Synaesthesia is not…

I had a conversation on social media a few weeks ago with someone who wondered if her aversion to eating coconut was a form of synesthesia. She noted that she hates the taste of coconut because to her, the flavor is too similar to the scent of sunscreen. Several people responded to the post that yes, her experience is indeed an example of synesthesia, but I disagreed. This is not synesthesia, yet it is an excellent illustration of a common misunderstanding about synaesthetic phenomena. Here are some frequent ways in which the cross-modal perceptions that are the hallmark of synesthesia are misunderstood.

1) As above, disliking lemon pie because it reminds one of Pledge furniture polish is not a synaesthetic experience. Pledge does indeed smell like lemons, and olfaction and taste are highly linked senses. It’s completely understandable how the aroma of Pledge could put one off of the taste of lemon in foods, just as the flavor of coconut might be too evocative of tropical scented sun care products for one to appreciate the taste of its flesh. However, if one has an aversion to lemon pie because the flavor provokes the smell of wet paint, or elicits an annoying high pitched sound, or produces unappealing colors in one’s visual field, these phenomena are more in spec with a synesthetic experience.

2) Synesthesia is not rooted in metaphor or simile. Let’s take an example from Emily Dickenson and her poem “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died” where the speaker reveals: 

There interposed a fly

With blue, uncertain, stumbling buzz

One can argue that the reference to the fly’s blue buzz in this poem is a metaphor for impending death, similar to a candle burning blue as it goes out. The speaker hears the fly’s blue buzz in the last stanza of the poem, right before she dies. A synaesthete with chromesthesia, otherwise known as sound->color synesthesia, might indeed perceive a fly’s buzz as blue, but might also perceive the fly’s buzz in myriad other colors. There is nothing inherently blue in the buzz of a fly; for me, their sound is typically gray and yellow blended together, unless they are really tiny and high pitched. Then, they are salmon pink. 

3) Synesthesia is not an indeterminate phenomena; it is a rigorously studied neurocognitive trait. I had a conversation with a woman who told me that she too had synaesthesia. When I asked her which forms she had, she told me that to her, synesthesia meant “having really big emotions”. I should have responded that I consider tuna to be a form of waterfowl, because that makes about as much scientific sense. Just as Linnaeus furthered a taxonomy that places tuna and waterfowl in the phylum chordata from which they then diverge dramatically to the eventual genus and species, current scientific understanding of synaesthesia posits that emotion can be a trigger for some forms of synesthesia, but is not in and of itself synaesthesia. Dr. Sean A. Day, president of IASAS and organizer of the Synesthesia List, notes that emotion can be the inducer for the following concurrents: graphemes, kinetics, lexemes, musical note, musical sound, pain, phonemes, proprioception, spatial location, temperature, time units, touch. It is proposed that emotion could also be an inducer for general sound, odors, and vision/color, but subjects with these phenomena have not yet been studied. Emotion can trigger synaesthetic phenomena, but extreme emotions are not examples of synaesthesia.

4) Synaesthesia is not the product of an overly active imagination propagated by a bunch of publicity seekers. Hundreds of research studies over the previous decades reveal that synaesthesia is a bona fide neurocognitive difference that can be documented using the neuroscience gold standard: fMRI technology. Additionally, scientists have been gathering to discuss synaesthesia at conferences and symposia since the 17th century. In contrast, think of the hoopla about fairies in Edwardian England, with the emergence of purported “photographic evidence” of their existence. Interest in the Cottingley fairies lasted about 20 years, then faded as it became clear the idea behind the 5 photographs sprang from the imagination of two young cousins.

5) Synesthesia cannot be manipulated at will. One cannot simply turn synesthesia off and on like opening and shutting the eyes; synaesthesia, at its very core, is beyond conscious control. However, many synaesthetes do note that certain circumstances make their synaesthesias more flagrant. Common examples are sleep deprivation, caffeine consumption, highly stimulating environments, and intoxicants. For me, my mirror-sensory synaesthesias get amplified by my anxiety, particularly when I am in an unfamiliar environment.

As a person with 17 different forms of synaesthesia, I’ve become an advocate for helping the general public understand this neurocognitive difference. I believe that facts and accuracy matter in discussions about synesthesia. If you have your own “Synaesthesia is not….” comment, post it below, and I will add it to this list along with your name.