Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Psychology Must Catch Up on Synesthesia Research

Synesthesia—not marginalized any longer

Synesthesia-a neurologically-based trait in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. (Think: colored music, tasting words, feeling touch when hearing sound). There are more than 50 recorded varieties of synesthesia, which the vanguard is now beginning to call "the synesthesias." People who report such experiences are known as synesthetes.

The problem with synesthesia is psychology.

Though the now-sexy trait of blended senses is enjoying a renaissance in research, popular interest and arts expression, it has not been so for nearly a century. Blame the Behaviorists.

Around 100 years ago, synesthesia was not only known, it was chic. French Symbolists like Rimbaud and Baudelaire aped its cross-sensory imagery in their poetry and lighted color organs coordinated note-to-hue in concert halls.

Many synesthetes have colored alphabets and numbers.

Interestingly, the same man credited with naming the trait (not phenomenon and please, not condition lest we associate any negativity with it) for the Greek "syn" (join) and "aesthesia" (sensation), Charles Darwin's half-cousin Sir Francis Galton, would be its undoing. The prolific scientist and thinker (he even invented fingerprinting) is also the founder of the school of Behaviorism. And again, there's the problem.

The Behaviorists caused a sea change in how we consider inner experience. It was no longer valued, respected, nor studied. Synesthesia became a forgotten curiosity for nearly 100 years, even inexplicably through the 1960s when all the world was fascinated with the kind of synesthesia that manifests using psychoactive drugs. I was born in that tie dye-soaked era and lived until the age of 27 largely keeping my naturally-occurring Fantasia a secret. I'd brought it up unsuccessfully a couple of times in early childhood.

I live on the cusp of the "lost generations" of synesthetes now emerging from obscurity and do research on the subject, dedicating my efforts to the memory of those born in the 100-year vacuum. They lived and died during the Synesthesia Dark Age. How many of them were misunderstood or ridiculed or worse when the Behaviorists ruled the day? How much human potential (synesthetes are known to be seven to eight times more likely to be in the arts, have eidetic memories and are often empathic, for example) was lost?

All that changed for my generation when Dr. Richard Cytowic's book The Man Who Tasted Shapes was published in 1993 and gave so many of us a name for it and even some sense of pride in having this gift. He and Dr. Larry Marks of Yale are the fathers of modern synesthesia research and living heroes to us "synnies," as we like to call ourselves.

The doctors' pioneering and brave inquiry into this trait, often against the objections of their peers, as well as the Cognitive Revolution in psychiatry and advances in brain scanning technology finally created an environment where synesthesia was "real" again and worthy of study.

However, there is much work to be done. Synesthesia organizations still receive reports from synesthetes seeking therapy who are met with disbelief, misdiagnosis (usually of the psychotic variety) and ignorance. Not everyone has caught up on the scientific literature yet, it is clear. I urge synesthetes and those who love them to be very careful when seeking help and it is my hope to build a resource list of "safe" mental health professionals for synesthetes through this forum in time. I would begin by mentioning Lynn Goode, MSW of Houston is a synesthete and therapist seeking to care for other synesthetes. To reach her, contact her office:

Lynn Goode, LMSW in association with Elizabeth B Knight, LCSW
2323 S. Shepherd, Suite 805
Houston, Texas 77019

I'm grateful for the opportunity to blog from inside this light show of provocative and gorgeous sights and sounds and impressions. That a respected psychology forum believes synesthesia news should be part of its content is an historic leap forward in the annals of synesthesia. We now enjoy a vibrant community of experiencers, researchers, artists and even healers in the synesthesia realm around the world. In future entries, I'll introduce you to some of the most interesting "synnies" and check in on the scientific, artistic and even spiritual communities doing work with synesthesia as a focus.

More from Maureen Seaberg
More from Psychology Today