Hearing Colors and Tasting Sounds: What Is Synesthesia?

For a while, it was thought that synesthesia was just a product of overactive imaginations, but recent studies have shown significant differences in the ways the synesthete brain operates compared to a “normal” one. Each one of our senses is connected to a specific part of the brain. By using magnetic resonance imaging, scientists were able to show that synesthetes with chromesthesia had large amounts of activity in the visual parts of their brain when receiving auditory stimuli — activity that was absent from non-synesthetes undergoing the same treatment. Synesthetes have also been found to have higher levels of white matter, which is responsible for communication between different parts of the brain.

So why is this? What causes some people to taste bananas when listening to classical music? The answer may lie within their genetic code. Nearly half of all synesthetes have reported that a close relative also shares the same condition, suggesting that it might be a genetic trait. One of the leading theories is that synesthesia is a result of a mutated “pruning” gene. As we develop, some of the unnecessary connections within our brains get “pruned” away. But a mutation in this process could leave some of these connections untouched, resulting in a cross-wiring of the brain.

One of the more recent focuses of research on synesthesia, though, has been how it may benefit those with the condition. Multiple studies have concluded that synesthetes have exceptional memories. Research has found that synesthetes may have subtly enhanced senses: Those with color-related variations are better at differentiating between similar colors, and those with touch-related variations have a more sensitive sense of touch. Furthermore, synesthesia seems to be more common in artists and poets, suggesting that it may enhance creativity too.

Looking toward the future, synesthesia may be helpful in curing diseases involved with our brains’ networking systems and aiding those experiencing cognitive decline. It’s already been shown that synesthesia can be induced through drug use, sensory deprivation and hypnosis. Further research into this could provide ways for us to strengthen deteriorating connections within the brain and improve failing memories. Synesthesia is opening the door for all kinds of neural discoveries!

Works Cited

Bascom, Nick. “Unraveling Synesthesia.” Science News, 22 Nov. 2011.

Bower, Bruce. “When Brains Wring Colors From Words.” Science News, 18 March 2002.

Choi, Charles Q. “Why It Pays to Taste Words and Hear Colors.” Live Science, 22 Nov. 2011.

Cullen, Jamie. “How We All Could Benefit From Synesthesia.” The Guardian, 26 April 2014.

Gaidos, Susan, and Laura Sanders. “The Colorful World of Synesthesia.” Science News, 22 May 2008.

Tierney, Wesley. “Is the Letter ‘A’ Red?” Arizona State University, Ask a Biologist, 14 May 2019.

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