What is Synesthesia to-Day? And yes, we’re aware of the spelling. For this article, we originally wanted to discuss the current state of the synesthesia industry, but during our research, we coincidentally enough came across Dr. Sean A. Day; a multi-synesthete, Professor of Anthropology, long-time Synesthesia researcher, and the President of the largest synesthesia organization in the world, the International Association of Synesthetes, Artists, and Scientists (IASAS).
Dr. Day not only shared scientific insights on the state of neuroscience research in synesthesia, but he went further to share his personal experience of being a synesthete. We thought this was worth sharing.
In the last article, we explored the history of synesthesia both as it’s commonly reported as well as adding some not so common thoughts. We were humbled to have this story featured on Medium’s music homepage upon its initial publication. We know it’s a long article, but if you like this article, we have faith that the previous one is worth the long read. But here, we’ll keep things short and sweet.
Let’s start by asking Dr. Day about his own experience as a synesthete. Please tell us what types of synesthesia you have and when you started to notice it.
“I have three types of synesthesia. For me, the timbres of different musical instruments each produce their own individual synesthetic colors. I also perceive synesthetic colors for almost all flavors, and for over 50 different odors.
I noticed my synesthesia [when] I was about 6 or 7 years old. By the time I was 10 or 11, I was very well aware that I had a genetic-based neurological difference that others around me did not have. But, since I was aware that it was genetically based, I was also aware that others might also have it. (For comparison, one of my sisters has red hair. No one else in my family does. But I was aware that there were other people in the world who had red hair.) So, by the age of 12, I was actively seeking other synesthetes”.
After some digging, I discovered that Dr. Day then went on to found the Synesthesia List in 1992, was instrumental in developing the American Synesthesia Association (ASA) as a nonprofit organization and served as its President from 2000 to 2016. In 2016 he helped form the International Association of Synesthetes, Artists, and Scientists (IASAS), where he still serves as President today.
Has your experience with synesthesia changed over the years, and has it been useful at times?
“Since a person’s hearing, vision, sense of smell, and sense of taste typically degrade with age, a type of synesthesia with one of those senses and the “inducer” mode may likely fade too. For example, as someone with ‘music-to-color’ synesthesia ages, his hearing might degrade; as he becomes more “hard of hearing”, his synesthesia might start fading.
Smoking has a tendency to degrade one’s sense of smell and thus also one’s sense of taste. Synesthetes with smell- or flavor-induced synesthesias who smoke tend to have their synesthesia fade over time. Likewise, a bad head-cold, with congested sinuses, could cause one to just about lose smell-induced synesthesia for a week or so.
One can try to focus on an aspect of one’s synesthesia to develop and hone a skill. For example, I myself have ‘flavor-to-color’ synesthesia. In my 20s, I focused a lot of attention on picking up the fine-grade nuances of what I synesthetically saw for different flavors of tea, and became a tea-tasting expert who could quickly identify a couple hundred different flavors and brands of tea more by the synesthetic colors they produced than by their flavors. I have since long ago lost that talent, but could probably regain it with a couple months of practice.”
What are some hot topics in the synesthesia research community right now?
“The big fad in research, at the moment, is exploring mirror-sensory (e.g., mirror-touch, mirror pain, mirror speech) synesthesias. They are a fairly new topic to most researchers and have not been explored much at all. Plus, in the last two or three years, we have developed a number of new experimental ideas (using some of the latest state-of-the-art technologies, to explore this with. The researchers are being pulled to this because what we are finding so far has great potential usage for therapeutic approaches to injuries, and in regards to creating cybernetic prosthetics, e.g., for amputees and those born without limbs, but also in terms of devices to facilitate things for blind people to “see” or deaf people to “hear”. In a round-about manner, it is also pushing new approaches towards designs and programming of androids and other robots.“
Using sensory overlap in biomedical or therapeutic ways is an established practice, for example in 2015 the US FDA approved the device BrainPort, which uses a camera to sketch images on a person’s tongue with an electrode array, to let a blind people see with their tongue. Although this is not true synesthesia, it shows the value of cross-modal associations across different senses that can be learned by anyone.
And now, the burning question from our last article for Dr. Day — why has there been a big uptick in reported cases of synesthesia and its research over the last several decades?
