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Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which a particular stimulus triggers an automatic additional sensory perception besides the customary one. Also described as “blending of senses”, its result is an automatic sensory experience of an idiosyncratic nature, meaning that the perceptions are unique to each synesthete; it develops in early childhood, lasting throughout the person’s life, with only its intensity possibly waning over the years (cf. Cytowic 1989, 1;

Cytowic 2018, 14; Grossenbacher and Lovelace 2001, 1; Simner 2012, 1-6; Robertson 2005, 13).

The combinations of the sensory modalities are numerous: for some people, sounds may trigger a sensation of taste, or touching a certain texture may trigger a sensation of smell, while others see colours whenever they experience physical pain.

The field of synaesthesia research identifies the triggering stimulus as “inducer”, and what it induces is a secondary sensory experience, dubbed as “percept” or “concurrent” (following the terminology of Grossenbacher and Lovelace 2001). Throughout my thesis, I shall resort to using only the following couple: “inducer” (the inducing event) and “concurrent” (the additional sensory attribute) in order to not overflow the text with an unnecessary amount of scientific – and later on linguistic – terms.

Allow me now to use an example in order to produce a clearer image of what exactly is an experience of synaesthesia: imagine a girl, let us name her Sarah, sitting by an open window in her living room. Outside, right in front of the window, is a bush and located inside is a little sparrow. The bird suddenly releases a loud and short chirp which is immediately carried to Sarah’s ear and triggers her perception of sound – a normal everyday occurrence. However, Sarah is a synesthete and the neurons in her brain activate two kinds of cortices: both auditory and visual. As a result, when Sarah hears a sparrow’s chirp, she also perceives an image of a light orange spiky bubble in her mind’s eye. To put it into the new terminology: the inducer is the

4 bird’s chirp and the concurrent is the additional perceived image (or photism), of a light orange spiky bubble. The term “photism” refers to the “production of a sensation of light or color by a stimulus to another sense organ, such as of hearing, taste, or touch” (Farlex Partner Medical Dictionary, accessed Feb 2021).

Inducer = bird’s chirp Concurrent = coloured shape

This is an example of a sensational and quite common type of synaesthesia named sound-colour synaesthesia, also known as “chromesthesia.” In the past, the first link in the name of the synaesthesia type described the concurrent set off by the stimuli, and the second link expressed the stimulated sense (hearing a sound and additionally seeing colour would be called “colored hearing synaesthesia”, “Farbenhören” in German or “audition colore” in French) (cf. Rogowska 2011, 214).

However, the opposite was adopted as the modern basis of naming types of synaesthesia (as in Grossenbacher and Lovelace 2001, 1) following the formula:

(I) inducer  (C) concurrent

(Sound)  (Colour) would thus be termed as “sound-colour synaesthesia.”

It is also important to remember that synaesthesia is mostly unidirectional, for example, if smell induces the experience of colour, vice versa (colour inducing a sensation of smell) is not typical (Grossenbacher and Lovelace 2001, 1).

Synesthetic experiences manifest in three different ways, so there are three types of synaesthesia regarding its origin, as enumerated by Grossenbacher and Lovelace (2001, 2):

1. Developmental synaesthesia: the synaesthete has the right genome which is responsible for the cross-wiring of neurons in the brain. Synaesthesia develops in early childhood and the person consistently experiences their additional perceptions (Grossenbacher and


5 Lovelace 2001, 2). It is the most common type of synaesthesia and the one I am going to focus on in this thesis.

2. Acquired synaesthesia: this type of synaesthesia can be “a result of brain injury or sensory deafferentation (lack of connection between the sensory nerves and the central nervous system)” (Grossenbacher and Lovelace 2001, 2). Some patients may have temporary synaesthesia after head trauma, and the experience can be very confusing to them since it is the first time they are encountering layered sensory perceptions.

3. Pharmacological synaesthesia: This is a temporary case of additional sensory perceptions during a drugged state (Grossenbacher and Lovelace 2001, 2). Hallucinogenic drugs (like LSD) can block certain synapses from receiving the right neurotransmitters. As Ramachandran and Hubbard (2001, 4) point out: “LSD users often do report synaesthesia both during the high as well as long after.”

According to a University statistics study based on a sample of 500 people from Edinburgh and Glasgow Universities, synaesthetes represent approximately 4.4 % of the general population, with the participants displaying nine different types of synaesthesia (Simner and Mulvenna et al.

2006, 1028). Statistics also prove that synaesthesia is prevalent in females (cf. Baron-Cohen et al.

1996). This kind of statistic research is, however, hard to conduct since synesthetes are often not aware of their neural cross-wiring. According to their generated concurrents which build the synesthete’s “different texture of reality” (as described by Cytowic 2018, 51), the world is considered normal as is perceived by them. They believe everyone perceives the external stimuli the same way as they do – as though everybody smelled fresh bread whenever they heard a police siren; this is why the moment when they realize that their perceptions vary from the majority can be quite shocking and paradigm-shifting. Some synesthetes become a target of ridicule, since other people might not believe them or think he or she is just looking for attention (cf. Cytowic 2018, 14). Yet Ramachandran and Hubbard (2001, 4) observe that the opposite is true in their experience with studying synaesthetes: if they wanted attention, they would spread the information about their special cross-wiring; instead, they think that everyone around them perceives the world in the same way, or they had been ridiculed in their childhood for bringing up the topic, and are therefore silent about their perceptions.

6 Basirat and Hupé (2020, 7) bring attention to the existence of possible problems regarding the identification of children synaesthetes. The test-retest method (checking if the subject’s answers match the original ones after a period of time), which is used for adult synaesthetes, is very much reliable and successful; however, the same cannot be said for the tests involving children. There are discrepancies among statistical studies with variations of ±2 %. In addition, there are also many cases of ambiguous subjects who showed mixed results, as seen in the study by Smees et al. (2019), which had to be dismissed in their final research analysis. Some children may have different test results due to distractions or just plain decision to choose a different colour to appoint to a letter, like choosing a hue for colouring a picture in a colouring book. Some children even out-right lied while talking about their experiences – they admitted to doing so. This is an important factor in the student’s autonomy, since the great majority of synaesthetes are “self-diagnosed” and should not expect their authoritative figures (i.e. their teachers) to out-right ask the class if there are any students present in the class with a different neurological network.

The shock and acceptance depends on the age at which the synesthete shares one’s sensory experiences with other people (which is also the only way for one to realise that their perceptions are different); an adult sharing a summary of their synesthetic experiences would be better listened to than a child synesthete, whose recounts would be often dismissed as a case of strong imagination. A child synaesthete who is not believed can grow up hiding the information about their unique “perk.”

Generally, synaesthesia is reported to be beneficial, since it can aid memory retention, especially concerning language (cf. Yaro and Ward 2007); however, in Rich’s study (2005, 68) it is found that 30 percent of their sample also think of synaesthesia as a disadvantage. Out of these 30 percent, most respondents report that their synaesthetic concurrents confuse them in their every-day life. Nine percent of these 58 participants report that synaesthesia overloads their senses and is exhausting in certain situations, and seven percent find it uncomfortable to be ‘different’ from other people.

By contrast, 30 % of the sample (58 participants) reported that synaesthesia could be a disadvantage. Of these, 35 % confused words that elicited similar synaesthetic colours, and 10 % reported conflict when a word’s meaning was somehow

7 inconsistent with its synaesthetic colour. For example, for KM the word ‘starboard’

is red. When she is sailing, she gets confused because red lights indicate ‘port’ and green lights indicate ‘starboard.’ (Rich 2005, 67)