Seeing is believing….or is it?

Multisensory interaction encompasses the combined efforts of our various biological senses. With combined sight and hearing, we can develop a conscious understanding of our surroundings and use it to better adapt to the unpredictability of nature. Smell and taste enable us to experience and conceptualize flavors, and evolutionarily, detect those of which are indicative of danger.

Some individuals are capable of experiencing cross-over between senses, meaning that perceiving a specific sense, such as sound, results in one concurrently experiencing another sense. One sense of synesthesia that stands out to me is grapheme-color synesthesia, where letters, numbers, and words have precise color associations. A musician and YouTuber that I follow by the name of Adam Neely has grapheme synesthesia. In this video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YEJ61gSwE3c – skip to 8:54), Adam describes the basic science and meaning behind his synesthetic capabilities, specifically his understanding of the condition as developing during early child development. Remarkably, Adam believes that his synesthetic abilities developed biologically, as the colors of the letter magnets he used to learn the alphabet as a child differ from those he perceived to be associated with letters in the present day. Though Adam’s case alone is not representative of the broader population of synesthetes, it convinced me that perhaps the condition is genuinely biologically-predetermined, rather than being learned early on in childhood. In a separate video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZAqyw606WQQ), he notes the increased cross-activation in the visual cortex in grapheme synesthetes as found in a study of fMRI analysis of V4/V8 (see https://www.nature.com/articles/nn818), further strengthening his argument for synesthesia carrying more known biological underpinnings than otherwise debated.

With this information, I set off on a quest to find more on the opposing viewpoint, that synesthesia can be taught or realized beyond childhood. While I expected to find blogs and studies arguing in favor of “acquired synesthesia,” I found something even more…interesting.

Meet Sensorium – a vital resource towards “cultivating” synesthesia

This app claims to provide access to meditation and “personal exercises,” involving guided meditation, videos, and sounds that are designed to help one “uncover their senses” and “integrate synesthesia” into their daily lives…

The entire “experience,” whatever that entails, can be fully realized for a just $2.99/month, billed annually. I want to hear from you; do you feel that synesthesia can be acquired after early development? If you have any friends or relatives who experience the phenomenon, what is their take on it? Ethically speaking, I hope apps and resources like this encourage us to continually question the “science” and “magic remedies” that are thrown at us (or into our Spam folders) on a daily basis. The operative question remains – is synesthesia a biological phenomenon or purely perceptual?Enter the “Garden of Synesthesia” if you so please… 

7 thoughts on “Seeing is believing….or is it?

  1. dnewman

    I think this is actually a really interesting question to consider. I don’t know anybody that experiences synesthesia, but I do have an opinion relating to your final question. Personally, I would have never thought of it as more than a biological trait. I think it’s cool to have easy access to test if you have this condition, but I do believe it is something that is passed down to you and doesn’t just develop.

  2. cookcl

    Ever since I first learned about synesthesia in one of my first psychology classes, I thought it was very interesting and kind of cool. I’m sure people who have it have different views on it but I had never thought of how it actually came to be. I feel like it cannot be acquired after early development and be as advanced as it would be for someone who was “born with it.” But I do feel like some people can have a similar sensation based on the way they were taught the alphabet. Like you said about the youtuber who believes seeing the letter magnets helped it, I feel like people who learn it like that can perceive the letters as the colors of the magnets but don’t necessarily have synesthesia.

  3. ewooten

    I think that websites like the one you mentioned are likely very annoying to the people with synesthesia as it paints the condition as peaceful and something to be desired and achieved rather than the hardship it likely is. Children likely have an extra rough time with this condition as they are likely not believed and thought to be “just making it up” or too fanatical, especially considering that synesthesia is not very common and not the first thing to come to mind.
    However, I do see the allure of the romanticized version of this condition as the idea of blending things like music with beautiful colors or delicious smells sounds appealing and whimsical in a way that could feel fairy tale-esque.
    I didn’t know that synesthesia could be gained (for real, not via the “training” websites) in childhood, rather than just being born with it! I think synesthesia is a very interesting condition and I think it’s good that that Youtuber talks openly about his experience with it.

  4. jward

    I agree that synethesia is very interesting! I feel that its something that probably could be developed over time, especially for those who start young. I also believe that many sounds could be expressed with different colors. I don’t know if this is the band geek inside of me or not but when I was in the band in high school my instructor believe that each tone and sound had some color expression. I never knew what he meant but I thought it was fascinating. Synesthesia could be what he was trying to explain. I think that for those with the condition it could be hard to interpret exactly what your sensing because your senses are kinda overlapped in some ways. This condition is definitely one that should continue to be researched!

  5. autumnphipps

    I remember first hearing about Synesthesia from a “House M.D.” episode about a girl in the air force suddenly developing Synesthesia, which ended up being caused by something in her lungs. All those episodes are very interesting, but this one particularly interested me because I had never heard of hearing with your eyes! I certainly cannot do it. Honestly, as interesting as it sounds, I don’t know if I want that ability, it might distract me a lot more than I already am with everything else going on. I find it very interesting that there is an app for it though, I am curious to see the research on it.

  6. dzuleta

    Personally I do not think that a person can develop Synesthesia during adulthood. I think perhaps people who do think so and claim they have are people who base it off their imaginative creativity. Can someone hear a sound and (quite consciously) taste something? Yes if they believe they did. I dont think it is something that really be tested or proved since it is so subjective. Apps like the one mentioned are created with the intention of advertising to a large demographic of people in hopes they will be interested in developing something “other wordly” by only paying two bucks and some change a month. These are the same people who claim they can show people how to levitate objects. In all seriousness, I think imagination of the mind is strong and people who are looking to develop Synesthesia are using their imagination to achieve this. A book I read as a child called A Mango Shaped Space was one of my favorite books. It was about a young girl who could see colors to sounds and Synesthesia was never mentioned in the book but I can connect it to what she was experiencing. As a child I convinced myself I could do the same as the protagonist in the book but realistically I could not. I only used my creative imagination.

  7. Mala

    I never thought about the idea of synesthesia being a product of more than just biological changes. I wonder if there has been research done on this, it would be interesting to see if is possible to essentially “create” synesthesia. If anything I don’t think it could be developed in adulthood, but maybe in early adoscence where crucial aspects of brain development are occuring it could be a possibilty. But then aga would this idea be ethically okay to do on a younger generation? Purposefully trying to change they way we percieve things for experiemention.

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