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Synesthetes can taste sounds, smell colors or see scents, and research proves these people experience reality differently.
By Laura Moss
I know that the number four is yellow, but I have a friend who insists four is red.
She also says four has a motherly personality, but my four has no personality — none of my numbers do. But all of my numbers have colors, and so do my letters, days and months.
My friend and I both have synesthesia, a perceptual condition in which the stimulation of one sense triggers an automatic, involuntary experience in another sense.
Synesthesia can occur between just about any combination of senses or cognitive pathways.
Synesthetes — or people who have synesthesia — may see sounds, taste words or feel a sensation on their skin when they smell certain scents. They may also see abstract concepts like time projected in the space around them, like the image on the right.
Many synesthetes experience more than one form of the condition. For example, my friend and I both have grapheme-color synesthesia — numbers and letters trigger a color experience, even though my experience differs from hers.
Because her numbers have personalities, she also has a form of synesthesia known as ordinal-linguistic personification.
Scientists used to think synesthesia was quite rare, but they now think up to 4 percent of the population has some form of the condition.
What’s it like?
David Eagleman, a neuroscientist and director of the Laboratory for Perception and Action at the Baylor College of Medicine, isn’t a synesthete, but he often uses this analogy to explain the phenomenon.
When you see this photo, you likely think “President Barack Obama” even though those words aren’t written anywhere on the picture. Your brain automatically and involuntarily makes that connection, much like my brain makes a connection between the number four and the color yellow.
“It’s not the same as a hallucination,” Eagleman explains in the documentary “Red Mondays and Gemstone Jalapenos.” “It’s not actually interfering with their ability to see, so in that same way, you could picture a giant orange pumpkin sitting in front of you, but that doesn’t prevent you from seeing through that and past that.”
Synesthesia is a sensory phenomenon that’s unrelated to memory, so if you’re not a synesthete, you could teach yourself to associate a color with a certain number for example, but your brain wouldn’t respond the same way a synesthete’s would.
For instance, someone without grapheme-color synesthesia would have a more difficult time picking out the black twos from the black fives in the image on the left.
However, if your numbers have colors, you’ll see the triangle of twos almost instantly.
But this task may be even easier for some grapheme-color synesthetes.
Daniel Smilek, a psychology professor at the University of Waterloo, has identified two groups of synesthetes among those who associate colors with letters and numbers. There are projectors, those whose colors fill the printed letter in front of them, and associators who see the colors in their mind’s eye, like I do.
What about people who can hear silent videos?
Synesthesia doesn’t just apply to people who associate certain colors with images. Some people have the ability to hear sounds in videos when there is actually no sound being played.
Psychologist Chris Fassnidge calls this phenomenon “visually evoked auditory response” (vEAR). While it’s technically not synesthesia, Fassnidge believes it’s a new form that warrants further study. “Some people describe it as a buzzing sound in their head,” Fassnidge told Vox. “For other people, it’s kind of like a white noise. And then other people say it varies depending on what it is they are looking at.”
A 2008 study suggests that vEAR is fairly common — affecting 20 to 30 percent of people — and many people may not realize they are associating faint sounds with imagery.
“A lot of people don’t realize they have this thing until you start testing for it in the laboratory,” Fassnidge said. “Maybe because they co-occur so frequently you either aren’t aware of the mental sound until you strip away everything else.”
What causes it?
About 40 percent of synesthetes have a first-degree relative with synesthesia, and many synesthetes recall having synesthesia as long as they can remember.
“I was definitely playing with it when I was 5 or 6 years old because I remember raiding my parents’ record cabinet, searching for records that I liked to listen to for colors,” said Sean Day, a synesthete who associates colors with both sounds and tastes.
A 2018 study conducted by scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and the University of Cambridge analyzed DNA samples from several families who have multiple generations of synesthetes. They concluded that while the families differed in DNA variations, there was one commonality. There was an enhancement of genes involved in cell migration and axonogenesis – a process that enables brain cells to wire up to their correct partners.
“This research is revealing how genetic variation can modify our sensory experiences, potentially via altered connectivity in the brain,” Professor Simon Baron-Cohen stated in the study. “Synesthesia is a clear example of neurodiversity which we should respect and celebrate.”
Other experts believe that everyone may be born with the ability to experience synesthesia.
