Boing Boing Video: SYNESTHESIA, a film by Jonathan Fowler.

(Flash video above. Alternate viewing options: Download MP4 or watch on YouTube)

Boing Boing Video presents a remix of "Synesthesia," a documentary directed by Jonathan Fowler, about people whose senses blend, or mix. For instance: a synesthete might see colors when listening to music, or taste flavors when hearing a spoken word.

Synesthesia was once thought of as a disease or disorder, but many who experience this alternate form of perception think of their anomaly as an advantage -- or, for them, simply what is normal. In this piece, Dr. David Eagleman of the Baylor College of Medicine explains this condition, and four synesthetes explain how they perceive the world.

The full-length version of this film was produced with support from The Research Channel, and is available for viewing on their website.

CREDITS: Directed & Produced by Jonathan Fowler. Cinematography by Rex Jones & Jonathan Fowler. Music by Moby & Olis.

* David Eagleman, Ph.D., neuroscientist, Baylor College of Medicine
* Marilynn Masten, synesthete
* Julia Cochran, synesthete
* Tiffany Gill, synesthete
* Sean Day, synesthete


  1. A couple years ago I watched the Scorsese film on Bob Dylan. At one point Dylan talked about the color of a song, seemingly unaware that it sounded unusual. Could he be a synesthete?

    I once had a heavy hit of mescaline merge my perception of sound and color.

  2. I’m glad that synesthesia is experiencing a research renaissance–there’s a lot of interesting permutations floating around, and many popular misconceptions about the phenomenon. I’ve been synesthetic all my life, though I didn’t know it until college–I had always assumed that strong sound-color associations were normal. (One of my most vivid childhood memories was listening to a string-heavy classical piece which was so intensely, sickeningly yellow that listening to it nearly made me puke in my neighbor’s driveway.)

    One prevailing assumption I’ve run across is that synethetes experience bursts of color in front of their eyes, when in reality (at least in my experience) it tends to be a more general feeling of “Oh, yeah. That sounds kind of green.”

  3. I have moderate synesthesia too, and I also didn’t realize it was unusual until I was 16 or so. That seems to be a common experience. I don’t know if it’s an advantage (except maybe in mental math), but it’s definitely not a hindrance (although I understand some kinds can be).

    Supposedly other famous synesthetes include Tom Waits and Vladimir Nabokov. Not trying to boost “us” by association, just stating an interesting fact.

  4. For those who doubt synesthesia, there was a good test that was developed for number-color synesthesia that showed fairly conclusively that the phenomenon was real. When shown the top image here,, self-proclaimed number-color synesthetes where able to pick out the shape represented by the different numbers significantly faster than non-synesthetes.

    They picked out the shape at comparable speeds as non-synesthetes when the different numbers were actually colored in for the non-synesthetes.

    Two other interesting examples, showing that we all are synesthetes to some degree: a) if you ask people to point to “bouba” and “kiki”in the second image in the link above, virtually everybody from all cultures points to the same characters (I shouldn’t need to tell you which is which), and b) I think that most people feel that some notes are “higher” than others — I don’t think it’s a coincidence that high and low notes are named after spacial attributes.

  5. I think I might have a mild form of it. I picked up how to read the ohms/tolerance of a resistor pretty quick and often use word/number/color associations to memorize things for a test.

  6. after years of watching my dogs i think this is what they are doing when they sniff-the smells go right to a part of their brain that connects to hearing,sight,feeling–as in “hey ralph check out the colors in this puddle!!”..maybe thats how they see color and not with their eyes..

  7. I wish my synaesthesia were more pronounced. But, still, I can’t imagine being a musician if I *weren’t* synaesthetic. Most of the stuff I write is based on the “color” of the tones involved, so it’s more like painting than composing.

  8. I’ve often wondered if this was the impression Luc Besson was attempting to create with Tucker’s Ruby Rod character stating “It must be Green, mmmmkay?” in 5th element- some form of mimicking a socially acceptable synaesthesia, at least in terms of vocabulary.

  9. I have the sort that mixes musical notes/chords with colors, so much so that one of the reasons I have always enjoyed pieces written in the key of Bb is that I love the particular shade of silvery blue that Bb is.

  10. I didn’t know synesthesia was unusual until some years ago, when I first heard about it. It just seems natural that the various subsystems of our minds would have a few interlinking nodes, and that occasionally a concept generated here might ripple through another subsystem there. It’s no different than smelling cloves or tasting cider and remembering a Christmas in your past (or whatever you do at that time of year).

