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  • Writer's pictureFiona Murray

Living with Synesthesia

"What colour is five?" might seem like a strange question to ask, but if you have synesthesia, you may have an answer. What is synesthesia? The word comes from ancient Greek and means "perceive together." It's a neurological condition in which one the stimulation of one sensory or cognitive area brings about another sensory or cognitive experience.

Synesthesia is out of the ordinary, but it's not considered a disorder, and causes few or no problems for most people who have it. It is atypical, but many synesthetes would object to its being considered a problem, because to them it's just a different way of experiencing life.

There are two different types of synesthesia: projective and associative.

Projective synesthesia -- seeing actual colours, forms, or shapes after sensory or cognitive stimulation.

Associative synesthesia -- feeling a strong, involuntary connection between sensory and cognitive stimulation and colours, forms, or shapes.

Synesthesia can start three different ways:

Developmental synesthesia -- starts in birth or early childhood.

Acquired synesthesia -- happens after brain injury or after artificial technologies are used to create sensory substitution.

Drug-induced synesthesia – happens after taking a psychedelic or other drug.

Specific types of synesthesia include:

Grapheme-colour synesthesia -- associating a letter or number with a colour.

Sound-to-colour synesthesia -- associating sounds with colours, usually coloured shapes.

Number-form synesthesia -- visualizing a number map image when thinking of a number.

Ordinal-linguistic personification -- associating numbers, letters, months, and so forth with certain personality traits.

Lexical-gustatory synesthesia -- associating a word or phoneme with a certain taste.

Auditory-tactile synesthesia -- sounds elicit tactile sensations in various parts of the body.

Mirror-touch synesthesia -- when someone else touches something, you feel what they would feel.

Synesthesia is fairly uncommon, and certain types of synesthesia are even rarer. The estimated rate of synesthesia varies depending on language and culture. Estimates have ranged from 1 in 25 to 1 in 100,000.

A neurologist , Richard Cytowic suggested the following diagnostic criteria for synesthesia:

  • The associations must be automatic and involuntary.

  • The synesthetic perceptions are consistent.

  • It's very easy to remember synesthesia experiences.

  • There is a great deal of emotion related to synesthesia.

There may be a genetic component, as many people who have synesthesia also have one or more family members who have it. Brain structure and function are different in synesthetes. People with synesthesia typically have unusually high serotonin levels.

Many people who have synesthesia feel that it's the most normal and natural thing in the world for them. They may have few or no problems functioning, and in fact, they may find that their synesthesia helps them function better and enhances their experiences.

However, that isn't true of everyone. If you have synesthesia, you may feel like it's something you have to be ashamed of or hide from others. You may have learned that the way you perceive things is different from others and fear that it is unacceptable.

Another problem some people with synesthesia experience is sensory overload. Since each stimulation elicits multiple sensations, you may have trouble in stimulating environments.

The first thing to do if you have synesthesia is learn all you can about it. The more you know, the better you'll understand that synesthesia is natural for you. When you become an expert on your condition, you will realize it doesn’t mean there’s anything "wrong" with you.

Even if you're not happy about your synesthesia, it can be helpful to look for ways it improves your life. Does it help you enjoy music more fully? Does it help you remember things better? Does it enhance your emotional experiences? If you can see your synesthesia as a gift or talent, you can take advantage of what it brings to you.

Perhaps you have feared that because your synesthesia is not shared by most others, it makes you somehow inferior. If so, it's important to work on your self-esteem. Do things that you enjoy and feel proud to share with others. List your good qualities. Appreciate yourself, not only as a synesthete but also as a person who is like others in some ways and unique in others.

If you do feel overwhelmed by your synesthetic experiences, you need to find a way to deal with the sensory overload when it happens. Many synesthetes practice meditation or deep breathing exercises when they want to limit outside stimulation. Talking to someone who has experience with synesthesia can be helpful as well, because they may have learned about techniques for getting away from too much outside input.

A person with synesthesia has a unique perspective. They have experiences to share that most others don’t. So share your special way of experiencing life with others who can only imagine it. You can do it through music, drama, writing, or other arts. Or you can simply describe what you see to a trusted friend. If you choose to do so, you can make life a little richer for others who don't share your gift. At the same time, you can find a way to express your unique vision.

No-one can understand someone with synesthesia in the same way as another person who has it. Connecting with other synesthetes can help you in many ways. You can learn to value yourself as you come to value others with the same condition. You can learn how they manage problems like sensory overload or being misunderstood.

But if your experience with synesthesia is a little less positive, that’s okay. You don’t have to be happy about synesthesia’s impact on your experience with the world and it’s okay if you want some extra support. So, if you are having problems due to your synesthesia or others' attitudes towards it, you might benefit from talking to a therapist. A therapist can help you work through your feelings and experiences and develop healthy coping mechanisms that will empower you to navigate life in a happier and healthier way. Your therapist can also teach you relaxation techniques and help you build self-esteem. They offer emotional support and help you connect with others in the synesthetic community. So don’t hesitate to ask for support if you need it!

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