SYNESTHESIA - Do You Have It?"
Dennis B. Kottler, MD
Westlake Village, CA
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Do you see NUMBERS and LETTERS in C-O-L-O-R? If you do, you may have alphanumeric SYNESTHESIA. This rare condition affects one in several hundred people.
To test yourself, imagine a particular letter and notice if it appears, spontaneously, in your mind, in color. Try this with all the letters of the alphabet and then the numbers "0" through "9." In "strong" synesthesia, each letter and number will have a distinct color, although some of the characters may have less color than others or even appear some shade of white or gray. These color assignments generally remain constant throughout the synesthete's life. In weaker forms of synesthesia, the colors are not as distinct nor as constant.
In addition to letters and numbers, in alphanumeric synesthesia WORDS take on color references, often taking the color from the first letter or two of the word, or taking on a blend of the individual colors of the letters. Thus, a synesthete may see the word "SPAIN" as yellow if the "S" has a strong yellow color assignment.
If this sounds weird, you probably do not have alphanumeric synesthesia.
Note that synesthesia is referred to as a condition, not a disorder. It is not generally considered a pathological state and it does not usually cause any functional impairment. In fact, some synesthetes believe that the condition has a beneficial effect in remembering the correct spelling of words and number sequences. This may arise from the color-enhanced presence of these memory traces in the mind.
It is not known what causes some people to have synesthesia, but it has been postulated that there exists some form of cross-connectivity in the brain between the regions associated with the alphanumeric memory traces and the part of the visual pathway responsible for the experience of color. (Remember, color only "exists" in the brain and is experienced when light of certain wavelengths impinges on the visual pathways).
Other Forms of Synesthesia
While alphanumeric synesthesia is the most common form, other synesthesias also occur. Thus, some individuals experience color when they hear sound, especially music. This has been reported by some musicians, although it probably exists in "non-musical" people as well. Tactile sensation can also trigger other, non-tactile sensory experiences, such as visual and auditory, in people so wired.
In general, a synesthesia exists when one sensory experience triggers a sensory experience involving a different sense.
In addition to naturally occurring synesthesia, there is also drug-induced synesthesia. Most commonly this occurs with use of hallucinogens, such as LSD, or drugs such as MDMA, ecstasy. MDMA also seems to cause an amplification of the senses in some people. (This website does not endorse the use of such non-medical drugs).
Synesthesia is not the same as sensory memory. A sensory memory occurs when a sensory stimulus, e.g., a smell, stimulates a memory, e.g., the camping trip at age ten, involving the fresh smell of the air after a thunderstorm. In sensory memory, the stimulus and the memory involve the same sense.
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