See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 23, Issue 1

Humans Possess Exotic Sensory Abilities

Unusual cases reveal that the famous "five senses" are not as distinct as once thought


For as long as he can remember, Bryan Alvarez has thought his mother resembled a Mark Rothko painting. The likeness is not just a metaphor he conjured up one day. Whenever he conceives of her name, Marla, he literally sees, in his mind's eye, blocks of colors, each one blending into the next—grainy, brick red for the M, bright, blood red for the A, eggplant purple for the R, plum purple for the L and red again for the final A.

Growing up, Alvarez never thought it unusual that letters have inherent colors. He was in high school when he learned that his peers did not perceive the world as he did. Alvarez has a condition called synesthesia, in which otherwise normal people feel shapes when they taste foods, smell odors when they hear musical notes or see colors when they read words.

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