Daphne Maurer, a psychologist at McMaster University, has speculated that all of us may be born with the neural connections that allow synesthesia, but that most of us lose those connections as we grow.
Eagleman acknowledges there may be synesthetic correspondences in the brains of non-synesthetes, but that people are unaware of them until they’re teased out.
He points to something called the bouba/kiki effect as an example. When asked to choose which of two shapes on the right is named “bouba” and which is “kiki,” most people choose kiki for the angular shape and bouba for the rounded one.
Research also shows that people are likely to say that louder tones are brighter than soft ones and that darker liquids smell stronger than lighter ones.
In his book, “Wednesday Is Indigo Blue,” Eagleman says these examples prove that these analogies are actually “pre-existing relationships.”
“In this way, synesthetic associations our ancestors established long ago grew into the more abstract expressions we know today — and this is why metaphors make sense,” he writes.
However, synesthesia differs from these examples in that the sensory experience triggered is automatic and unlearned, making it different from metaphorical thinking.
“It’s a genuine phenomenon, and people who have it are actually experiencing the world differently,” Eagleman said.
How is it tested?
Consistency is one of the best ways to test for synesthesia.
“If you tell me that your letter ‘J’ is a very particular shade of powder blue … I can test you on that and have you identify exactly the shade that best matches,” Eagleman said. “If you’re just being poetic or metaphorical or making something up, then you can’t capture those colors again. But if you’re really synesthetic, then you’ll be able to pick exactly those colors out years later.”
Researchers also look at synesthetes’ brains. Using positron-emission tomography and functional magnetic resonance imaging, they’ve found that people who report seeing colors in music, for example, have increased activation in the visual areas of the brain in response to sound.
Pictured right are the regions of the brain that are thought to be cross-activated in grapheme-color synesthesia.
The pros and cons
Some synesthetes say their condition can be uncomfortable at times. For example, seeing words printed in the wrong color can be strange, or certain names may taste bad to a synesthete. Others report suffering sensory overload or feeling embarrassed at a young age when they describe experiences they didn’t know were atypical.
However, most synesthetes think of their abilities as a gift and wouldn’t want to lose them.
“You’ve experienced extremely unpleasant odors,” Day points out. “Do you want to permanently lose your sense of smell?”
There may also be some benefits to being a synesthete, such as an ability to discern similar colors and easily memorize information. For example, I might not remember a digit in a phone number, but I’ll have an impression of green and therefore know the mystery number is six. (Some of my numbers are pictured above, as depicted by the Synesthesia Battery.)
In 2005, Daniel Tammet set the European record for pi memorization by memorizing 22,514 digits in five hours. He attributed the feat to his ability to see numbers with color, texture and sound.
There’s also evidence that synesthesia may enhance creativity. A 2004 study at the University of California had a group of students take the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking. The synesthetes who took the test scored more than twice as high in every category.
In some instances, the neurological condition has even led to unique job opportunities. Some car manufacturers, for example, are hiring synesthetes to help designers create cars that are more pleasing to potential drivers.
And synesthetes keep good company. The list of known synesthetes is long and includes Vladimir Nabokov, Vincent Van Gogh, Marilyn Monroe, Billy Joel and Mary J. Blige.
Musician Pharrell Williams associates music with colors and says he can’t imagine life without this “gift.”
“If it was taken from me suddenly I’m not sure that I could make music,” he told Psychology Today. “I wouldn’t be able to keep up with it. I wouldn’t have a measure to understand.”
If you think you may be a synesthete, you can take the Synesthesia Battery created by David Eagleman’s lab: https://www.synesthete.org/pretest_start.php?action=register&remail=&semail=&ch=
Learn more about synesthesia and Eagleman’s research in the video below.
By Ian Hamilton
For centuries, musicians have used drugs to enhance creativity and listeners have used drugs to heighten the pleasure created by music. And the two riff off each other, endlessly. The relationship between drugs and music is also reflected in lyrics and in the way these lyrics were composed by musicians, some of whom were undoubtedly influenced by the copious amounts of heroin, cocaine and “reefer” they consumed, as their songs sometimes reveal.
Acid rock would never have happened without LSD, and house music, with its repetitive 4/4 beats, would have remained a niche musical taste if it wasn’t for the wide availability of MDMA (ecstasy, molly) in the 1980s and 1990s.
