Synaesthesia and Interaction – how to talk about it


this started as a paragraph and escalated to an essay.

It’s dedicated to those of us who find it hard to integrate their synaesthesia in public, those of us who are yet to learn that it’s OK and in some cases lovely to be a little different, and those of us who might be struggling with interacting with the bright loud sharp world that we inhabit compared to those without our quirky neurology.

I went back to see my old music tutor at Oxford a few weeks back. It must have been around 15-20 years ago when I studied music there. The prof told me I spoke like no-one else he taught. I would describe, say, Bach in terms of texture, taste, colour, touch – with so many layers to music it was really important to me to be accurate in my description, but how odd to my tutor for me to describe Bach as a green forest or the smell of damp wood – back then I didn’t know about synaesthesia so it was a joy to finally talk to him about it.

For him, it made sense of all the things I used to say about music – I got a feeling that he was almost relieved to have an explanation for it!

And for me, it made me think a lot more on what might be why many of us with synaesthesia struggle with human interaction.

I think describing the world and especially music cross-modally (i.e. synaesthetically) works really well in a creative context, but in normal conversations I started to wonder if my happily jumping between senses may be jarring to people who are just trying to understand what I’m on about.

Here’s my theory: we synaesthetes freely switch from taste to sound to colour to texture to <insert sense here> when we are talking about something – we engage whatever description works to convey the feeling we have with the most clarity or accuracy, just like someone else would, though we have a much larger vocabulary to choose from, sometimes even including gestures or noises. So to a non-synaesthete I wonder if it might sound like we’re picking from the wrong list.

For example – let us imagine people are expecting a food to taste like <taste>.

When instead we supply someone with

‘this food tastes like <sound> or <colour> or <noise>’

this may seem at right-angles to conventional expectation and leads to scenarios like:

a) Conversation partner completely ignores modality switch consciously but gets confused on some level; tries their best to continue

b) doesn’t notice cross modality at all; continues as if nothing out of place

c) (common with non-synesthetes) conversation moves to curiosity and synaesthetic experience questions – the question of what the food is like is not as important anymore! Questions, so many questions!

d) (common with other synesthetes and close friends) conversation partner understands, accepts and enjoys description, conversation continues and comparative modalities are explored. Amazing, a meeting of uncommon minds!

All of these are OK.  I’ve probably missed some others out.

So, I learned a few sentences to say that a) put people at ease and b) put me at ease. I’ve found these are great to use with both “unaware synaesthetes” and non-synaesthetes as it gives a context to our choice of words or actions when they don’t quite fit what people expect. Here they are:

“I have synaesthesia which means my senses are a bit mixed together” works really well.

“I think everyone has a version of synaesthesia, some people experience it more intensely than others” is great when people are more curious and want to perhaps explore their own associations. I believe that everyone has the potential to experience cross-modality at some level.

I’m actually happy to talk about my synaesthesia when asked, much happier if I have access to a piano at the same time.  If/when someone says I’m weird that’s OK. I tell them that they are probably right and smile gently. If someone says I’m making it up that’s OK too, it doesn’t matter to me what they think, I smile and say that it’s my experience, which is all we have to go on. If I’m feeling a little like I’m being judged negatively – and some people will be suspicious of things they don’t know about – I try to remember that everyone has their own struggles, perhaps they’re not in a receptive mood for other reasons – then I’ll think privately on how much I’m enjoying delicious food or music around me more than someone who’s not wired the same way.

We have many challenges as synaesthetes.  Having said that though I feel that the overall potential to experience the world so deeply with so little effort is worth the odd strange look, explanatory conversation and sense of overwhelm that we no doubt all have to deal with.


Here is an interview I did (it was really early in the morning!) about food and synaesthesia for a documentary on Radio New Zealand – I’m among a variety of artists interviewed all talking about their own experience.


