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Medical Synesthesia, some people perceive individual symbols, characters, numbers

  1. Apr 10, 2010 #1

    I found this facinating. It seems some people percieve individual symbols, characters, numbers, and letters as having their own color. Not only that, but it appears there can be any number of mixing of the senses. Perhaps this should be placed under "Credable mysteries".

    The list of famous people who claim to experience this phenonynon mainly include artists, musicians and general creative types. Richard Feinman claims to have seen equations in color that were in fact printed in black and white.

    Has anyone else experienced this? For thoes who program in modern software that changes the color of text when some function is entered correctly or a bracket is closed, I wouldn't be suprised if this behavior could be learned.
    Last edited by a moderator: Feb 4, 2013
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 10, 2010 #2


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    Re: synesthesia

    My older daughter is a synesthete, she sees letters as colors.
  4. Apr 10, 2010 #3


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    Re: synesthesia


    Really, I am reading "The Man Who Tasted Shapes", by Richard Cytowic, (thanks to zoobyshoe) and am about 1/2 the way through. I plan to post insight, summary info in my thread, Hot can be cold, and cold can be hot, What ??? https://www.physicsforums.com/showthread.php?t=374522". If you don't mind, I would like to compare some of his findings with your personal experiences, if that is ok with you, private (PM) or public, your call.

    I have been busy lately, now I have motivation to finish the book.

    Rhody... :smile:
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 25, 2017
  5. Apr 10, 2010 #4
    Re: synesthesia

    Synesthesia is amazing, but for all that it can be understood in terms of the neurology, it's the personal experience that is so elusive. By the same token, if you are interested in that difference in perceptions as a means of insight into neurology in general, might I recommend ANYTHING written by Dr. Oliver Sacks, but especially, 'The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat', which concerns agnosias, rather than synesthesia.

    He had a remarkable ability to relate the experiences of others, but the clinical observations are not all current of course.

    @Flatmaster: I haven't, and have only met one "natural" synesthete such as Evo's daughter. More often synesthesia occurs in the context of an altered mental state, such as use of psychadelics (usually LSD... I don't believe cannabinoids really trend that way).

    That said, if you (to take Evo's example) see letters as colours, you're going to have a very different view of the world. Not a skewed one either, just different, and possibly very insightful. While this can be crippling or upsetting for some, a lot of people are able to use it to their advantage.

    On a purely anecdotal note, my trumpet instructer (and now friend) claims to have the experience of percieving certain notes as having a colour. I've never had a reason to believe otherwise, and he was drawn to the music BECAUSE of that, or so he says. Considering that he previously worked in a wool-mill, and had no formal musical education... I'm not surprised.

    Synesthesia is a bit odd in that you would THINK it would be a flat-out disability, but it just doesn't seem to be. In the end, it seems that peope can add tastes, or smell music. If that's how you've always seen the world, it's just different, and the issues arise from educators or others who don't understand the situation, or others who assume drugs MUST be involved.

    That is, at least in part, why it's so wise to study perceptual issues such as Aura preceeding a Migraine Headache, or feelings of impending doom preceeding catastrophic illness... vs. Agnosias.

    @Evo: If you do take rhody up on his offer, and 'public' is an option, I would also be overjoyed to hear almost anything you care to relate about the experience of being her parent, and her experience. It's just not possible to have too many personal accounts of something this fascinating. If not, I completely understand, and apologize for the intrusion.
  6. Apr 10, 2010 #5


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    All I will say right now is that my older daughter is a very gifted artist. Her teachers have said that "art is her life". She exhibted unusual understanding of shapes as early as 18 months, and drew pictures of people "thinking". For example a stick picture of a man with his legs in the air, $ signs in his eyes, and a pile of coins at the bottom. When I asked her what this picture was about, she said "He's jumping for joy because he's rich". Eighteen months old. She scared me.
  7. Apr 10, 2010 #6
    Re: synesthesia

