Synesthesia: A Multidimensional Blur of the Senses

synesthesiaChristina Sarich, Staff Writer
Waking Times

Imagine biting into an apple and seeing the color purple, or smelling the salt of the ocean as the touch of a lover’s hand on the small of your back. These types of experiences are called synesthesia: the occurrence of concomitant sensation is a fascinating blend of the five senses – touch, smell, taste, sound, and sight.

We’ve all experienced synesthesia to some degree, but, synesthetes (as people are named who can taste the color blue or smell someone’s hand tickling through their hair) have a heightened interplay of neurological synapses that end up quieting some senses and turning up the volume on others.

Forgetting to Distinguish the Taste of Purple, The Smell of Sweet, the Sound of Light

Coming from the latin syn and esthesia (as in anesthesia) those with this forgetfulness to ‘divide’ the world into parts experience it instead, as a contemporaneous blend of lemon zest on the tongue while seeing a Dexter Gordon jazz riff, or touching a piece of fine stationary and smelling a Spring day. Instead of feeling anesthetized through the five senses, they are amalgamated into a tumble of sensual experience.

The brain is a wet, loud, strange place sometimes, and the sensory-motor connections that allow synesthesia to occur are quite fascinating. If to you, Thursday is translucent white and your boss screaming at you the color pale grey, the sound of a symphony tastes like cinnamon and a baby crying smells like wet leaves, then you have synesthesia.

Psychologists, Philosophers, Neurobiologists, Trippers, Painters and Artists with Synesthesia

Neurologists consider synesthesia to be rare, and often abnormal, and in some cases even pathological. Many artists, poets, and musicians consider it to be a gift, and phenomenologists consider synesthesia to be a step closer to spiritual awakening. Some feel that synesthesia occurs due to an abnormal seratonin breakdown. This phenomenon of mixed sense also occurs under the influence of multiple psychedelic drugs. When we are still in our mother’s womb, and up until about four months of age, we all experience sensory input in undifferentiated ways. From cradle to grave, synesthesia can occur in multiple ways.

Regardless of how you quantify the phenomenon of synesthesia, researchers are still figuring out exactly how the brain segregates and correlates information that comes in from external stimulus and becomes filtered through the five senses.

Approximately 100 years ago, being a synesthete was considered tres chic in France and other parts of Europe. In modern vernacular synesthetes have now been categorized by psychologists into more than 50 types. Rimbaud and Baudelaire used the cross-sensory imagery of synesthesia in their poetry and others wrote of experiencing it in concert halls. Notes had hues and metaphors were endemically mixed-sense references. Some say Kandiniski, Van Gogh, and Poe were synesthetes.

Terence McKenna experienced synesthesia in his many psychedelic trips (primarily after experimenting with magic mushrooms and also taking more than 70mg of DMT, familiarizing himself with what has been called tryptamine synesthesia). Narby, Munn, Pankhe, and thousands of others who have experienced Shamanistic rituals have also reported mixed sense phenomenon. James Wannerton of Blackpool, England experiences lexical-gustatory synesthesia, which means he ‘tastes’ words or sounds. In a book by social scientist Cretien van Crampen, Hidden Sense, he points to ways the brain processes information differently in different people:

“When synaesthetes insisted that letters have colors, researchers attributed it to their strong imagination…In other cases, in was felt to be a learned association…Another frequently heard explanation for synesthesia is that the colors of letters are not perceptions but are rather a type of associative metaphor. The word “sea” would thus be associated with a blue color because the word evokes an image of the sea for the inner eye. However, the synesthete may tell you that the word “sea” has red, yellow, and purple colors…

Brain scans of synaesthetes [now]…provide proof of the neurological existence of synaesthesia…In one test, a synaesthetic person was blindfolded and placed in a recording tnnel of the brain-scanning apparatus and wore headphones that produced spoken words at regular intervals…activity in the areas of the brain responsible for hearing and color vision occur simultaneously when a blindfolded synesthete hears a word. Under the same conditions, the brains of non-synesthetes generated activity only in the areas known to be responsible for hearing.”

Universal Common Experience

In a discussion presented by Dr David Luke from the University of Greenwich recently it was offered that “there is a geometric aspect common to many of the psychedelic visions experienced by people in different cultures.’ It doesn’t matter if you are a Timothy Leary devotee, a South American Shaman, a Holy Man in India, a recreational acid head, or a housewife, likely your experience on a psychedelic ‘trip’ will be a complex, interlocking play of shapes, divine geometric patterns and extremely bright colors that are almost ‘alien’ in comparison to the sensory experience of the everyday world.

This phenomenon of synesthesia shouldn’t be so surprising for many people who have premeditated cymatics. It is after all, the study of how sound, ‘looks.’ Evan Grant discusses this in a great TED talks video that shows how to make sound waves visible.  Sound can travel through gases, liquids and solids, and especially our own bodies and brainwaves. It has been proven to alter them, and some of the geometric symbols, like the Sri Yantra, were thought to have been received as a simultaneous visual/sound phenomenon in mediation.

