Richard E. Cytowic
1,324,715 views • 3:41

Imagine a world in which you see numbers and letters as colored even though they're printed in black, in which music or voices trigger a swirl of moving, colored shapes, in which words and names fill your mouth with unusual flavors. Jail tastes like cold, hard bacon while Derek tastes like earwax. Welcome to synesthesia, the neurological phenomenon that couples two or more senses in 4% of the population. A synesthete might not only hear my voice, but also see it, taste it, or feel it as a physical touch. Sharing the same root with anesthesia, meaning no sensation, synesthesia means joined sensation. Having one type, such as colored hearing, gives you a 50% chance of having a second, third, or fourth type. One in 90 among us experience graphemes, the written elements of language, like letters, numerals, and punctuation marks, as saturated with color. Some even have gender or personality. For Gail, 3 is athletic and sporty, 9 is a vain, elitist girl. By contrast, the sound units of language, or phonemes, trigger synestetic tastes. For James, college tastes like sausage, as does message and similar words with the -age ending. Synesthesia is a trait, like having blue eyes, rather than a disorder because there's nothing wrong. In fact, all the extra hooks endow synesthetes with superior memories. For example, a girl runs into someone she met long ago. "Let's see, she had a green name. D's are green: Debra, Darby, Dorothy, Denise. Yes! Her name is Denise!" Once established in childhood, pairings remain fixed for life. Synesthetes inherit a biological propensity for hyperconnecting brain neurons, but then must be exposed to cultural artifacts, such as calendars, food names, and alphabets. The amazing thing is that a single nucleotide change in the sequence of one's DNA alters perception. In this way, synesthesia provides a path to understanding subjective differences, how two people can see the same thing differently. Take Sean, who prefers blue tasting food, such as milk, oranges, and spinach. The gene heightens normally occurring connections between the taste area in his frontal lobe and the color area further back. But suppose in someone else that the gene acted in non-sensory areas. You would then have the ability to link seemingly unrelated things, which is the definition of metaphor, seeing the similar in the dissimilar. Not surprisingly, synesthesia is more common in artists who excel at making metaphors, like novelist Vladimir Nabokov, painter David Hockney, and composers Billy Joel and Lady Gaga. But why do the rest of us non-synesthetes understand metaphors like "sharp cheese" or "sweet person"? It so happens that sight, sound, and movement already map to one another so closely, that even bad ventriloquists convince us that the dummy is talking. Movies, likewise, can convince us that the sound is coming from the actors' mouths rather than surrounding speakers. So, inwardly, we're all synesthetes, outwardly unaware of the perceptual couplings happening all the time. Cross-talk in the brain is the rule, not the exception. And that sounds like a sweet deal to me!