“One of the main ones is the advancements in brain scan technologies, such as fMRI. Prior to these technologies, cases of synesthesia were usually founded upon “first-person” reports by the synesthete. These first-person reports could be readily dismissed by others with the argument that the proposed “synesthete” was just “making things up”, over-imaginative, seeking attention, and such, and that actual synesthesia itself did not and could not exist. Tools such as MEG and fMRI provided “third-person” verification that what the synesthete was saying was indeed true: the scans showed that brain anatomy and cognitive processing was different in the synesthete.
Tools such as fMRI scans showed that they weren’t lying. These tools also helped in producing far many more academic publications — articles and books — on the topic, again giving support that synesthesia was an actual neurological phenomenon. So, more synesthetes felt that they could “come out” about it without having to fight being ridiculed or dismissed.
As to synesthete artists reporting their experiences, artists, on average, are more likely to be risk-takers, going against social norms and the push for conformity. An artist is more likely to face ridicule anyway; so, mentioning one’s synesthesia is just another thing to throw into the pot. But, added to this, synesthesia has been joined to “being artistic” for over two centuries now. This has resulted in the emergence of quite a lot of artists who want to be seen as synesthetes, or associated with it”
So it’s really about technology allowing synesthesia and synesthetes to actually be validated, as it wasn’t taken very seriously or fully believed in before… sounds like it’s actually quite difficult being a synesthete?
“One commonality that I find among synesthetes worldwide is that they are usually misunderstood, with non-synesthetes forcing their misconceptions upon them…
… In some places, it is simply that synesthesia is almost completely unknown, and so no one has the concept or label available. In other places, synesthesia is misunderstood and misdiagnosed, such as the concept of it being a sign of schizophrenia or mania. In many places in the world, it is still quite dangerous for someone (especially a minor) to state openly that he or she has synesthesia.”
Wow, and if ≅4% of the world’s population is estimated to be synesthetes, that’s ≅320 million people… so is this potential discrimination why the openly synesthetic community seems so small, and yet so passionate?
“For about the same reasons as, for example, those found with the Asperger Syndrome community, or the transsexual community, or the schizophrenic community… A small percentage of people, dominated and misunderstood by a differing majority, want an end to the misinformation and general pervasive b*llsh*t stated about them and seek acceptance of their place in the diversity of humans.”
At this point in the interview, we realized something very important; being a synesthete has historically meant being discriminated against. Much like other minorities who play important roles in shaping if not leading societies in various ways, only to be stereotyped, shunned or mistreated because they are not “normal”… race, sexuality, mental health and so much more, it’s all discrimination, intolerance and a lack of empathy. In light of this, the role of synesthesia took on a new symbolism for our company.
Synaesthetic’s mission is to empower music’s societal role as a unifier of people and a tool for empathy, through technology. We believe music was the original social platform and has immense value in bringing (especially very different) people together. In a time of intense polarization and isolation, we want to offer ways for people to connect and build up their empathy and understanding for one another. This mission is very personal to our founding team, being visible minorities from diverse backgrounds, and the parallels between the struggles of synesthetes and other minorities has become quite clear.
It leads to an important distinction we have to make as a company: Synaesthetic will not leverage the idea of synesthesia or synesthetes for its own gain — we strive to empower minorities, not exploit them.
This leads to my final questions for Dr. Day; what do you think about our business and products?
“I am very excited about the potential prospects of this venture. My main interest — and my main concern — is accuracy. If information about synesthesia is spread, I want to see that that information is correct to the best of our most current scientific research. Not myths and pseudo-scientific fantasies of what one might hope for synesthesia to be.
Your products will not help non-synesthetes learn to have synesthesia. However, your products might help non-synesthetes — and also synesthetes — learn more about synesthesia, and that can significantly help both communities.”
With this, we are excited to announce that Dr. Sean A. Day has joined the advisory board of Synaesthetic, for the exact reasons he just mentioned. We welcome him to help us understand synesthesia and synesthetes first and then apply our learnings to make unique and practical technologies, products, and experiences that can benefit everyone. In the early days of mixed reality / augmented reality / virtual reality, neuroscience, human-machine-interfaces, and artificial intelligence, we must stay true to scientific research to help us lay the proper foundations for what is to come.
When we say “Synaesthetic”, don’t think of a marketing gimmick or is it an over-promise to induce a condition for miracle effects. Synaesthetic / aloom is the study of the human mind in ways previously overlooked or misunderstood, to gain inspiration and techniques that bridge into the real world and create next-generation user experiences.