June 6, 2011 in Features

Mr. Dad: Ability to ‘hear’ colors is a gift

Armin Brott
 

Dear Mr. Dad: I hope this doesn’t sound too crazy, but here goes. My 7-year old son has been telling me for a while that he “hears colors.” I asked him what he meant and he told me that when he says the alphabet or counts, or when people say certain words, he sometimes sees colors.

At first I thought he might be having some kind of hallucinations, but he seems perfectly fine in every other area of his life. Is this anything to worry about?

A: From what you describe, it sounds like your son may have a neurological condition called synesthesia. That’s when stimulating one sense – such as your son’s sense of hearing – also triggers the sensation of another one – the colors he perceives.

I only recently learned about synesthesia while doing an interview with Maureen Seaberg, the author of a fascinating book called “Tasting the Universe.”

While synesthesia is a condition, it’s by no means a disease. In fact, many see it as a gift, and research shows that synesthetes often have higher-than-average IQs.

It may affect as much as 5 percent of the population, and it tends to run in families, and it’s much more common among artists, writers, other creative people. Synesthetes are also more likely to be left-handed.

There are actually quite a few different types of synesthesia which can involve any of the senses.

Some find that reading, saying, or even thinking certain words triggers a taste. Others, like your son, see colors when they read. Still others hear sounds when they move in certain ways or even see certain kinds of movement. What’s especially interesting is that for kids, the connection between the senses may change. The numbers your son sees as turquoise today may be a different color later. But in adulthood, things solidify. For example, if the word antelope is blue or smells like licorice, or if Lady Gaga’s voice tastes like strawberries, it always will.

Quite a few famous people have or had synesthesia. In an interview with Seaberg, violinist Itzhak Perlman says that when he plays a B-flat on the G string he sees a deep forest green, while an A on the E string is red. Nobel laureate physicist Richard Feynman saw equations in color. And actress Tilda Swinton hears food.

The word “table,” for example, tastes like cake, while the word “tomato” reportedly tastes like a lemon instead of, well, a tomato.

Unless your son’s synesthesia affects his life in a negative way, there’s nothing to worry about. If you’re interested in finding out more about synesthesia on your own, “Tasting the Universe” is a great place to start.

The Synesthesia Resource Center (bluecatsandchartreusekittens.com) has all sorts of tasty pieces of information. You might also want to have your son take the synesthesia battery at synesthete.org.


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