Synesthesia – A Superpower or a Curse

Posted on by Bill Powers
  • Synesthesia – The production of a sense impression relating to one sense or part of the body by stimulation of another sense or part of the body
  • Synesthete – Individuals who exhibit Synesthesia capabilities
  • Mirror-Touch Synesthesia – A condition that causes individuals to experience the same sensation (such as touch) that another person feels.
  • Empathic Ability – exaggerated ability to understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions
  • Debilitating effect – Constant bombardment of other people’s feelings

 

Synesthesia is thought to be an extreme neurological condition that could be present in most of us in whom stimulation of one sense (such as sight, smell) can lead to an experience in a second sense.

Example – Growing up one of my jobs was to mow our lawn at home – it was ~ 5 acres and to mow the lawn at my Dad’s school, it was ~ 20 acres and I’m allergic to grass. I hate mowing the lawn, but I love the smell of fresh cut grass. A few months ago, I was reading something and it triggered an olfactory response. For a couple of seconds, I felt like I was standing in the middle of a field of fresh cut grass. I didn’t remember the smell of fresh cut grass; I actually smelled fresh cut grass even though I was sitting inside my house. That was a synesthetic response – my sense of sight (seeing a series of words) triggered my sense of smell (the smell of fresh cut grass).

Synesthesia was first described medically in the early 19th century, but in the early 20th century fell out of favor because it couldn’t be accurately studied. But in the late 20th century it began to be seriously studied again by psychologist.

It’s possible that most people have some capabilities related to Synesthesia, but because it’s considered weird or odd, it may be suppressed. Some think that up to 4% of the population have true synesthetic capabilities.

There are several different types of Synesthesia:

  1. Color Synesthesia – This is the most common form of Synesthesia, where letters or numbers are perceived as a color. For example when a person with Color Synesthesia hears or sees the number 5 or the letter A, they may perceive it as the color Red and so on.
  2. Chromesthesia – This is the association of sounds with colors. For some, everyday sounds such as a door opening, car horn or people talking can trigger seeing colors. For some, musical notes may trigger seeing colors. Many musicians are thought to have a form of Synesthesia.
  3. Number Synesthesia – where numbers appear in 3-dimensional space. Here, the number 1980 may appear further away than 1990.
  4. LexicalGustatory Synesthesia – This is one of the more rare forms of Synesthesia in which spoken or written words can cause individuals to experience a taste or smell.
  5. MirrorTouch Synesthesia – Another rare form of Synesthesia where individuals feel the same sensation that another person feels (such as touch). So if a synesthete saw someone being touched on their shoulder, the synesthete would also feel a tap on their shoulder. It’s considered a state of heightened Empathic ability.

 

It’s not clear how it occurs, but one theory is that regions of the brain that are dedicated to specialized functions may increase cross talk between regions. In some, Synesthesia can be debilitating, because it presents as a constant bombardment of sensations.

Mirror-Touch Synesthesia:

I found this type of Synesthesia to be most fascinating and came across a recent article about a doctor named Joel Salinas, a neurologist at Harvard, who has Mirror-Touch Synesthesia.

  • When he thumps a patients’ left knee with a reflex hammer, he feels it as a tap on his left leg – not a thought of what it would feel like, but an actual physical sensation.
  • If he sees someone slapped across the cheek, he feels a hint of the slap against his own cheek.
  • Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference, or what is often called the capacity to place oneself in another’s shoes. Well, Mirror-Touch Synesthesia is considered a heightened empathic ability.
  • Mirror-Touch Synesthesia is thought to occur in 1 – 2% of the general population and can be debilitating.
  • There is a constant intrusion – a bombardment of other people’s experiences. There are reports of people with Mirror-Touch who have seen a person being punched and passed out or just watching television becomes a sensory over-load. Some become shut-ins.
  • It can be a painful existence.
  • When Dr. Salinas performs a spinal tap on a patient, he can feel the needle going into his own lower back.
  • Salinas also has color-synesthesia – he sees letters and numbers in colors. And he associates those colors with personality traits and feelings. For example a person may “feel like a 5, which he sees as Red and associates with a strong personality” or a people he sees as 4s and 7s he sees as blue and soothing.
  • While other forms of Synesthesia have been studied for many years, Mirror-Touch Synesthesia has only been studied for about 10-15 years.
  • It’s also been observed that people with Mirror-Touch Synesthesia are better at recognizing facial emotions in other people – they are better at reading other people. They seem to be actual Empaths. They can actually share another person’s experiences and emotions.
  • And if that’s not enough, Dr. Salinas finds that his form of Synesthesia extends to inanimate objects – when he looks at a light pole, he might feel his body stretching and elongating.
  • Dr. Salinas has learned how to manage and control his Mirror-Touch Synesthesia; otherwise, it would overwhelm him.
  • No one really knows why some people have Synesthesia. In Dr. Salinas’ case, he did have a benign brain tumor removed when he was 22 and he and others wonder if this may have caused his brain to develop differently from others. But he is clear on one thing – he feels very strongly that his Mirror-Touch Synesthesia, because it makes him more empathetic, makes him a better doctor.

 

So that is a little peek into the world of Synesthesia. It sounds like science fiction, but is real. It fascinates me as both a scientist and a writer and I have decided to create a minor character in my next book who has Mirror-Touch Synesthesia.

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