Thomas J. Palmeri, Randolph B. Blake and Ren¿ Marois of the psychology department and the Center for Integrative and Cognitive Neuroscience at Vanderbilt University study synesthesia. They provide the following explanation:
When you eat chicken, does it feel pointy or round? Is a week shaped like a tipped-over D with the days arranged counterclockwise? Does the note B taste like horseradish? Do you get confused about appointments because Tuesday and Thursday have the same color? Do you go to the wrong train station in New York City because Grand Central has the same color as the 42nd Street address of Penn Station? When you read a newspaper or listen to someone speaking do you see a rainbow of colors? If so, you might have synesthesia.
Synesthesia is an anomalous blending of the senses in which the stimulation of one modality simultaneously produces sensation in a different modality. Synesthetes hear colors, feel sounds and taste shapes. What makes synesthesia different from drug-induced hallucinations is that synesthetic sensations are highly consistent: for particular synesthetes, the note F is always a reddish shade of rust, a 3 is always pink or truck is always blue.
The estimated occurrence of synesthesia ranges from rarer than one in 20,000 to as prevalent as one in 200. Of the various manifestations of synesthesia, the most common involves seeing monochromatic letters, digits and words in unique colors¿this is called grapheme-color synesthesia. One rather striking observation is that such synesthetes all seem to experience very different colors for the same graphemic cues. Different synesthetes may see 3 in yellow, pink or red. Such synesthetic colors are not elicited by meaning, because 2 may be orange but two is blue and 7 may be red but seven is green. Even more perplexing is that synesthetes typically report seeing both the color the character is printed in as well as their synesthetic color. For example, is both blue (real color) and light green (synesthetic color).
Synesthetes report having unusually good memory for things such as phone numbers, security codes and polysyllabic anatomical terminology because digits, letters and syllables take on such a unique panoply of colors. But synesthetes also report making computational errors because 6 and 8 have the same color and claim to prejudge couples they meet because the colors of their first names clash so hideously.
For too long, synesthetes were dismissed as having overactive imaginations, confusing memories for perceptions or taking metaphorical speech far too literally. Recent research, however, has documented the reality of synesthesia and is beginning to make headway into understanding what might cause such unusual perceptions.
Research has documented that synesthetic colors are perceived in much the same way that nonsynesthetic individuals perceive real colors. Thus, synesthetic color differences can facilitate performance on tasks in which real color differences facilitate performance for nonsynesthetes and can impair performance on tasks in which real color differences impair performance for nonsynesthetes.
In one such task, people are asked to say the color of the ink a word is printed in as quickly as possible (for example, responding "pink" to and "blue" to ). For lexical synesthetes, these words take on unique colors. When the synesthetic color matches the ink color, responses are fast. But when the synesthetic color mismatches the ink color, responses are slow, presumably because subjects need to resolve the conflict over which color name to respond with. Although such results demonstrate that synesthesia is automatic, in the sense that they cannot turn off their synesthesic experience even when it interferes with a task, these results do not reveal whether synesthetic colors are perceptions or memories.