2 thoughts on “Synaesthesia and Interaction – how to talk about it

  1. To me, one of the more surprising things about synaesthesia is that I don’t seem to find it surprising! Two possible explanations occur to me. The more mundane is that probably a good 40 years ago an aunt I was quite close to described her synaesthesia to me. For her, everything (numbers, days of the week, people) had very distinct colours. I don’t remember it relating to music or other senses, though she did play the piano. To her, I think I was white. She had two daughters (my cousins) but had always wanted a son – I think she regarded me as the son she never had, which maybe “coloured” her perception of me. I don’t remember her synaesthesia ever striking me as strange, after all, it seems most people have a visual conception of the number line, stretching in different directions over different ranges, and visualise days of the week and months of the year in circles or some form of cyclic shapes. Adding colours isn’t that much of an extension. But maybe I’ve simply known about synaesthesia for sufficiently long to have forgotten any initial surprise.

    However, I like to think there may be another more interesting explanation: that most people are synaesthetes to some extent at a subconscious level. I was fascinated by Prof Sean Day’s theory which he outlined on the Radio NZ piece, namely that sensory inputs at birth are not directed to specific parts of the brain and only in the first few years of life are connections pruned, leaving in most people the processing of different senses to specialised of brain regions.

    The idea that there may remain vestiges of largely disused and depleted pathways seems highly plausible. After all, we are very used to the fact that the English language contains various cross-sensory adjectives such as “sharp”, “bright”, “dull”, “sweet” etc., which are inherently synaesthetic at a basic level, and we think nothing of it. Each of our senses (but most notably hearing and vision) go through a very complex processing chain, analysing the raw nerve impulses, making sense of them and testing them against our knowledge and relating them to memories before entering our consciousness as a multi-sensory awareness of self in the environment in which we find ourselves, where they evoke conscious rational and emotional responses. It would seem that in a synaesthete, the combining of the sensory inputs maybe just happens at an earlier subconscious stage in the processing chain.

    A key question for me is whether that sheds any light on why music is so powerful, a long-standing open question which I’ve had in the back of my mind for many years. Music consists of three elements: rhythm, melody and harmony. Rhythm is clearly related to the heart beat, which we have all been exposed to since before birth, and which in turn is associated with states of mind such as excitement or relaxation. It’s almost universally appreciated, even it would seem by those of minimal musicality. But melody and harmony are much more puzzling, often being entirely abstract yet having the ability (for me, at least) to evoke a much wider palette of emotional responses. The other day I was listening yet again to the Schubert piano sonatas D958 – 960, which seem to sum up the whole of life and make sense of the human condition, and if I let them, can reduce me to tears. Yet at a reductionist level they are just squiggles on a page or vibrations in the air. How can this be? Music seems somehow to penetrate directly to that level of the mind where all the processed sensory inputs merge into our sense of self with its emotional and rational responses, like an intravenous injection of caffeine. Maybe some otherwise largely dormant synaesthetic pathways are involved. The normal explanation of the appeal of music in terms of anticipation, revelation and repetition seems inadequate to fully explain the delicious ambiguity of a diminished 7th or the exquisite tension of a really scrunchy suspension or false relation or the delight of a really subtle modulation or sublime melody. Why should those sounds mean any more than the notes on the page unless they invoke possibly cross-sensory neural pathways? A Bach fugue ought to be just as beautiful a creation on paper as it is when played, but it clearly isn’t, for most people at least.

    The idea that music in some way short circuits other processing pathways seems to be validated by the fact that it can often still be appreciated by those with fairly advanced dementia, a fact that I would give me tremendous solace if I were ever given such a prognosis, assuming of course that I managed to get my favourite albums onto a music player before I forgot how! I recently read that music can even be beneficial to patients undergoing surgery under general anaesthesia, lending further support to the notion of its in some sense primal nature.

    Sorry to ramble on a bit, but thank you for your piece – I found it most interesting. I understand synaesthesia tends to run in families, but I don’t seem to have it. I envy you!

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