7 Misconceptions About Synesthesia

I was on Pintrest this morning, working on my Synaesthetic Alphabet Project, when I kept encountering the same pin: “I see colors when I hear your voice”. There are many different versions of this meme, most featuring rainbow-hued abstract art. While I recognize that the popularity of this pin is likely due to its romantic connotations, I think the meme perpetuates some myths about synesthetes and synesthesia:

  1. All people with synesthesia experience colored sound:  Chromesthesia, or sound-to-color synesthesia, is indeed one of the more common forms of conflated senses. But not every synesthete has chromesthesia. And even among people who do have sound-to-color synesthesia, their experiences are unique. I’ve really enjoyed looking at the sound-to-color paintings of artist and synesthete Melissa McCracken, who appears to have much more blue in her colored hearing than I have. My own chromesthesia tends toward faint yellows, pinks and greens.
  2. Synesthesia is a beautiful experience: While many synesthetes do enjoy their synesthesia, it isn’t always pleasant. Earlier this year, the NPR program Invisbilia profiled a woman whose mirror-touch synesthesia made it impossible for her to be in the presence of people who were eating, as it would make her choke and gag. My own mirror-touch includes synesthesia-for-pain. And some grapheme-color synesthetes dislike many of the hues in which they see their letters and numbers. Syn isn’t always pretty.
  3. Synesthesia is a disease: It’s a neurological trait, not an illness.
  4. Synesthesia is really rare: It’s actually somewhat common, affecting approximately 4% of the global population.
  5. Synesthesia isn’t real: At the dawn of modern psychology, interest in the study of synesthesia was quite high, with some researchers gathering extensive narratives of synesthetic experiences. Unfortunately, there were no means to scientifically validate these experiences, and research into synesthesia declined for decades. With the development of functional magnetic resonance imaging, synesthesia research has increased dramatically. fMRI studies are documenting how very real synesthesia is.
  6. There are no tests that prove synesthesia: see above. Also, the Synesthesia Battery is an online test developed by Dr. David Eagleman. While it only tests for a few different forms of synesthesia, it’s considered to be quite accurate.
  7. Synesthesia is like tripping on drugs 24/7: I’m not the best person to address this fallacy, with my very limited encounters with psychedelics. But I can speak for the experience of synesthesia, and say that my conflated senses are so tightly interwoven into my perception of the world, it hardly feels “trippy”. It’s not like I walk around all day in the equivalent of a hallucinatory stupor. I believe this is true for other synesthetes as well. Even if our synesthesia is sometimes confusing, alluring, or frightening, it’s not the same as tripping on LSD or mescaline.

I’ll likely add to this list as I encounter additional myths about synesthesia. If you’re a synesthete who’s encountered misconceptions about your experiences, I’d love to hear about it. Please leave a comment below.