And don’t be fooled by country music’s wholesome name. Country songs make more references to drugs than any other genre of popular music, including hip hop.
Under the influence
As every toker knows, listening to music while high can make it sound better. Recent research, however, suggests that not all types of cannabis produce the desired effect. The balance between two key compounds in cannabis, tetrahydrocannabinol and cannabidiols, influence the desire for music and its pleasure. Cannabis users reported that they experienced greater pleasure from music when they used cannabis containing cannabidiols than when these compounds were absent.
Listening to music – without the influence of drugs – is rewarding, can reduce stress (depending upon the type of music listened to) and improve feelings of belonging to a social group. But research suggests that some drugs change the experience of listening to music.
Clinical studies that have administered LSD to human volunteers have found that the drug enhances music-evoked emotion, with volunteers more likely to report feelings of wonder, transcendence, power and tenderness. Brain imaging studies also suggest that taking LSD while listening to music, affects a part of the brain leading to an increase in musically inspired complex visual imagery.
Certain styles of music match the effects of certain drugs. Amphetamine, for example, is often matched with fast, repetitive music, as it provides stimulation, enabling people to dance quickly. MDMA’s (ecstasy) tendency to produce repetitive movement and feelings of pleasure through movement and dance is also well known.
An ecstasy user describes the experience of being at a rave:
“I understood why the stage lights were bright and flashing, and why trance music is repetitive; the music and the drug perfectly complemented one another. It was as if a veil had been lifted from my eyes and I could finally see what everyone else was seeing. It was wonderful.”
There is a rich representation of drugs in popular music, and although studies have shown higher levels of drug use in listeners of some genres of music, the relationship is complex. Drug representations may serve to normalise use for some listeners, but drugs and music are powerful ways of strengthening social bonds. They both provide an identity and a sense of connection between people. Music and drugs can bring together people in a political way, too, as the response to attempts to close down illegal raves showed.
People tend to form peer groups with those who share their own cultural preferences, which may be symbolised through interlinked musical and substance choices. Although there are some obvious synergies between some music and specific drugs, such as electronic dance music and ecstasy, other links have developed in less obvious ways. Drugs are one, often minor, component of a broader identity and an important means of distinguishing the group from others.
Although it is important not to assume causality and overstate the links between some musical genres and different types of drug use, information about preferences is useful in targeting and tailoring interventions, such as harm reduction initiatives, at music festivals.
By Tereza Pultarova
Being creative is all about making connections — in your brain, that is.
In a new study, scientists found that the brains of highly creative people have more connections among three specific regions compared to the brains of less creative thinkers. Plus, the more-creative brains were better able to fire up these regions in coordinated way compared with other brains.
The three brain regions are ones that scientists understand well, said lead study author Roger Beaty, a postdoctoral fellow studying cognitive neuroscience at Harvard University. They include the default network, which is involved in spontaneous thinking and imagination; the salience network, which picks up on important information from the environment; and the executive control network, which is involved in cognitive control functions and evaluation.
And though the default network seems like it should be the key source of creativity, people need the salience and the executive control networks to act as a sort of inner critic that judges whether ideas are any good or useful for the given task, Beaty told Live Science.
“You have these three different systems that are all located in different parts of the brain, but they are all co-activated at once,” Beaty said. “People who are better able to co-activate them [came] up with more-creative responses.”
To measure creativity and brain connections, the researchers scanned the brains of about 160 participants using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a tool that monitors brain activity by measuring changes in blood flow in various areas the brain. With their heads inside the scanner, the participants were asked to perform a creative-thinking task called divergent thinking. This involves coming up with creative ways to use common objects, such as a knife, a cup or a brick.
“Just thinking about new and unusual ways to use these [objects] has been shown to be a valid way of [measuring] creative thinking,” Beaty said.
The researchers found that performing the divergent-thinking task simultaneously activated the three different networks in the brain. And the greater the interconnectedness and synchronization of these three networks, the better the performance in the divergent-thinking task. In other words, the more connected and in-sync the brain is, the better it does on a creative task.
After establishing what distinguishes creative people’s brains from those of their less creative peers, the researchers wanted to see whether they could reverse the process and use brain activity as a predictor of creative performance.
