A wonderful snapshot of a fascinating and colourful condition

10 October 2019

Related event: Speed dating with ideas

Synaesthesia – when words and colours or sounds and tastes are biologically-interconnected in someone’s brain – fascinates me. Who wouldn’t like to see the colours of the rainbow in their minds-eye on a grey day or taste a fresh fruit salad as they read the paper? I was curious to know more.

Our perception of the world is filtered by our individual brains and synaesthesia is a fascinating condition in which sensations that the average person experiences distinctly, or sometimes concepts and thoughts, are paired in the synaesthete so they consistently trigger a second or concurrent sensation.

While there are several heavy tomes on the market that delve deep into the research in this field, Simner’s Very Short Introduction is the perfect size for the interested lay person. It’s a quick read that covers the breadth of different realities a synaesthete might experience, and hypotheses on the biological basis where complex science is explained with a back to basics approach for the everyday reader.

There are plenty of mini-anecdotes in this book giving wonderful insights, including the fact that research into synaesthesia gathered speed after a chance conversation in 1980 about a chicken that tasted the wrong shape. Yes, you did read that right! Then development in brain scanning technology over the last 20 years both confirmed the condition as a genuine phenomenon and gave scientists the tools to investigate what was going on inside the brain.

In just over 100 carefully-referenced pages which you can absorb cover-to-cover in an afternoon, Simner gives a detailed overview of everything we know about synaesthesia so far.

The book covers external stimuli and the way each of our brains uses them, and the parts of the brain involved in each process. It then looks at the key debates around whether there are more physical connections between the areas involved in sensation in the brain of the synaesthete or merely more communication between them; what are the differences between a synaesthete’s brain and that of an average person, what we can surmise from these and what we should continue to investigate?

There’s also a consideration of both developmental synaesthesia where an individual has the predisposition at birth and acquired synaesthesia which is triggered later in life. Both nature and nurture are thought to be important in the development of an individual’s experience of synaesthesia, explains Simner: genetics (though research is at an early stage), age and life-time experiences all play a role in the links between trigger and concurrent sensation. The red a particular synesthete sees when they hear the phoneme ‘a’, for example, might be the exact hue of the apple in their childhood alphabet book, for example.

A commonly asked question is whether synaesthetes are predisposed to be creative and Simnerdevotes a chapter to synaesthesia and the arts, unpicking the statistics to avoid false positives where artistic sensibility is self-diagnosed as synaesthesia (it seems we all clamour for a touch of the ‘glamour’ of this condition), and investigating why this does seem to be the case.

Synasthesia however brings challenges too, often those of sensory overload, and may be correlated with other conditions in which hypersensitivity is a causal factor, influencing the behaviour of those who live with it.

Wish you could experience synaesthesia? Then I also recommend the light-hearted novel The Colour of Bee Larkham’s Murder by Sarah J Harris and, for small children and those who enjoy reading to them, Here Comes Frankie by Tim Hopgood.


Esther Lafferty, Communications Officer, IF Oxford

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