People with Synesthesia’s Senses Are Entangled. Some See Letters as Colors

Victoria D. Doty

When Bernadette Sheridan hears your identify, she does not think about the spelling in a classic feeling. Her brain is not hoping to figure out what letter goes right after the other to type the identify. Alternatively, she hears the identify in swaths of shade working with her possess “color […]

When Bernadette Sheridan hears your identify, she does not think about the spelling in a classic feeling. Her brain is not hoping to figure out what letter goes right after the other to type the identify. Alternatively, she hears the identify in swaths of shade working with her possess “color alphabet.”

Sheridan, 49, is a synesthete. Or, in other phrases, anyone with a neurological phenomenon recognised as synesthesia.

For as long as Sheridan can recall, letters and numbers weren’t just shapes and symbols. They were being infused with shade in her brain. A is red, B is blue, C is lime environmentally friendly and so on. For case in point, “Emily” — which occurs to be Sheridan’s beloved identify — is spelled with five vibrant, cheerful colours: yellow, navy blue, white, periwinkle and gentle yellow.

“I really don’t see [the letters] practically in shade. I see the letter in whichever shade it is in, but in the back again of my head, it is glowing in my shade,” Sheridan says. “It’s practically as if a curtain of shade bars comes in the back again of my head.”

She even sees the days of the 7 days and months in shade. Sunday is darkish blue, Monday is red-orange, Tuesday is gray-blue and Wednesday is yellow. January is gentle blue, February is gentle pink, March is yellow-environmentally friendly and April is raspberry.

What Is Synesthesia?

Sheridan initial learned about her one of a kind sensory expertise in 2002, though doing work as an art director for the New York Day-to-day News. At the time, she was oblivious of the simple fact that other persons didn’t expertise phrases the identical way she did. Though doing work on headlines for the black-and-white internet pages of just about every situation, she would argue with her editor about phrases not currently being the ideal shade.

“A phrase like killed is lighter and brighter,” Sheridan explains. “It has gentle letters, like I’s, L’s and E’s, but a phrase like murder is darkish and foreboding. A phrase like slain has a red A ideal in the middle, like a knife. I would advise phrases centered on what I considered they seemed like. Of system, [my editor] didn’t realize, and I didn’t realize that he didn’t realize.”

Then, one particular day, Sheridan’s editor gave her an report from the science portion of the Wall Road Journal about synesthesia, a neurological condition in which one particular or a lot more of the five senses, or other varieties of perception, crosses with another. It is a form of sensory entanglement that can arise in a multitude of mixtures, but there are at the very least 10 recognised sorts of the condition. Some synesthetes can hear colours, feel appears and see time as distinctive points in place. People today with the most prevalent form, grapheme-shade synesthesia, see letters as colours.

“I considered, ‘Oh my god, there’s a identify for it!’” Sheridan recollects. “It’s like the day your planet changes. … It gave me a little something to start off looking at and studying about.”

Cross-communicate In between Senses

Somewhere around 4 p.c of the general population has some type of synesthesia. But due to the fact persons typically really don’t notice they have the condition, researchers believe that the actual amount could be even higher.

Though the exact mechanism of synesthesia is nevertheless mainly not known, the prevailing speculation is that there is a genetic element that makes it possible for some persons to have an greater cross-communicate among neighboring places of the brain that govern certain features.

“It’s like two international locations with porous borders that are chatting,” says David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Stanford College and primary researcher in synesthesia. “For case in point, the places of the brain that are included in letters and people that are included in colours transpire to sit close to just about every other, so it is considered that — for whichever motive — there’s a lot more of a relationship among them.”

In 2005, Eagleman released the Synesthesia Battery, an on-line examination to assistance persons evaluate irrespective of whether or not they have synesthesia and what type. The website ultimately grew to become the gold normal for assessing synesthesia and collected information from a lot more than forty,000 rigorously-confirmed synesthetes.

Eagleman is doing work in collaboration with colleagues in Europe to carry out a large genetic research of synesthetes. They discovered a hotspot on a unique location of chromosome sixteen, one particular of the 23 pairs of chromosomes in human beings, but have not but recognized the importance driving it. Eagleman says he suspects it will be a subtle variation that however has drastic repercussions.

“It’ll be a little something that changes issues by one p.c — some small change in the affirmation of a neuroreceptor and your consciousness is distinctive,” he says. “Our consciousness is extremely fragile, and all you want to do is change the network a small little bit and you get a distinctive expertise. I think that is what synesthesia is: You just change issues by a small, little genetic tweak and, out of the blue, letters have shade to them.”

