Inside: What is synesthesia? In a word—fascinating! It’s people who can taste shapes, smell colors, see the alphabet in color, and much more. Here’s how to have a synesthesia experience with your kids in a sensory garden.
What is Synesthesia?
Imagine being able to fuse all your senses together–being able to see sounds, smell color, and feel the sensation of red having a distinct taste? Or when you hear a certain piece of music you immediately see vivid images or the music of harmonicas produces a calming green hue and playing the piano evokes images of a fine lavender mist–or something entirely different yet equally fascinating.
Welcome to the world of synesthesia!
So, what is synesthesia?
Synesthesia is a word that comes from two Greek words, syn (together) and aesthesis (perception) and literally means “joined perception or sensation.” It involves the crossing over a person’s senses; particularly with sight, sound, smell, and taste. It represents a small group of people who perceive the world in extraordinary ways. Red may smell like kiwi, the aroma of peppermint may feel like sand, and letters and numbers appear in distinct individual colors. Just about any combination of the senses is possible.
Richard E. Cytowic, M.D., author of The Man Who Tasted Shapes describes it like this, Imagine a world of salty visions, purple odors, square tastes, and green wavy symphonies. In his work with synesthesia, Dr. Cytowic met a man who literally tasted shapes; a woman who heard and smelled colors and other synesthetes (as they are called) who saw the alphabet in a wide range of colors. He further states, For us, the touch, taste, and smell, they are all separate, but for synesthetes, it is not.
It is estimated that synesthesia occurs 1 in 200 people to 1 in 100,000 people with women being three times more likely to have it than men and left-handed people having it more often than right-handed people. It is thought that synesthesia may be inherited through the X-chromosome and it tends to run in families.
Interestingly, synesthesia is associated with people who oftentimes are connected to the arts and sciences.
What is Synesthesia in Color?
This baffling phenomenon can involve any of the senses, but the most common form involves seeing colored letters and numbers on a page where the rest of us see black text on a white page. Or, they might see the word “flower” as bright pink or the number “5” as green.
Novelist Vladimir Nabokov saw the letter “b” as burnt sienna and the letter “t” as pistachio green (the colors they see are very distinct–not just “orange or green”). He often argued with his synesthetic mother about the true colors of the alphabet.
Other synesthetes hear sounds when they smell something (a sound can taste like pickles), who smell in response to touch, or who feel something in response to sight or injury (one woman saw the earth bathed in orange when she experienced pain).
What is Synesthesia in Music and Art?
Some synesthetes see shapes and colors when listening to music and transform those shapes and colors into works of art. Wassily Kandinsky was such a synesthete. The vision for many of his paintings came from music and he believed that music and art were fused. His artwork combined his interest in harmonious relationships between the sounds of music and color, and he used musical terms to describe his paintings, calling them “compositions,” and “improvisations.”
Music composer, Franz Liszt was also a synesthete. Friedrich Mahling said that Liszt had a very interesting way of conducting an orchestra. He stated, Liszt would astonish the orchestra when he said: ‘O please, gentlemen, a little bluer, if you please! This tone type requires it!’ Or: ‘That is a deep violet, please, depend on it! Not so rose! First, the orchestra believed Liszt just joked; more later they got accustomed to the fact that the great musician seemed to see colors there, where there were only tones.
Another composer and synesthetic, György Ligeti said: Major chords are red or pink, minor chords are somewhere between green and brown.
There are websites devoted to synesthesia, and international organizations such as the American Synesthesia Association have been created. Because of the nature of synesthesia, it has been and continues to be a source of inspiration for artists, composers, poets, novelists, and digital artists who possess this ability.
Here’s a short-list of famous Synesthetes:
- Franz Liszt
- Zoltan Kodály
- Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
- Leonard Bernstein
- Billy Joel
- Alexander Scriabin
- Olivier Messiaen
- Jean Sibelius
- Itzhak Perlman
- Kanye West
- Wassily Kandinsky
- Vincent Van Gogh
- David Hockney
- Charles Baudelaire
- Arthur Rimbaud
- Richard P. Feynman (physicist)
- Marilyn Monroe
Activity #1: What is Synesthesia in Gardens?
As a Master Gardener, I’m always looking for opportunities to take my grandkids and explore or create different gardens in nature and in my neighborhood. Pollinator gardens, Butterfly gardens, Sensory gardens, Vegetable or Herb gardens that stimulate 5 of our 9 senses:
Synesthetes crossover the 5 main senses and you can use this crossover with your kids and grandkids. How? Either plant a garden or take your children or grandchildren to a garden where they can pretend they are a synesthetic and crossover as many of their senses as possible. Sensory gardens are perfect for this. For example:
Have each child take a notebook and pen to record the different things they see in a garden–butterflies, bugs, flowers, herbs, vegetables–anything that creates contrasting colors, light, shapes, and textures. Now cross their seeing with smelling, tasting, and hearing and ask them:
- Ever thought what a beautiful butterfly would taste like?
- What would a rose taste like? (I’ve actually purchased rose petal jam before)
- Pansies are edible–eat a petal and ask yourself, “if I could hear music when smelling and tasting a pansy–what would it sound like?
- What would a bug smell like?
Smelling is a strong sense. And there are many opportunities to smell things in a garden–flowers, tomatoes, basil, lavender, anise, hyssop, etc. Now ask your kids–
- If you could actually see these smells–what would they look like?
- What would they sound like?
