Smithsonian Magazine February 2001
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Synesthesia: Phenomenology And Neuropsychology

Synesthesia - the mixing of the senses

Carol J. Steen

Calendar Artist

For Some, Pain Is Orange

Persons with synesthesia experience "extra" sensations. The Letter T may be navy blue; a sound can taste like pickles.

Color Wheel When Shabana Tajwar was 20, she realized for the first time that she didn't see the world as others did. She and a group of friends were trying to think of someone's name, and Tajwar remembered that it started with F—and that it was thus green. "When I mentioned that, everyone said, ‘What are you talking about?' I was sort of in shock." For Tajwar and others with a condition called colored-language synesthesia, the experience of reading is a bit like looking at a mosaic. "I ‘see' the printed letter in black, or whatever color it's printed in," explains New York artist Carol Steen. "But I also see an overlay of my colors for those letters." For Tajwar, the letter F is green. For Steen, it's silver. But for each, the color stays the same from day to day, and year to year.

Seeing colored letters and words is by no means the only form of synesthesia. Steen, for instance, also sees shapes and colors when listening to music, or receiving acupuncture—images that she transforms into works of art. One synesthete may feel phantom objects of different shapes depending on what food he is tasting. Another may experience a certain taste upon hearing a particular sound. Once, when Steen injured her leg while hiking, all she saw was a world bathed in orange.

According to cognitive neuroscientist Peter Grossenbacher, a leading researcher in the field, after centuries of disbelief, the scientific community finally understands that synesthesia is a "real experience." Now he and a handful of other researchers scattered across the globe are busily figuring out the why and how—shedding new light, in the process, on how we all perceive the world around us.

Weekday Colors Paths

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Abstract of an article by Susan Hornik, originally published in the February 2001 issue of Smithsonian. All rights reserved.
Copyright 2001 Smithsonian Institution All rights reserved.
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