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COLUMN: A look at synesthesia



We all perceive the world differently. When some of us listen to a song in a minor key we call it dark blue, or we might associate the word “bouba” as round and curvy.

But for a few of us, our senses are knit together much closer. Those with synesthesia, a neurological phenomena in which the stimulation of senses can lead to the stimulation of others, see the world differently. Colors can invoke sounds, letters might appear as certain hues or numbers might have specific arrangements in space.

But some have argued there is something deeper at play than just associations between different sensations. Danko Nikolic, professor of neuroscience at the Max-Planck Institute for Brain Research, would say the simple correlation between letters and colors for a synesthete misses the mark. Our brain does not translate a letter into a color, but rather translates a specific meaning of a letter into a sensation of color.

There is an idea we associate with a happy song that causes us to describe it as “red” or “yellow.” In this way, Nikolic re-brands synesthesia as “ideasthesia.” Ideasthesia, writes Keith Hillman of stresstips.com, tells us “it is not the perception that causes the experience of color but rather the meaning that we assign to that perception — the concept.”

It’s not just the relationships between sensations. We have specific meanings and ideas that we associate with specific senses, including tastes, sounds and colors.

On a broader scope, if we associate semantic meanings with what we perceive, then maybe we can understand how our brain reacts to ideas themselves, and in turn, understand the biological basis of perception. In addition, we perceive meaning and ideas far too complex to be explained by a neuroscientific understanding of the brain. For example, when we perceive the beauty of art, “neuroscience methods do not easily grasp these complex aspects of the richly textured meaning of art,” writes Anjan Chatterjee of the-scientist.com.

Regardless, we might be coming close to the understanding of certain ideas because, as scientists Tomohiro Ishizu and Semir Zeki from the University College London have found in their study, when we see something beautiful various parts of the brain, including the ventral striatum, are triggered.

This could explain the biological basis of how we perceive beauty, and in similar ways, we could find a biological basis for how we perceive the world.

But we shouldn’t get carried away with our understandings of the mind. There’s still a great deal of disagreement on these topics among neuroscientists, philosophers and everyone in between.

Perhaps synesthetes have insights into the way our minds work. From neurochemical signals to paint on a canvas, the union of our senses tell us about ourselves. The next time you listen to jazz music, the Blues might be something more than just a feeling.

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