Apart from being a word that is not only hard to say, but even harder to try to remember how to spell; Synaesthesia is a truly fascinating subject.
To explain a bit more about what it actually is, it’s worth looking at the official dictionary definition. Like many words used in the English language, ‘synaesthesia’ originally derives from the Greek, ‘syn’ and ‘esthesia’ and roughly translated means ‘senses coming together’.
My interest in synaesthesia started some years ago when I read an article in one of the tabloid newspapers about a lady called Jo Malone. The article went on to mention that she did not do very well at school, was frequently bullied and eventually left the education system with no qualifications at all. This alerted my senses to the fact that this sounded like she exhibited dyslexic tendencies and my suspicions were confirmed as being correct, when the last paragraph of the article stated that she was indeed dyslexic.
What is truly inspiring is the fact that despite all of the pitfalls in her life, she is not only a multi-millionairess, but has gone on to become a very successful business woman. Her secret was to not let her lack of formal education get in the way, but to harness her dyslexic talents – her synaesthesia – as a way of getting to where she wanted to be in life.
She has the ability to look at people or objects and conjure up a scent or perfume, even from just looking at the texture of the material used on a piece of furniture; she maintains she sees and feels everything in scent. She used this unique talent to start up her own perfumery business, which she later sold to Estee Lauder for an undisclosed sum and continues to use in her new business venture – Jo Loves.
Synaesthesia is not though just about smell, it can also relate to taste, touch, hearing or vision. Many famous musicians often tell how their synaesthesia inspired their musical talent. Jimi Hendrix would describe harmonies and chords as colours, while the singer/songwriter Tori Amos maintains that songs appear as ‘filaments of light’. Duke Ellington on the other hand explained that he would ‘see’ musical notes played by different musicians in different colours. Dark blue would be the colour of the musical note D played by one instrumentalist, whilst he would perceive a G played by someone else as being light blue.
The actress Tilda Swinton ‘sees’ words as different edible items, whilst Daniel Temmet ‘feels’ and ‘sees’ numbers, each with its own unique 3D shape, texture and colour. The Greek philosopher Pythagoras insisted that each number had its own personality – male or female, ugly or beautiful, incomplete or perfect.
From my own experience I have worked with a number of dyslexic clients who also exhibit this unique gift. One of my police students would have to remove all the electrical plugs connected to various bits of equipment from the wall sockets before he went to sleep, as he would be able to ‘hear’ the electricity running through them, which would invariably keep him awake at night. He was also able to tell me that the date on my watch was wrong, even though he was sat some distance away from me; the date display being so small that I never use it, as I cannot see it, even if I have the watch strapped to my wrist.
Another client had a heightened sense of smell and taste. On a family day out, her father had pulled into a petrol station to refill his car. She amazed her family by telling them she could smell and taste roast beef, even though everyone else could only smell petrol fumes. Their disbelief turned to amazement when two miles down the road, they pulled into a Toby Carvery which was serving a Sunday lunch of roast beef as the speciality of the day.
We can of course all visualise objects from smells, but this is when we are using our memory to access a pre-formed picture, which may not necessarily be the same picture every time. This is not the same as synaesthesia, which is very constant, the ‘associations’ that someone has at an early age will not or are very unlikely change over time.
Most people with this gift are probably totally unaware that they have it, thinking this is how everyone perceives the world. No one is actually sure how many people can be described as being ‘synaesthetic’, but estimates range from 1:5000 or 1:100 000. This ratio changes when applied to females who are thought to be twice as likely to be synaesthetic as males. There also seems to be a link to synaesthesia being inherited, especially from another female synaesthetic family member.
Sadly, this article can only touch on this fascinating subject, but more information is available on the Internet and the UK Synaesthesia Association website contains a wealth of interesting information.
©Jacqui Flisher, 2012