Word of the Month: Synesthesia

David Zapatka

Reading about cognition and perception recently, I was introduced to the word “synesthesia” which is this month’s WOTM.

Synesthesianoun syn·es·the·sia \ si-nəs-ˈthē-zh(ē-)ə \

1. a concomitant sensation: especially a subjective sensation or image of a sense (as of color) other than the one (as of sound) being stimulated.

2. the condition marked by the experience of such sensations.

Etymology – Latin from syn– + -esthesia (as in anesthesia) First Known Use circa 1891.

Synesthesia used in a sentence:

In other types of synesthesia, sounds might be linked to colors or words with tastes. –Heather Murphy, New York Times, “Why We ‘Hear’ Some Silent GIFs,” December 8, 2017.

In literature, synesthesia is a figurative use of words that intends to draw out a response from readers by stimulating multiple senses.

Back to the region where the sun is silent. –Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, c.1308.

With blue, uncertain, stumbling buzz, between the light and me; and then the windows failed, and then could not see to see. –Emily Dickinson, Dying, 1862.

Today’s modern language contains many examples of synesthesia. “I smell trouble.” “You could have cut the tension in the air with a knife.” “Her actions speak louder than her words.”

Even advertisements use this technique to draw us in. Skittles: “Taste the rainbow!” Pepsi: “You’ve never seen a taste like this.” And, of course, Coca Cola: “Life tastes good.”

The University of London has researched synesthesia and produced an article in March, 2018, titled, “Why do some people ‘hear’ silent flashes?” The article states, “Up to one in five people may show signs of a synesthesia-like phenomenon in which they ‘hear’ silent flashes or movement… While the effect is barely known to science, the researchers found that this ‘visually-evoked auditory response’ (vEAR) is far more common than other types of synesthesia – such when certain sounds elicit a specific colour – with flashing lights and motion evoking vivid sounds. The survival of this association may also explain other links between sound and vision, such as why we like to listen to music synchronised with flashing lights or dance…. It was seen that correspondents who had answered ‘yes’ to experiencing vEAR were specifically sensitive to the pure motion energy present in videos such as swirling or patterns that were not predictive of sounds. The researchers also saw that vEAR was associated with phenomena such as tinnitus and also musical imagery…. This is an exciting insight into the different ways some of us perceive the world around us.”

LSD’s psychedelic effects on the brain cause visual and auditory hallucinations and an individual’s sense of self dissolving and merging with a larger consciousness leading to an ephemeral state of oneness. Studies suggest this may be an example of synesthesia.

Have you had experiences of hearing colors, tasting words or other synesthesia? Please share your experience with our readers and submit any thoughts on this month’s column or any word you may like to share, along with your insights and comments, to [email protected]