    Wow, talk about calling it as you see it!... you are a lucky mother (no pun). If I can ask one related question: do you you know of any other synesthetes in your or her father's (no insult, just not making assumptions) lineage?
  8. Apr 10, 2010 #7
  9. Apr 10, 2010 #8
    Re: synesthesia

    Do you mean that you associate a smell with an event or music? "Scent Memory" is very normal, a kind of associative recall. If you percieve the music as a series of scents, or blending of them... that would synesthesia.
  10. Apr 10, 2010 #9
  11. Apr 10, 2010 #10


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    Re: synesthesia

    Not that we know of. All of her pictures at the age between 18-24 months focused on the eyes. If the eyes were looking up at the right, they were thinking, if their eyes were looking down at the left, they were lying, every time she drew a picture, I would ask her to interpret it and then write the meaning on the back of the picture.

    One time, and my favorite, was when she drew several faces with pig snouts and curly hair. I asked her what it meant. She said "Mommy", they're pigs with hair!". :rofl: Yes, yes they were.

    Also, when she was 18 months, everytime we left her room, I'd be carrying her and she'd point at the wall and say "rown circo". This went on for a few weeks before I noticed that what she was pointing at was the thermostat on the wall next to her door. The thermostat was a round plastic circle.
  12. Apr 11, 2010 #11
    Re: synesthesia

    You'd probably enjoy the book I pointed out to rhody, The Man Who Tasted Shapes, by Richard Cytowic, MD. It's an easy and fascinating read. The main 'character' (it's fact not fiction) has a taste/touch crossover. The taste of food causes him to feel he's touching variously shaped objects with different textures, from different materials. The sensations of touch vary widely according to what he's tasting. Many other forms of synesthesia are discussed too.

    Cytowic has some papers online that are somewhat more technical. These are the results of his research in to the causes of synesthesia. IIRC his belief is that the hippocampus is heavily implicated.
  13. Apr 11, 2010 #12
    Re: synesthesia

    Ever since I heard of synethesia I've wished I'd had it. At least for numbers. Imagine seeing 6 * 4 and knowing, almost immediately that it's 24 because it's the same color as 24.

    The way I've noticed I retrieve memories is through connections, every memory is cross-referenced with a huge amount of other things, time, senses, other memories you were thinking of at the time, etc. Any time one of those references is accessed this memory might come up. This means that the more senses you attribute to a memory the easier it is to retrieve. (some senses, like smell or hearing, are more directly connected to memories) By this logic adding a color to all numbers and letters and such can make recalling those memories much easier.

    You could also think of it like this: generally it's your left brain that deals with numbers and words and such while it's your right brain that deals with creativity and colors and such (this isn't entirely true, but you get the idea). So if you're perceiving color in something that the left brain usually deals with then it's almost as if both sides of your brain are working on the same problem simultaneously, doubling your brain power.

    I actually find it harder to imagine this as a disability than an advantage. I suppose if you have a hard time dealing with the extra information you could go a bit nutty, or just be really slow or whatnot.

    But really, I think it'd be wonderful. "Oh, that's a slightly blue-green angle on that triangle, it'll fit perfectly with that orange one,"
  14. Apr 11, 2010 #13
    Re: synesthesia

    I have enjoyed it, but thank. You're absolutely correct that it's directly up my alley.

    @Evo: Amazing, that's not just synesthsia; by any estimation that's also genius. "Mommy, they're pigs with hair" also has to be one of the best replies of all time. I'm guessing she was utterly earnest while telling you that too! Ahh, again, lucky parent, lucky kid. Thank you very much for answering my questions.

    @StarkRG: ...but what if you have trouble adding colours? Using different pathways in the brain, or different structures doesn't mean that you would find colours or smells easier to add than numbers. By most accounts, the challenges or advantages are similar to those faces by anyone.