    I see colors around letters, but only sometimes. I have to be in a particular frame of mind. When the mood is right, the letters will light up more vividly than usual, which is usually when I begin writing. It goes without saying that my writing moves at a snail’s pace because of this.

  11. Aphex Twin has synesthesia. Just wanted to inject that in case anyone was curious to know any artists/musicians that have the condition.

  12. While on the subject of synesthesia, you might also want to check out (via

    The “time-as-a-running-track” graphic is nearly identical to the way I have always experienced time. Almost eerie seeing it illustrated by someone else.

    This gentleman is autistic, but also appears to have synesthesia: Very interesting:

  13. I recently figured out that my friend has synesthesia. He thought he was just crazy all his life, turns out he has a pretty rare version of it too.

    I think it was a few links like this on boingboing that helped me figure it out. He is very visual, and all his colours and shapes are projected out in front of him (from what I understand).

    It’s fun being able to find out things like what colour my name is, what personality certain numbers have, what sounds look like, and doing reverse lookups on word colours (not many words seem to be black, “lion” apparently is, and “reality” is black with white speckles)

  14. #2: actually, some of us do experience “literal” colours, sounds, etc- it’s projective syn rather than associative. My brain tells me that I’m seeing, say, undulating dark blue in response to a low frequency, and while it also knows it’s not literally there, visualizes it anyway.
    #11: yeah, I’ve got the letters thing too- the colours appear projected above the letter, and they’re pretty much always present for me, as well as their “personalities”.
    Synesthesia presents in lots of ways for lots of people- my biggest ones are sound-to-sight (waaay in first place), texture-to-sight, and a few others. I’ve got quite a few that involve the “personality” of something abstract- for instance, 3 is saffron, male, and arrogant. The colours I literally see, but the personality and gender are associative.
    I can’t imagine *not* being synesthetic. I have been my whole life (even if most of my family don’t believe it exists, for some reason), and would imagine the world to be a dull, uninteresting place without it.

  15. It seems like this documentary primarily refers to grapheme-color synesthesia, and I’ve noticed that many people tend to use the general term ‘synesthesia’ when describing the specific grapheme-color variation.

    I would just like to emphasize that synesthesia doesn’t have to involve color at all.

    I have spatial-sequence synesthesia: *anything* placed in a sequence (human history, for example) occupies a 3D space that’s projected all around me. January is straight ahead. The nineteenth century is always to my left. Friday is always East, but Monday is West.

    I was absolutely shocked when I found out that others don’t see things the same way.

  16. I’m not sure this counts as synesthesia, because I don’t fully understand the concept, but here it is anyway: I have always had an aversion to cigarettes, matches, ashtrays, everything to do with smoking, my whole life long from toddlerhood. Whenever I perceive someone smoking in another car (all our windows rolled up), on screen, in a book, a photograph, a painting, or dead butts on the ground, I can smell the cigarette smoke, or in the case of matches, the sulfur. This also applies to lake water (fish smell), and certain kinds of wood I use in my woodworking (cinnamon).

    I also see abstracts (past events) in terms of direction, like Anonymous above.

  17. #17: right; not necessarily. It’s common, but not the only modality. Sometimes it’s a smell or “texture” response, sometimes it has to do with time or even emotion. Most of my reactions have to do with visualization (my week, incidentally, is composed of a “hill” of days, each with a colour, Tuesday being the “peak of the week”).
    Great places to find out more (and to discuss experiences) are and its forums,

  18. I’m doing my PhD dissertation on synesthesia (specifically pseudochromesthesia), so I am always happy to see the interest that so many individuals have for this phenomenon and the education that the general population is receiving through the increased attention. I believe that synesthetes have a lot to teach us about brain development, and cultural interaction.

  19. I don’t have it 99% sure, but I will say that I seem to notice something that seems to be overlooked by most. I see famous and popular music in churches, cathedrals, temples, govt. buildings. ancient architecture. I see the Planets. It’s all math and proportions. It’s the human body, the planets, patterns, weaving fractals in fibbonaccii proportins. Every planet makes a different grid/sound/electromagnetic field. they all interlock to make a bigger perfect design. Looks like a spirograph. It’s encoded by humans in most music and building I see it. The measurements. it is also in the plants. The fields from the planets shape the plants into their form. I’ve always known that zooming in or out is forever. I have always known my whole life gravity is 100% false. Everything is held in electromagnetic fields that I see that hold, attract, AND REPEL at different frequencies. Everything repeats. Cycles. Time is a horizontal spiral. It can seem as going around over and over, but each time you are further on a new ring. Drumbeats are astronomy. Architecture is Music. Harmony is planets. Everything is a spiral with infinite zoom. I think the people that encode it all are secretly just like me. and I think they reveal it to me and those like us. I can’t ignore it. There is secrets codes and math in everything. Man-made and natural. And they reaveal the structure and nature of everything. That all is one. God to me was always that which ecoded geometry together first. When Animals on earth die they return to the state before birth. The exact same state. The one you don’t remember but know it exists for a fact. This is all math in plant and planets, freqencies, proporetions harmonies, patterns, measure, geometry, etc. More importantly it’s encoded in all man made stuff by men too, especially sacred architecture.
    I don’t think i have synethesia becase I see that stuff really there. It’s really there, but what I have allows clearer vision of it?

