It’s due to a condition called synesthesia, and odds are you know someone who experiences it. (Photo: Getty Images)
It sounds like something out of an X-Men movie: people who can “hear” colors. But according to researchers, up to 15 percent of the population hears colors, tastes sounds, and experiences various other cross-sensory phenomena due to a condition called synesthesia.
People with synesthesia (also known as “synesthetes”) have sensations like the rest of us, but also experience another sensation at the same time, says Daphne Maurer, PhD, a professor at Ontario’s McNaster University who studies synesthesia. For example, synesthetes may see a color when they hear someone’s name or get a certain taste in their mouth when they hear a particular sound. (The sound-color association is the most common among synesthetes.)
And scientists have proven the condition actually exists. “We know that this is real,” Maurer tells Yahoo Health. “Scientists have done brain imaging and found that, when a synesthete who reports hearing words in color hears a person’s name, the area of the brain associated with color is active.”
Research on synesthesia has been growing in the past few years and has found that synesthesia may have additional effects on how a person perceives the world, other than cross-sensory perception.
The most recent study on the condition, led by Stephanie Goodhew, PhD, of The Australia National University, discovered that synesthetes have much stronger mental associations between related concepts than the rest of us. For example, a synesthete closely associates the words “doctor” and “nurse,” but finds the words “doctor” and “table” to be very unrelated.
Researchers have also discovered that synesthetes have better memories and experience more rich perceptions than people without the condition. One small recent study from the University of San Diego discovered that synesthetes completed complicated puzzles three times faster and had less errors than people without the condition.
It may even be possible to teach yourself to think like a synesthete. Scientists from Britain’s University of Sussex discovered last year that people who didn’t have synesthesia could be trained to see letters of the alphabet as colors — and in doing so increased their IQs.
But how does someone develop synesthesia in the first place? According to Maurer, we may all have some form of synesthesia at birth. As our bodies develop, we end up with a highly specialized area of the brain that almost exclusively processes sounds, another that processes taste, and so on. “That process isn’t as complete with individuals with synesthesia,” she says. However, Maurer says it’s possible that everyone has some level of synesthesia, we just don’t perceive it as much as synesthetes.
Synesthesia is a condition that people have for life, and it tends to run in families, says Goodhew, who estimates that one in every 100 people are synesthetes.
According to Maurer there are typically two camps of synesthetes: Ones who think that everyone perceives the world the same way they do, and others who are aware that they perceive things differently but are afraid to be open about it. It’s typically not until a synesthete reads a story or sees a documentary about the condition that they speak openly about it, she says.
While synesthesia typically enriches the lives of the people who have it, Maurer says that synesthetes can be overwhelmed in some high-sensory situations, like visiting Times Square or being in a noisy classroom. However, they quickly learn to “dial down” their attention in those situations.
Despite the risk of overstimulation, Maurer has discovered that most synesthetes are happy with their condition. “People with synesthesia love the fact that their perceptions are much richer than those without it,” she says. “Many say that if someone invented a cure they wouldn’t take it.”