What sounds do your children/grandchildren hear in the garden? Wind blowing through the plants? Wind chimes or water fountains? Birds feeding at feeders? Woodpeckers pecking or other birds singing? Butterflies fluttering or ornamental grasses swaying in the breeze?
Now, pretend these sounds create images and music in their minds–what would those images look and sound like?
In a vegetable or herb garden tastes are easily identified. We all know what a tomato or carrot tastes like–but if you were a synesthetic–what would the shape of these vegetables taste like? What would their colors taste like?
In a garden, it’s always fun to touch everything that is growing–flowers, herbs, vegetables, etc. And it’s also fun to touch the bark of trees and experience different plant sensations such as
If you were a synesthetic and just saw these words on a piece of paper, first–could you imagine seeing each of the letters of these words in a different color? What about seeing the words and being actually able to feel the sensation of these words? Like the man who tasted shapes–can you feel these adjectives of smooth, sticky, fuzzy or prickly?
Another benefit of a child using all his/her senses is improved memory. Think about it–for every experience your child has, if they engaged their senses of hearing, touching, tasting, seeing, and smelling–how would that affect their abilities to learn and remember? When all senses are utilized –the result is an experience that is never forgotten.
Activity #2: Color, Music & Synesthesia
Most of us are not synesthetes, but like synesthetes, it possible for us to be influenced by the infinite varieties of color.
Each color of the rainbow, like music, vibrates at its own frequency as does every organ and cell in our bodies. When we are ill, these frequencies are distorted. However, color therapists can help restore these frequencies by using colored lights to bring balance to the cells and initiate healing.
Rather than going to a color therapist, try a “synesthetic colored meditation,” to bring healing energy into your body and tap into and crossover as many senses as possible. Try this with your kids:
- Find a comfortable chair to sit in
- Close your eyes and let your favorite music enter your mind
- Imagine yourself sitting in the sand looking out over the ocean or on a mountain top looking out over the colorful horizon. What smells do you smell? What sounds do you hear? Can you taste the ocean, the sand, or the trees on the mountain tops? What do they taste like?
- See the details of your experience: the blue water ebbing and flowing, the yellow sun, the blue sky, the green mountain tops; the rich brown soil, gorgeous wildflowers spreading across the horizon, etc. Use all 5 of your senses by adding sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch to the experience.
- Then look up at the sky and imagine the most amazing colorful rainbow forming. Watch it spread slowly from one end of the sky to the other until it is a magnificent blaze of color. Again use all your senses to experience this.
- In your mind, quietly ask that the color you need most at the moment will flow out of this rainbow and into your body, filling it with healing energy.
Experiment with this using this very soothing CD: “The Pachelbel Canon with Ocean Sounds.”
Do you know anyone who is a synesthetic? Do they see the alphabet in color? Do they taste shapes? Or is there another way that their senses crossover? Please share in the comment section below
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What does it look like when you have synesthesia?
People with synesthesia have the ability to crossover and fuse their 5 senses of seeing, smelling, tasting, touching, and hearing.
They may see each letter of the alphabet in a distinct color while most people see black letters on white pages. They may taste shapes, hear or smell colors, see shapes and colors when listening to music, and more. Other synesthetes hear sounds in response to smell, who smell in response to touch, or who feel something in response to sight or injury. One woman saw the earth bathed in orange when she experienced pain.
Just about any combination of the senses is possible
How common is synesthesia?
It is estimated that synesthesia occurs 1 in 200 people to 1 in 100,000 people with women being three times more likely to have it than men and left-handed people having it more often than right-handed people.
It is thought that synesthesia may be inherited through the X-chromosome. It tends to run in families.
Interestingly, synesthesia is associated with people who oftentimes are connected to the arts and sciences.
Is Synesthesia a mental disorder?
It is suggested that synesthesia could be a disorder in some synesthetes, but not in others.
Some synesthetes, like artist Carol Steen, considers it a “wonderful gift,” and believe it’s another form of consciousness. The shapes and colors she experiences when listening to music inspire her paintings.
Vilayamur Ramachandran of the University of California at San Diego believes that synesthesia is “caused by genetic mutations that create dense neural connections between areas of the brain that process sensory information.”
Richard Cytowic, the author of “The Man Who Tasted Shapes”, has spent decades studying synesthesia. He thinks of synesthetes as “cognitive fossils” and will lead to a new model of the mind.
Wow! I definitely don’t have Synesthesia but I agree with Carol Steen who describes it as a “wonderful gift”. I am so intrigued by this concept and am slightly jealous I can’t experience it firsthand. Have you ever met anyone personally who has had it? I would love to just sit and have a conversation with someone and pick their brain about it. Such a fun post! Thanks so much for sharing, Sharlene.
Sharlene Habermeyer says
I’m with you–I’d love to experience it firsthand. I actually know 3 people with synesthesia. One was the conductor I hired when I started the community orchestra in 1999. He saw the alphabet in color. I also know a professor at the University of California Riverside. She saw incredible mathematical images when she heard certain Bach suites–much like Wassily Kandinsky. She put her images on canvas and toured the U.S. She spoke at an event I planned with the orchestra–we played the music of Bach and she exhibited her paintings and talked about synesthesia. Her paintings were amazing–I’ve never seen anything like them. I felt I was looking at a mathematical production on canvas. The last person is the son of a friend–he’s a very talented musician and exhibits his synesthesia with numbers. It certainly seems to be found with people in the arts and sciences as I mentioned in the post.