Sensing the World Through Synesthsia

“Numbers 1, 2, 3 are children without fixed personalities; they play together. Number 4 is a good peaceful woman, absorbed by down-to-earth occupations and who takes pleasure in them. Number 5 is a young man, ordinary and common in his tastes and appearance, but extravagant and self-centered. Number 6 is a young man of 16 or 17, very well brought up, polite, gentle, agreeable in appearance, and with upstanding tastes…” 

At first, this account seems like the product of a child’s imagination. Numbers with personalities? Absolutely impossible! But actually, for a handful of people, the personification of numbers is a completely normal experience, one they’ve had since their birth. And for others, days of the week, or months of the year also have personalities. This phenomenon has a name: Ordinal Linguistic Personification.

Ordinal Linguistic Personification (OLP) is one type of a broader neurological phenomenon called synesthesia. Synesthesia—syn meaning “together” and aesthesis meaning “sensation”—refers to the experience in which the stimulation of one sensory pathway automatically and involuntarily activates a second pathway, causing the person to experience two separate sensations at once.

There are 63 recorded types of synesthesia, and the experiences vary drastically. Physicist Richard Feynman experienced grapheme-color synesthesia, in which an individual’s perception of numbers or letters evokes a simultaneous experience of colors. Composer Duke Ellington “saw” musical notes as colors, which is called chromesthesia, or sound-to-color synesthesia. Artist Wassily Kandinsky experienced a synesthesia in which sounds were represented as shapes. 

While it would be pretty fun to be able to see vibrations of color appear as you listen to music, just imagining colors as the music plays or creating personalities for numbers doesn’t count as synesthesia. Neuroscientists Cytowic and Eagleman have laid out guidelines for what could be considered 'real' synesthesia.

1) Synesthesia is involuntary, meaning that the individual doesn’t determine the association. A synesthete doesn’t get to choose to see the letter “R” as a light rose pink—it just happens that way. Furthermore, synesthetes don’t get to activate the association or make it go away at will. So if you see the color blue every time you hear the piano and you go to a two-hour piano recital, you’ll be seeing blue for those two hours.

2) Synesthesia is extremely memorable, meaning the association remains within the memory and is highly accessible. As such, someone will remember that they see “S” as purple even if they are not reading the letter “S.” 

3) Synesthesia is laden with affect, meaning the associations can cause emotional reactions.

4) Synesthesia is durable and generic. Durable, because the associations do not change over time. Synesthetes who see violet Mondays and ruby Wednesdays when they’re 10 will still be seeing violet Mondays and ruby Wednesdays when they’re 50. Generic, because synesthetic visions are often rather uncomplicated, taking the form of blobs or lines or vibrations rather than specific images.

5) Synesthesia is spatially extended. Most synesthetes do not experience their associations in their mind’s eye. Instead, if you see colors with sounds, the colors will often appear projected somewhere in space. One patient, when listening to music, would see objects such as falling gold balls or shooting lines that floated on a “screen” a few inches in front of her nose.

Synesthesia is an incredibly interesting phenomenon, but how does it come about? What happens in the brain to connect the number five with a dandyish disposition or the month of July with a rectangle? A prominent theory hypothesizes that synesthesia is the result of “cross-wiring” in the brain. Neurons and synapses that are supposed to remain in one sensory system are crossed to another system, resulting in the linkage of two unrelated senses. Research has suggested that perhaps crossed connections are present in everyone at birth, but the process of synaptic pruning that occurs in early childhood for most humans will eliminate those connections. However, much about synesthesia remains a mystery.

Helena Shannon PO ‘18 is a cognitive science major from New York. One of her life goals is to own a small army of dachshund puppies.

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