Synesthesia and Super String Theory

So, the question then becomes, no matter what causes our synesthesia experience, are we regressing (as in the womb) or getting closer to a Universal experience of Unity (as we evolve and experience spiritual evolution) where all the senses blend together to describe an Infinite Universe? In yogic terms, once one reaches chittasuddhi, there is often a blending of oneself and others, through both the senses and other ‘strings’ of the consciousness.  From a nucleus of Infinite possibility, a whole experience can blossom forth within multiple dimensions, and not just the one we are currently rooted in with a linear experience of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch.

If, as super string theory suggests, at the highest levels of existence all things are just vibrating chords of energy tied to everything else, then it would make plenty of sense that smell and touch are interchangeable, as are taste and sound, sight and feeling, and so on. Those distinctions, in fact, might simply be the more gross experience of the dynamics of the more subtle Universe as a whole.

Further, the natural length of scale necessary to test string theory is entirely too small at present. If, however, every particle transmits a force (a boson) and that then makes up matter in the form of matter (a fermion) and vice versa, the symmetry of the Universe is proven yet again, and synesthesia might just be a blending of the senses in much the same way we can empathize with someone ‘else’s’ emotions or taste the sky when we look into a lover’s eyes. The Universe is psychedelia anyhow, to any awakened mind.

If you have experienced synesthesia in a state of altered consciousness or just live with it every day, we invite you to share your experience of it, or related links below.

About the Author

Christina Sarich is a musician, yogi, humanitarian and freelance writer who channels many hours of studying Lao TzuParamahansa YoganandaRob Brezny,  Miles Davis, and Tom Robbins into interesting tidbits to help you Wake up Your Sleepy Little Head, and See the Big Picture. Her blog is Yoga for the New World. Her latest book is Pharma Sutra: Healing the Body And Mind Through the Art of Yoga.

Additional references:

India Divine

Maze Runner


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  • Lisa Mertes

    Until a few years ago when I came across an article on Synesthesia I had no idea I was unusual. For me, things like months, days of the week, subjects in school, letters and numbers all are certain colors. The first basic 9 digits each have something like a personality to me. The months of the year each occupy a certain place in space around me. They don’t move, I do. I can taste some colors and some colors cause intense joy while others cause pain. I have always been good with numbers and I consider myself to be fairly artistic and creative. I do struggle with depression and I do have issues with clutter. I am not hyperactive nor am I easily overstimulated to the point of not being able to focus.

  • Allison

    My daughter is a synesthete. She touches, tastes, smells, and hears color. A fun example, her school teacher speaks red and her brother speaks blue. She hears music as beautiful colors.

  • Kathleen

    Letters have colors to me; there’s no use explaining to others what the colors are, because many don’t believe me, and secondly, we don’t ‘have names for all the colors. They aren’t even solid colors. For example, “H” has a shade of brown along the outside, with yellow colors inside. Of course, when it’s paired with a “T” to make “TH”, its color changes….. Also, in math, numbers have personalities. It’s difficult to concentrate and learn math, because some numbers don’t get along. For example, there’s no way that a 2 and 3 should equal 5, because 2 doesn’t get along with 5 and so can’t be in the same equation. I used to think I was the only person who had this particular type of synesthesia, but I’ve learned that a few others have it, too. It makes life interesting, and reading is an amazing experience – that’s why I’ve always read so much….

  • Seven

    I’ve always had this, and only realised a few years ago that it was unusual. I have severe manic depression, but not autistic (as far as I know). Severe moods make synesthesia worse (everything feels overwhelming like there is too much going on at the same time). Emotions are very much attached to senses. Sadness or depression smells/tastes like bonfire smoke to me. Sometimes I will smell this before I even feel depressed. Then a bit later my mood will start to change. Rage tastes really bitter and acidic. When I’m manic I can smell fresh cut grass and flowers (like standing in a meadow). But then my brain is a very messed up place, so it doesn’t surprise me that it can’t get senses right!

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  • Elene

    By the way, the word Syn(a)esthesia is Greek and not Latin.

  • jamie

    colors as sounds and sounds as colors interwoven happens on any psychedelic journey and magic mushrooms are a form of DMT, so a friend tells me?

  • john, (wishbone) clark

    I don’t know if what I experience is the same thing, but every now and then I get a strong feeling of shifting to another time or place, I can be anywhere, at home, out walking, in the car (my wife drives) and i’ll see something, it can be a hill, a tree, an image on T,V,, a cloud, anything, and there’s this very strong sense of shifting into another space or place, another time, even another world, it might only last a moment but its always a very weird sensation. I sometimes think i’m feeling/seeing fragments of other lives I’ve lived, but that might be completely wrong, I just don’t know.

  • Bonnie Camo MD

    I see numbers as having color. It has been the same since I was a child.(I am 70 years old.) 1 is white, 2 blue, 3 green, 4 red, 5 tan, 6 yellow, 7 gray, 8 black, 9 brown, 0 clear. As for the autistic link, I probably have Aspergers, although I have not been diagnosed.

  • Jafar

    Very interesting. I actually remember having dreams as a child where i would experience synesthesia. Later in life on ayahuasca i experienced it in the exact same manner. For me it manifests in dreams very often lately.

    The connection between synesthesia and autistic savants is very interesting as well. It seems to be as if instead of processing things separately the senses can be taken in as a kind of unitive river of all at once-ness

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