years later and I'm still learning more about this. I'm hoping there are more studies done around Synesthesia as it's pretty interesting stuff.

By anon231360 — On Nov 23, 2011

I have synesthesia. I would think it's rather a gift than a "condition" or "disability". It makes my world that much more interesting. I have lexical synesthesia, which means all of my letters and numbers have colors. For example, A is a... well, an A blue! sometimes I can't describe what color they are, but I know exactly what color they are in my head. Same for numbers too. One is white, 2 is red, 3 is green, 4 is purple, 5 is orange, 6 and 7 are both yellow, 8 is purple, 9 is yellow, and 0 is black. I don't have one color for multi-digit numbers or multi-character words. I just see the individual colors of the individual letters. I love my synesthesia and i wouldn't trade anything in the world for it. I am a synesthete and proud of it!

Hope I helped anyone who's reading this. --Grace

By anon153867 — On Feb 18, 2011

I have Synesthesia, it's a taste/color type. I also associate people, moods and numbers with a color and everything is either odd or even to me.

I think the biggest problem with having synesthesia for me is that loads of my friends don't believe me that my condition is real because they have never heard of it. other than that. I don't have any problems other than maths because it doesn't make sense that blue + red = green!

By anon152660 — On Feb 14, 2011

I have it. I see months in color. And I see colours in textures. I always thought I could see movements in sound. But I've never heard that form of it. Does anybody see movements and light rather than colours?

By anon128698 — On Nov 20, 2010

A musician friend of mine could feel music, he had perfect pitch. On the other hand I can feel colours very resonate as I were touching the color. My brothers cannot do any of these things.

Synethesia, to me, is a more flexible brain model if all the representations are appropriate and do not undermine our behavior.

By Lisa Scaramella — On Nov 18, 2010

I should also add when it happens it's kind of like a trance you go into. I'm not sure how long it lasts or if it's for the same length of time each time it happens. When it happens to me I can't communicate verbally or in anyway at all really. But I'm also saying that I am at the same time perfectly aware, or maybe even more aware, of everything that's going on around me and my surroundings especially sounds and colours like I said before.

By Lisa Scaramella — On Nov 18, 2010

I have had it since I was a kid. Up till now have always thought and been told by various doctors it was part of the Nocturnal Epilepsy-which only happens while asleep-condition I have, a type of 'fit' so to speak. I'm beginning to think that part of it is actually a sleeping disorder called REM Behavior Disorder the more I read but that's a whole other story.

With the Synesthesia, to be honest until the last few years has really freaked me out. I have always been prepared or waiting for something bad to happen to me! Like a stroke. It is the weirdest feeling and I'm still trying to work out the type I have all I can do is try and explain what happens to me personally.

The senses that cross for me when it happens seem to be hearing, touch and taste. Music (mainly when the radio is on), people talking, sounds trigger and bring it on for me. All the sounds and colours around me are amplified some more than others, it feels like I'm in a bubble getting smaller and my surroundings are growing larger expanding away from me sort of feel like you're floating on air. So scary. Not a nice feeling at times, yet sometimes it is.

Maybe i can learn to enjoy the experience a little better and learn and grow as a person from it now that I know what it is! I could never explain it to someone who didn't have it. Yeah, I get all the other stuff too, now with the color connections but always have and just thought everyone did, images/color patterns in my mind always when musics on all music notes have a color combination to me and every color has a flavor and every flavor a color (food for example).

Words too are a certain color to me. People too, especially ones i know well. To me they all have their own color. Well that's just a few of the things that happen in my case.

The hardest thing about it has been trying to keep it to myself for all these years as at times certain people in my life including some family members have never understood me even to the point of out casting me so those ones still don't speak to me because I have a disorder that can't be helped! But that's their loss I see that now. Anyone else with Synesthesia have similar experiences to mine? Haven't found anyone yet with he same type but by doing all this I'm hoping I will! Thanks

By anon113007 — On Sep 22, 2010

i have it. it's not a birth defect. it is something that CAN happen because of an accident but also it is genetic. it may not be passed down from mother to daughter or son or whatever, but it is possible. and i think it is hard to be in a cafeteria and loud areas.