“We had data sets of previously published studies were people were doing similar creative thinking tasks, and we wanted to see whether someone with weak connectivity in [these networks] has less-creative ideas than someone with stronger connectivity,” Beaty said. “And that’s what we found across three data sets.”
The researchers are now planning to look for similar patterns of brain activity in specific areas of creativity such as writing or music, Beaty said. In addition, the scientists want to find out if the brain activity can in fact change as people become more proficient at certain skills, he said.
The study was published today (Jan. 15) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
by Daniel Oberhaus
Amanda Feilding used to take lysergic acid diethylamide every day to boost creativity and productivity at work before LSD, known as acid, was made illegal in 1968. During her downtime, Feilding, who now runs the Beckley Foundation for psychedelic research, would get together with her friends to play the ancient Chinese game of Go, and came to notice something curious about her winning streaks.
“I found that if I was on LSD and my opponent wasn’t, I won more games,” Feilding told me over Skype. “For me that was a very clear indication that it improves cognitive function, particularly a kind of intuitive pattern recognition.”
An interesting observation to be sure. But was LSD actually helping Feilding in creative problem solving?
A half-century ban on psychedelic research has made answering this question in a scientific manner impossible. In recent years, however, psychedelic research has been experiencing something of a “renaissance” and now Feilding wants to put her intuition to the test by running a study in which participants will “microdose” while playing Go—a strategy game that is like chess on steroids—against an artificial intelligence.
Microdosing LSD is one of the hallmarks of the so-called “Psychedelic Renaissance.” It’s a regimen that involves regularly taking doses of acid that are so low they don’t impart any of the drug’s psychedelic effects. Microdosers claim the practice results in heightened creativity, lowered depression, and even relief from chronic somatic pain.
But so far, all evidence in favor of microdosing LSD has been based on self-reports, raising the possibility that these reported positive effects could all be placebo. So the microdosing community is going to have to do some science to settle the debate. That means clinical trials with quantifiable results like the one proposed by Feilding.
As the first scientific trial to investigate the effects of microdosing, Feilding’s study will consist of 20 participants who will be given low doses—10, 20 and 50 micrograms of LSD—or a placebo on four different occasions. After taking the acid, the brains of these subjects will be imaged using MRI and MEG while they engage in a variety of cognitive tasks, such as the neuropsychology staples the Wisconsin Card Sorting test and the Tower of London test. Importantly, the participants will also be playing Go against an AI, which will assess the players’ performance during the match.
By imaging the brain while it’s under the influence of small amounts of LSD, Feilding hopes to learn how the substance changes connectivity in the brain to enhance creativity and problem solving. If the study goes forward, this will only be the second time that subjects on LSD have had their brain imaged while tripping. (That 2016 study at Imperial College London was also funded by the Beckley Foundation, which found that there was a significant uptick in neural activity in areas of the brain associated with vision during acid trips.)
Before Feilding can go ahead with her planned research, a number of obstacles remain in her way, starting with funding. She estimates she’ll need to raise about $350,000 to fund the study.
“It’s frightening how expensive this kind of research is,” Feilding said. “I’m very keen on trying to alter how drug policy categorizes these compounds because the research is much more costly simply because LSD is a controlled substance.”
To tackle this problem, Feilding has partnered with Rodrigo Niño, a New York entrepreneur who recently launched Fundamental, a platform for donations to support psychedelic research at institutions like the Beckley Foundation, Johns Hopkins University, and New York University.
The study is using smaller doses of LSD than Feilding’s previous LSD study, so she says she doesn’t anticipate problems getting ethical clearance to pursue this. A far more difficult challenge will be procuring the acid to use in her research. In 2016, she was able to use LSD that had been synthesized for research purposes by a government certified lab, but she suspects that this stash has long since been used up.
But if there’s anyone who can make the impossible possible, it would be Feilding, a psychedelic science pioneer known as much for drilling a hole in her own head (https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/drilling-a-hole-in-your-head-for-a-higher-state-of-consciousness) to explore consciousness as for the dozens of peer-reviewed scientific studies on psychedelic use she has authored in her lifetime. And according to Feilding, the potential benefits of microdosing are too great to be ignored and may even come to replace selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs as a common antidepressant.
“I think the microdose is a very delicate and sensitive way of treating people,” said Feilding. “We need to continue to research it and make it available to people.”