Synesthesia – I Wonder What This Blog Tastes Like?

I have always held a high level of respect for people who research the activity of the brain. Like most things in biology, when you get down to the nitty gritty of it you can get some very complicated systems, but I could never handle the brain structure and function stuff. So I am fascinated with all the ways the brain can malfunction. This week I have chosen a personal favorite, Synesthesia.

Synesthesia is a very unusual condition where sensory input is seemingly incorrectly wired to the wrong parts of the brain. As a result sufferers can often hear colors or taste and see sounds or even perceive personalities in ‘ordinal numbers’ or lists such as days of the week or months of the year.


A classic interpretation of text > color synesthesia. Each individual word can even have its own color or be a combination of each individual letter's color. (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Synesthesia.svg)

Umm, What?

Yeah, I know.

Synesthesia is classified as “a neurologically-based condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway” but there is another aspect to Synesthesia, it’s reproducible. Initially scientists assumed that people were simply hallucinating but repeated testing has shown that the aberrant responses are replicated, i.e. the letter ‘e’ may always have the same reddish glow, and is also automatic. It appears to be heritable but as yet we can’t work out the pattern of inheritance or the path it takes between generations.

What I’ve always wondered was how this could happen. Some research is suggesting that it may be due to a lowered level of ‘neuron pruning’ is taking place in early neural development. As the brain develops they argue that neural pathways are modified continually and the result is that neurons start and finish where they are supposed to. If this doesn’t happen as it should presumably neurons may persist that traffic information to inappropriate parts of the brain, such as sight information to the part of the brain dedicated to hearing.

Unfortunately this doesn’t explain the specific nature of the condition. The other issue would be what about all the other neurons that would be heading into other parts of the brain, that can’t be good for you. Ultimately we don’t really know what causes it but plenty of people are working on the problem both here and abroad.

Treatment? What treatment?

One of the problems with  not knowing what causes a problem is that it often it makes it very hard to work out how and what to fix. Fortunately this is one of the conditions that it really doesn’t matter. Synesthesiates rarely suffer pain or discomfort associated with the condition, the only thing that changes is a slight alteration in the perception of the world around them. In fact some synesthesiates think there condition is beneficial as it allows them to see a world beyond what the rest of us see. A great deal of ‘suffers’ become artists or are otherwise creatively inclined as they have access to another layer of material to work from. Also it has been suggested that they may have increased memory recall as they have more than one layer of stimuli to recall from.

This type of arrangement can allow a piece of music to also become a stream of color either because a dot of colour appears for every note and even sometimes its recorded that it's like seeing the world through a celophane filter. (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_colours_my_daughter_%27sees%27_for_each_musical_note.jpg)

From the material I have found researching this post it seems that most synesthesiates live normal, happy lives, free of complications and worries related to the lifelong condition they ‘suffer’ from. In fact quite the opposite of ‘suffering’, one patient commented that ‘there is a special majesty in experiencing music both aurally and visually’. A sentiment, that while difficult to fully comprehend, suggests that there is plenty our bodies and brains are capable of, even when the wiring is faulty.

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This post may seem short and it is, for a tragic reason. Alice ‘Orange’ Mills, my grandmother in-law, passed away this morning in the comfort of her home on the comfort of her new bed. She was a lovely woman who had all the time in the world for a guy that waffles on about science. She will be missed. Vale.

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