By anon103713 — On Aug 13, 2010

well i thought it was a little weird when i started to go into a meditative state i would see things vividly. it's like seeing it for real. i see flowers and then see all things around the world! it's weird. i also think about the world a lot and life. We are unique beings. Let's start a forum!

By anon89334 — On Jun 09, 2010

I hope nobody ever feels bad about having synesthesia. It is an amazing gift, and I'm so jealous of anyone who has it! I think it would be so cool!

By anon88896 — On Jun 07, 2010

I have synesthesia. I only found out recently that I'm different, and I've been trying to research as much as possible about it.

I have sound/color and grapheme/color synesthesia.

When I hear music, I can see each instrument as having a different color. For instance, in the song I'm listening to right now, the lead and backup guitars are black and shifting shades of red and blue streaks and spirals. The drums are spots of black that pulsate in and out. The vocals are mainly silver and flow over the other colors.

When I read, the words and letters have colors. Some letters are M which is a distinct and bold red and T which is a really dark green. When I see an entire word, the first letter of that word usually dominates and the entire word becomes a shade of that color or a color that is similar. The name Kent is a bright orange because that is what my letter K looks like.

Numbers, on the other hand, are limited for me. Only a few have colors and I don't always see those colors with the number. But, we I do see the colors, 5 is mahogany and 1 is blue. 0 is usually white or close to it.

I don't have any friends with synesthesia but we talk about it sometimes and I don't feel at all different. Sure, I can see colors when I'm not supposed to, but I don't let that pull me back. Even when people I used to be close to call me a freak.

Nothing has changed in my life since I discovered synesthesia, and if anything does then I plan to make it for the better and embrace who I truly am.

By anon86967 — On May 27, 2010

i am an autistic who has had it all my life but never knew there was a name for this until recently.

i am also an artist by trade and have found it to be useful in finding lost objects around my home. Has anyone been able to use it that way? my mother does not believe it's a real experience and says i am imagining it, but i know it's real. i feel sorry for people who don't have it. it's better to have it then not, i think.

By anon83890 — On May 12, 2010

I have it. It's not hard to live with now, except that math is challenging. When I was a kid, I had French class and it was really, really hard.

By anon77919 — On Apr 16, 2010

I have it. I see words, letters, numbers, days of the week, months, and pain all in color. For everything but the pain, the color is there if I hear, read, or think of the word, so although I can't see musical notes or instruments, I can see the lyrics to a song.

Spoken words also have a very distinct shape, and numbers have genders and personalities in addition to color.

It's actually not that rare -- one in every 23 people are estimated to see colored months and days of the week, and one in every 90 are estimated to see colored numbers and letters.

This is all according to Richard Cytowic's latest book, "Wednesday is Indigo Blue."

The hardest part for me is the realization that not everyone sees the world as I do -- it's just mind blowing to me, and it can also (rarely) make me feel a bit isolated.

As for telling teachers, I've never had to mention it. My teachers can't tell I'm seeing their lectures in color, and since it actually helps me remember things instead of impairing my learning, I've never had any reason to tell a teacher before.

By anon69174 — On Mar 06, 2010

I'm a bit lost! What I'm trying to figure out is the classification of someone who "senses" colors around people and has a "taste" or "smell" of that color.

By anon62813 — On Jan 28, 2010

Actually, everyone was born with synesthesia. as a newborn baby, you can experience tasting colors, or seeing music. This is because when you are born your senses are all jumbled up, and they mix together, but as you grow each of your five senses begins to separate and work individually. But, on some people, this doesn't happen, therefore, synesthesia.

As for your question, the people that i know with synesthesia love it and wouldn't want to experience life without it. they also say that the hardest thing was learning how to read and write because every letter or number would be a different color.

I hope this helps. (:

By breakofday — On Jan 19, 2010

Is synesthesia a birth defect or something that can happen because of an accident? I can't imagine going through school trying to explain to a teacher what I'm experiencing. The article also doesn't mention how rare this is, I assume it's pretty rare.

Anybody have this condition? If so, what is the hardest thing you have to deal with because of it?

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