What do Frank Ocean, Billy Joel and Franz Liszt have in common? Apart from all being accomplished musicians, they are also all listed as having a form of synesthesia. A quick Google reveals some other big names who have also spoken about the condition, from Beyonce to Duke Ellington. But what is it?
Synesthesia /ˌsɪnɪsˈθiːzɪə/ noun A perceptual phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. People who report a lifelong history of such experiences are known as synesthetes.
You have probably heard of people reporting they may experience colour or tastes when they hear music. This type of synesthesia is called Chromosthesia — in which sound involuntarily evokes an experience of colour, shape, and movement.
The earliest mentions of synesthesia were recorded by 19th-century scientist Francis Galton, although research wasn’t conducted until the late 20th century. Research shows that synesthetes tend to have more vivid mental imagery than non-synesthetes. Some say this is associated with greater connectivity in the brain. Synesthetes also demonstrate more creative thinking, discovering that metaphors come easily.
However, it should be noted that many people with this condition or a permutation of it have historically shied away from talking about it in public. In fact, until the more advanced MRI machines of the 90s it was impossible to accurately measure brain activity and responses in these situations. With this technology it became apparent that for some people, listening to headphones evoked much more than sound but could open up an entire sensory world of colour, feeling and emotion.
This Pitchfork article features an interview with Carol Steen, the co-founder of the American Synesthesia Association, who explains the feeling very articulately. It is a very unique feeling for each person and can present quite differently. Most research points to synesthesia being something we are born with or develop in early childhood, although there are instances of it being developed later in life too.
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