When you hear a sound do you also see a color? When you read a word do you also experience a taste? When you see a shape do you hear a sound? If you answered yes to any of these, you may be experiencing synesthesia. Synesthesia is a mental condition where any two or more of your five senses are linked in ways that does not occur for the general population. .05%- .3% of people experience one of the more than 60 different forms of synesthesia, yet most people are unaware that they have it (Holm, Eilertsen, & Price, 2015). How can someone experience something so cool and not know, you may ask. Well, simply put most people with synesthesia don’t know that the way they experience the world is different from how the people around them experience it.
This is what happened to me. Recently I was involved in a discussion about synesthesia and through the course of this discussion I realized that the way I experienced the world seemed to be different from how others did. Afterwards, I went on a Google Scholar and PubMed deep dive to find more information. When I hear or think something I see the words and sounds as if they were a news ticker tape scrolling above my head. I don’t just imagine the words. I actually see them as if they were a physical entity and I could reach out and move them.
This phenomenon is known as ticker tape synesthesia and occurs as an automatic process in as few as 7% of people with a form of synesthesia (Chun & Hupe, 2013). There are different degrees to which “ticker taping” can be experienced. It can occur some, most, or all of the time, and can be at varying degrees of physicality where some describe it as feeling a sense of ‘knowing’ that the words exist and others, like me, experience a physical manifestation of the sounds. In addition, some only experience ticker taping when they hear words. Others only experience it when they think the words. And still more people experience it when they hear and think words.
There isn’t a clear known cause of synesthesia, but research has alluded to it being, for people that have experienced it for as long as they can remember, a result of excess interconnectivity of neurons in the different sensory regions of the brain. For example, in ticker tape synesthesia, there are more connections between the auditory cortex and visual cortex, as well as the speech and language areas of the brain- Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area (Causes of Synesthesia). During natural development, these connections are typically pruned and removed because they are seen as ‘not useful’. However, in synesthetes, these connections are not removed, and are instead strengthened. Synesthesia can also be induced through a traumatic brain injury and meditation.
For many synesthetes the experience is detrimental. It can be distracting or serve as a hindrance in daily activities like driving, conversing, or listening to music. When synesthesia becomes a problem, there are very few treatment options available. Currently, the only form of therapy that has proven to be helpful is mindfulness training. This is because mindfulness training helps the individual sort their sensory experiences and focus on the most relevant sensory inputs. But for others, synesthesia can be benign or even helpful for different skills such as reading, memorization, music, and mathematics.
Causes of Synesthesia. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.synesthesiatest.org/causes-of-synesthesia
Chun, C. A., & Hupé, J. (2013). Mirror-touch and ticker tape experiences in synesthesia. Frontiers in Psychology, 4(776). doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00776
Holm, S., Eilertsen, T., & Price, M. C. (2015). How uncommon is tickertaping? Prevalence and characteristics of seeing the words you hear. Cognitive Neuroscience, 6(2-3), 89-99. doi:10.1080/17588928.2015.1048209