As a writer, I tend to cover a wide range of topics, and in the process, I usually get to learn something new. One of these topics is music. Every once in a while, I get to write an album review; doing so allows me to familiarize myself with the artists. This week, I learned about Annamaria Pinna, lead singer and mastermind behind the band Vajra. She has a neurological condition called “synesthesia.”
I’ve heard the term before. Remembering that it was of some interest to me, I researched it further. The term synesthesia is composed of two different Greek terms, “syn” (together) and “aisthesis” (perception). When you combine them, they mean “joined perception.” You may be wondering where I’m going with this.
You see, most of us use our senses to process information from the environment. As a result, we usually “agree” on what the information is; meaning, when we see a woman playing a trumpet, we agree that it is in fact exactly that. Yet there are exceptions, like in the instance of color blindness, when people “see” hues differently.
It’s a difficult concept to grasp — that we can’t actually prove that everyone sees things the same way, but because we don’t usually encounter discrepancies, it’s not something we actively think about. Imagine that your senses get mixed up. What if you “hear” a smell, or “see” a sound? What if Mondays were always green, or the sound of guitars made your fingers tickle?
You may have a neurological condition called synesthesia, just like Annamaria Pinna. It occurs when one sense (like hearing) is perceived by one or more additional senses (like sight and taste) at the same time. So if apples taste like Beethoven’s “5th Symphony,” then chances are you are a synesthete. The condition can involve any of the senses.
One of the more common forms of the condition involves a person seeing a specific color in response to a certain number, or letter of the alphabet. There are other forms with just about any combination, yet if three or more senses are involved, that is considered rare. Go figure. Also, synesthetic perceptions are specific to each individual, so if you think synesthetes agree on what they’re experiencing, they usually don’t.
What is responsible for such an interesting neurological condition? Well, some researchers believe it has to do with “cross-wiring” in the brain. Cells from one sensory system can cross-wire to another sensory system. While researchers are not completely clear as to why this happens, some believe that at birth, most people have crossed connections, which normalize as we get older.
There is still much to be learned about synesthesia since there are various ideas as to what parts of the brain are really involved with this condition, but it does say a lot about our perception of the world. Things aren’t always exactly as they seem, at least not to all of us. Just ask Ms. Pinna.