Yes, you read that right. Some people can hear colors, see sounds, and taste words—and that’s not even all of the incredible sensations that people with synesthesia experience.
Synesthesia is a type of wiring in the brain that results in one sense co-activating another—for example, hearing certain noises and, as a result, seeing certain colors. This condition is not to be confused with a disorder, however. Rather, “it is the result of enhanced neuronal connections,” according to synesthesia.com. (Did you know that there’s a name for people who see faces in everyday things as well?)
“The brain misfires one sense, [which] activates another sense concurrently. A primary sense might activate a secondary sense with it,” Bruce Cameron, a licensed professional counselor in Dallas, told Reader’s Digest. “Research has noted nearly 60 types or variations of synesthesia.”
According to Laura Linebarger, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and consultant, “A whole dissertation could be written on just one type but here are some of the more common ones: grapheme-color synesthesia (letters and numbers with color), chromesthesia (sounds with color), spatial sequence synesthesia (numbers in space), number form (a mental map of numbers), auditory-tactile synesthesia (sounds and bodily sensations), ordinal linguistic personification (numbers, letters, or sequences and words with personality), mirror-touch synesthesia (sensing something after seeing it done to another, i.e., feeling a touch on your arm when you see another’s arm touched), lexical-gustatory synesthesia (tastes or unusual sensations with words, ex: when I each shrimp, it tastes ‘bouncy’).”
A common type of synesthesia is the aforementioned ordinal linguistic personification synesthesia—associating numbers and letters with personality. “If I see a license plate on a car, I don’t just see the plate, I see each individual personality for each letter and number,” Teena Maddox, senior writer for TechRepublic, told Reader’s Digest.
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“They dance through my head, in the background, without me fully realizing it. It’s the same thing when I see words. It’s the first letter that stands out the most, and I see that personality come to life before my eyes. It doesn’t distract me, however, it is simply how my brain is wired and I process it along with everything else,” says Maddox.
A rarer variation of synesthesia is mirror-touch synesthesia, occurring in approximately two in 100 people. Joel Salinas, MD, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, and author of Mirror Touch: Notes From a Doctor Who Can Feel Your Pain, tells Reader’s Digest what it’s like being a doctor with mirror-touch.
“As you can imagine, in the hospital, having mirror touch can be a bit of a challenge sometimes, but it also helps me help others,” Salinas says. “Recently, during one of my rounds, I was consulted to see a young woman who started acting combative. As I go ahead with the standard exam maneuvers to test her level of arousal and attention, my body mirrors her movements—her beads of sweat, her furrowed brow and grimace.”
“This is a normal experience for me, but I notice an unusual feeling in my chest that I can’t shake,” Salinas continues. “I recommend a special CT scan of her chest to get a closer look. Not long after, her study results come back. They reveal blood clots in her lungs. Without my mirror touch, I would have likely missed it.” Here are the signs of blood clots you don’t want to ignore.
Are you as amazed as we are at these stories of synesthesia? The brain is a fascinating part of the human body—learn more mind-blowing facts about the brain you likely didn’t know.