Synesthesia: Hearing Colors, Tasting Sounds.
I have always been fascinated with synesthesia – a neurological condition present in 2-4% of the population (with a 6:1 female to male ratio) where one perceives information coming in through one sensory modality in an additional sensory modality. For example, when one type of synesthete hears auditory tones, she perceives vivid colors, specifically corresponding to each tone. One of my friends from college is a grapheme-color synesthete. For these types of synesthetes, numbers and letters evoke colors. While she goes by “Emily” in spoken tongue, she prefers “Temily” in written text because the color is more pleasing.
For my neuroscience course, I read a paper about the potential evolutionary benefits to synesthesia called Survival of the Synesthesia Gene: Why Do People Hear Colors and Taste Words? by David Brang and V.S. Ramachandran. The authors proposed that synesthesia is caused by an excess of neural connections in the brain. Furthermore, measures of brain activity suggest that individuals are truly experiencing the sensation of a color connected to a grapheme at the bottom-up processing level, rather than applying colors with our higher level cognition.
Synesthesia and creativity…*
Currently, a number of different avenues of research suggest that, yes, there are clear evolutionary benefits to being a synesthete. An interesting hypothesis is that synesthesia enhances creativity, particularly because the cross-activation of different sensory modalities may facilitate greater ability related to metaphor.
Research has confirmed that there is an increased incidence of synesthesia among artists and synesthetes have reported that these abilities are facilitative of creative endeavors. From a layman’s perspective, this makes sense. If you have heightened and more nuanced sensory perceptions of your world, you will be able to perceive things that others cannot, and is art not the act of seeing things in a different, unique way? As Oscar Wilde once said, No great artist ever sees things as they really are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist. The authors presented research showing enhanced sensory processing abilities specific to synesthetic modality. Individuals who experience colors have heightened color perception, those who experience tactile sensations have increase tactile acuity, and so forth.
Synesthesia and Memory …*
Another potential benefit of synesthesia involves memory. Synesthetes have better memories than the average person, likely due to the aiding of their synesthetic experience. As a learning scientist, this is fascinating because it matches with research related to multimodal learning, whereby we are better at learning things when we experience them in more than one mode because it provides multiple memory traces to the information in our brains.
I love studying abnormal psychology, because by looking at unique conditions, we are able to better understand how the average brain works. Research on synesthesia demonstrates the importance of experiencing the world in as many sensory ways as you can, and brings more credence to work on using multiple modalities in education.