Synesthesia: feeling and tasting the color red

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Opinion Columnist Emerson Slomka explains synesthesia, a neurological disorder that relays intangible concepts as sensory input.

EMERSON SLOMKA, Opinion Columnist

What is red? Of course, you know what red looks like. When you imagine red, it likely appears as an image in your head. However, can you tell me what red is? With words? The literal definition of red is a color next to orange on the color wheel and across from green. However, can you describe it without comparing it to other colors? Some may attribute red to the color of a flame, a firetruck or a ruby, comparing it to an object. Some may describe red as passion or anger, in the form of an emotion. Others may see red as being hot or velvety, seeing red as a tactile characteristic. Is it the warmth radiating from a fireplace? Is it the smell of cinnamon? Perhaps, is it the letter A? Needless to say, putting something as intangible as a color into words is an extraordinarily difficult task. However, those with a curious neurological disorder may be able to experience intangible concepts as sensory input; they may taste H, smell 3 and touch Beethoven’s Fifth. As confusing as it may be to an outsider, those with synesthesia have brains wired to transmit senses to improper receptors, causing them to associate senses with other senses.

There is no known cause for synesthesia, but it seems to be a relatively uncommon disorder. It is often co-morbid with conditions such as autism and ADHD, but is often presented in people with no such disorders. As previously mentioned, synesthesia is caused by an “improper wiring” of the brain, causing senses to be combined and/or switched. For example, if a person with synesthesia was listening to a song, the part of their brain controlling perception of sound would activate, but the part controlling perception of taste may too activate, causing the song to “taste like cherries,” while the part controlling visual perception may cause the song to “be teal.” The most common form of synesthesia is grapheme-color, which is the confusion of letters with color. Many different senses are perceived as color for someone with synesthesia, but often things such as personification can occur as well. People with synesthesia tend to have exceptional memory skills, as their ability to associate comes naturally. While this is an obvious advantage, even those without synesthesia can harness the power of it for practical use, causing their memory skills to improve, as well as their ability to write creatively and to produce art.

The method I will be introducing to you is one utilized by many teachers to help their students improve memory skills — a form of “induced synesthesia.” First, observe what it is you are attempting to memorize. Perhaps, they are chemistry formulas, fingerings for an instrument, vocabulary for Spanish class or anything involving the power of memory to learn. Next, scan the material for any “obvious associations” you may see — these are the things you can associate with something else naturally. Even people without synesthesia have natural associative tendencies and these are the first that should be channeled. Perhaps your Spanish vocabulary words resemble English words of the same meaning (known as cognates). As for those that don’t come naturally, you can force association to occur by applying the intended connotation. For example, music notes may have no color to you inherently, but if you begin assigning them colors (C being yellow, A being red, E being blue, etc.), you may instantly recognize the color when you see the note on your sheet music, and will instantly know which note to play. Association does not benefit everyone, but for those who struggle with memory, this “induced synesthesia” can be extremely beneficial in its ability to form connections between recognizable and unrecognizable ideas.

In the end, red might just be a lot of things. Red is the color next to orange and across from green, it’s a glistening ruby, it’s the crunching of autumn leaves beneath your boot, it’s the smell of cinnamon potpourri, it’s the letter A, and it’s even the very embodiment of passion. So, what does red mean to you?