Though legitimate synesthetes by natural means have this one of a kind trait, researchers believe there is some diploma of conditioning by exterior stimuli. As children with synesthesia are studying to memorize sequences — this kind of as the alphabet, numbers, weekdays and months — they affiliate them with colours that they’re uncovered to as a created-in mnemonic unit.

“If you have the genetics for it and you’re hoping to learn these arbitrary sequences, your brain reaches out and says, ‘This does not make feeling,’” Eagleman explains. “It hooks issues with a distinctive residence, like shade, so it gets simpler to don’t forget.”

Synesthesia alphabet

Bernadette Sheridan’s shade alphabet. (Credit rating: Bernadette Sheridan)

Observing Coloration

Grapheme-shade synesthetes, like Sheridan, all have their possess one of a kind shade alphabet, but some commonalities exist. In accordance to a 2015 research revealed in PLOS 1, Eagleman and his workforce examined 6,588 English-speaking grapheme-shade synesthetes from their database to see irrespective of whether or not synesthesia was influenced by Fisher-Price’s brightly coloured letter magnets. The sets, which were being made from 1971 to 1990, included red A’s, orange B’s, yellow C’s and lime environmentally friendly D’s.

A pattern emerged in their findings. The research uncovered 6 p.c of the overall participants had shade-letter associations that matched the toy set. Amid that population, 15 p.c of people born all through the apex of the toy’s reputation, from 1975 to 1980, noted colours congruent with the toy. In distinction, no one particular born five or a lot more many years in advance of the toy was made matched the Fisher-Cost colours. The scientists discovered that grapheme-shade synesthetes who were being uncovered to the alphabet set all through childhood were being a lot more very likely to see equivalent colours as the toys.

“What that taught us is that you can imprint on unique issues,” Eagleman says. “The motive most synesthetes most likely appear to have a random alphabet is due to the fact what you imprint on is rather random — whichever quilt you transpire to have in your kindergarten classroom or whichever crayon you transpire to decide up in advance of you observe the letter C a million instances.”

To greater realize the neural pathways of synesthesia, scientists are working with highly developed neuroimaging to research the phenomenon. Applying MRIs to look at the structural connectivity in synesthetes, some scientific tests have noted greater volume of gray make any difference in particular locations of the brain joined to shade processing. But these scientists have also encountered a rooster-or-the-egg conundrum: Ended up synesthetes born with excess gray make any difference, or did they produce it right after due to the fact they used that part of the brain a lot more than
non-synesthetes?

Other scientific tests used useful neuroimaging, this kind of as single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) and fMRI scans, to trace neural action to particular features. The principal area of curiosity is the hV4 location of the visible cortex, which has been shown to be a lot more active in grapheme-shade synesthetes. Even so, these findings are inconclusive.

“As we get greater imaging of the brain, which is going on in actual time, I think we’re going to be able to start off to draw out the pathways,” says Randall Wright, a neurologist at Houston Methodist Hospital. “We can speculate when pathways are included centered upon what the particular person is doing.”

The paucity of conclusive information is in large part owing to the simple fact that the human brain is nevertheless one particular of science’s finest mysteries. With 86 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses, we’ve only grasped the tip of the iceberg in understanding the intricacies of the brain.

“There are so several issues at distinctive amounts that we really don’t know about the human brain,” Wright says. “Studying synesthetes a lot more can give us a lot more insights into how the brain really is effective.”

‘What Coloration is Your Title?’

In January 2020, Sheridan released an on-line synesthesia undertaking termed “What shade is your identify?” that visualizes people’s names as shade blocks centered on how she sees them. She designed it as a way to share her sensory expertise with the public.

“I want persons who really don’t have synesthesia to come to it and have enjoyable with it — to be able to say, ‘Oh, this is a new way for me to realize how other persons expertise an overlapping of senses,’” Sheridan explains.

Her internet site has served raise recognition of grapheme-shade synesthesia, and she hopes that a lot more persons will find out their possess shade alphabet.

“It’s just a little something that you know about oneself, but no person at any time asks you,” she says. “For a large amount of persons who really don’t know they have synesthesia, that is the way to figure it out. Ask your friends a primary query. You could say to them, ‘What shade is B?’ If they say it is blue, they have synesthesia.”

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