By Kirsten Weir, published on March 1, 2009 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Carol Steen was only seven when she discovered she was different, upon telling a classmate the letter A was the prettiest pink she'd ever seen. "She looked at me like I was crazy," she recalls. Steen has synesthesia, a condition in which the senses are cross-wired. She perceives colors when she views letters and numbers and when she processes certain audio, olfactory, or tactile input. The smell of gasoline appears as a brown fog in her mind's eye, while the letter C glows turquoise.
Until recently, most psychologists dismissed synesthesia as "too quirky" to warrant serious study, says Ferrinne Spector, a researcher at McMaster University in Ontario. That changed as scientists realized the phenomenon might hold clues to understanding normal perception. Now they're uncovering hints that synesthesia might not be so unusual after all.
Synesthesia takes many forms. Perceiving colors along with letters and numbers, as Steen does, is a relatively common variety. Other synesthetes commingle sounds with scents, or shapes with flavors. One study subject reportedly tasted Dutch cocoa when she encountered the word phonograph.
Along with McMaster psychologist Daphne Maurer, Spector studied synesthetic tendencies in people with ordinary perception. She asked volunteers to sniff various scents and describe the colors and textures they evoked. Many of the responses were unsurprising; the smell of lemons called to mind yellow. Other scents, though, triggered stranger associations. A significant number of volunteers said the odor of mushrooms evoked the color blue.
The aroma of lavender was repeatedly described as green and sticky. "There are consistencies in association you can't explain by your experience with the world," Spector says.
Meanwhile, at University College London, Roi Cohen Kadosh was inducing synesthesia in people with no history of the condition. Using post-hypnotic suggestion, he instructed four volunteers to associate certain colors with letters of the alphabet. After awakening, none of the volunteers consciously recalled the instructions. Yet when tested, all exhibited classic signs of color-grapheme synesthesia.
The findings suggest that all our brains are wired for sensory cross-talk. "I believe we all have some kind of synesthesia," Cohen Kadosh says. Normally, chitchat between distinct brain regions is mostly inhibited. In synesthetes, the gates of communication have been left open. "Connections that lie dormant in most of us are selectively active in synesthetes," Spector adds.
Suddenly, synesthesia is a hot research topic. For individuals such as Steen, it's nothing more than ordinary perception. "Some people who have it consider it a gift, but it's really just part of normal human experience," she says. "If I were to lose it, I'd be profoundly unhappy."
Carol Steen, 65, an artist in New York