    As for recall, smell is the best trigger, and you, me, most people, can learn to associate SOME scents with specific memories. It's another form of mnemonic, just one that is much closer to the root so to speak. Everyone can benefit from mnemonics, it's just a matter of finding one that works for you, whether it's notches in leaves, or the smell of lilac.
  15. Apr 11, 2010 #14


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    Re: synesthesia

    See, just like the ending to a movie you went and gave away the ending, lol, Now, what am I to do ? I know, imagine a hippocampus smells like a pine tree, and is prickly !!! Wait, does that mean I can somehow make these extra sensations part of my daily world. That is one question that does not seem to be addressed so far. hehe.

  16. Apr 11, 2010 #15
    Re: synesthesia

    To be fair, there are a LOT of things in which the hippocampus is invovled. That, more generally of course, is one of the major problems in neuropathology; not what IS invovled, but removing variables.
  17. Apr 11, 2010 #16
    Re: synesthesia

    I think you may have misinterpreted my wording. I don't mean that people are able to learn to associate colors with ideas or symbols. I mean that if your brain is wired such that those ideas or symbols intrinsically have color.

    An example of something like this is fruits. Most fruits have a small range of colors we associate with it. Yellow is almost instantly associated with bananas, and vice versa (I say "banana", you think "yellow"). This is so clear and obvious to everyone even one of our colors is named after a fruit (or the fruit is named after the color, not sure which): Orange. Nature has created (as much as nature creates anything, in other words, through millenia of randomness) these links to help animals distinguish what's ok to eat and what isn't. Poisonous things tend to be a sickly bright color almost like hot pink or dayglo orange.

    With synesthetes things most people don't associate colors with automatically have color. It's not something that can be learned, it's something that just is. Bananas are yellow, it's not something you have to learn. You can pretend you learn it, like someone who can't see color (total color blindness, very rare) who associates the word "yellow" with the long curved fruit. Unfortunately for them the connection isn't as strong, they can't see something colored yellow and instantly think "ahh, banana!" Likewise you can tell yourself that 5 is red and that red is 5, that doesn't mean that if you see "2 + 3" you'll see it in red, if anything you'll see it as whatever colors you've associated 2 and 3 with.
  18. Apr 11, 2010 #17
    Re: synesthesia

    Alas, no, you completely misunderstood me. I was saying that a difference in perception doesn't make life EASIER. I believe I also made a very clear distinction (in that post and others) between what people CAN learn, vs. Synesthesia. Thanks for the 101 though. :wink:
  19. Apr 11, 2010 #18


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    Ramachandran gives a good talk on it in his third lecture in this three-lecture series:

  20. Apr 11, 2010 #19
    Re: synesthesia

    Do you know Dr. Ramachandran?! He's incredibly well respected, but he's usually on the damned opposite coast! I saw him once at Harvard and it was amazing to see that such a bright man was also such a capable orator. I think I'd actually say he's one of my heroes, and has been since childhood and especialy after learning about Phantom Limb sensations. Talk about someone who has an ongoing impact in research, and for clinicians.
    Last edited: Apr 11, 2010
  21. Apr 11, 2010 #20
    Re: synesthesia

    Oh, ok, I see. Honestly I don't think that would be any more difficult than anything else we have to learn, it just gives us another route to learn it. Once learned it would be much faster since it would use the same routes that instinct and intuition uses, however, as I said before, it might take longer to learn to begin with.

    However I could see where it might get really difficult if the words or numbers were printed in color.

    While it's fairly easy to tell me what these mean: red, yellow, purple

    If I colorize them wrong it makes it more difficult: red, yellow, purple

    Similarly I can imagine having colored numerals would make it far more difficult to understand.

    I can also imagine if there were other issues with ones brain (other learning disabilities and such) that they might be compounded by synesthesia.

    Another thing that might make it difficult is that there's no tutor around that can help with it. This is mitigated by explaining the situation to parents and teachers. Since the colors associated with the various ideas and symbols differ from individual to individual there's no set way to teach it. We can, however make it easier to learn on ones own, for example, by not colorizing numbers and text very often (leaving it up to the individual to add their own colors) and by giving more time to learn things.
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