    Most people look at the painting and see people doing things in it. I only see the angles in the painting and they show other things, like planets, nature, god, man, astronomy all kinds of stuff, music, math.

    The humans who encode it are copying secrets of the universe that we can see that others don’t to show it off for some reason. I’ve learned alot about the secrets of the universe from observing their work.

    Most people are just like “What? Nah! It’s just that shape cause it looks pretty!” I’m afraid not. There is knowledge encoded in it, its right there look, can’t you see it? It’s in everything.
    It’s where thoughts come from. I think it is staying undeveloped deep in their subconscious. It’s been lost over time.

  20. THE STARS MY DESTINATION by Alfred Bester, in 1956, has a very realistic account of a man whose senses are shattered, and the resolution of the plot hangs on decoding what he’s smelling, tasting, etc, converted to the real world. As well as being a smashing good sci-fi read.
    Available on the ‘net if you look hard enough.

  21. A great haven for young synesthetes here: MixSig
    (It’s also good for young adults and older, but the most active crowd is teenagers.)

    As for synesthesia being a disease or condition – it is certainly real and probably congenital. Not all synesthetes find it beneficial or even neutral. Some with grapheme-personality find math difficult because their numbers fight. Those with stimulus-to-pain avoid their stimuli, but that can be debilitating. It’s too complex a phenomenon to label as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, though I’m pretty sure that’s not the point here. :)

    #18 @REBECCAH Synesthesia isn’t about the common idea of associations. It’s about abstract, non-literal, and unchanging connections. For instance, if you “associated” cigarette smoke with foot pain, that could be synesthesia. Seeing something related to cigarettes and then feeling sick by smelling cigarettes is not in the classic definition of synesthesia. That said, you can’t rule it out because we don’t have the brain mapped, and it maybe an (un)lucky coincidence for you.
    Your other association might well by “syn” (as some synesthetes call it), as it fits one of the key definitions: “abstract”.

  22. @hail_diskordia Oops, didn’t see you had already posted MixSig! What a great place. Maybe it deserves to be posted twice.

  23. Hey there! First post on BoingBoing. Excited!

    Anyway, here it goes. Some years ago I read a very interesting and thought provoking book by A. R. Luria about a mnemonist called “The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book About a Vast Memory” (that was the name of the book, not the mnemonist, mind you).

    The book tells the story of Luria’s relation to this guy who was unable to forget things (I remember reading somewhere else that this character have been the inspiration for Jorge Luis Borges’ Funes el Memorioso… and what do you know… Wikipedia agrees with me).

    Just like the synesthetes mentioned in the documentary, this mnemonist had no idea that his condition (can we call it a condition without it implying anything terrible about it?) was in any way extraordinary. I don’t remember all the details of the story, but I think he worked in a newspaper, and he was told to go get his brain poked at after his editor figured out he never took notes.

    The reason I mention this on this post is that, as the book progresses, the mnemonist explains a little more about how he manages to remember things, and apparently he does it through very strong synesthesia. So, if he wants to remember a list of 30 different objects, he not only has the names of those objects, but also the taste, the color, the textures… if you have so many anchor points, it’s probably a lot easier to remember things.

    Of course, he mentions not everything is so easy. He once makes a mistake while remembering a list of things, and when asked by Luria why he forgot to mention something (I think it was a pencil, or a broom, or some other long object), he says that he had decided to place all the objects in the list along the path he normally followed while walking somewhere (I forgot where) in his hometown… and he leaned the broom next to a fence, and when recalling the list he overlooked it because of all the bars on the fence itself.

    Anyway, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Go get a copy!

  24. My synesthesia is a bit different. Sometimes when I see a picture on T.V., a photograph, or even a mental image, I can smell the odor associated with it for a second or two. For example, the odor of dirty socks in a locker room or fresh liver (!) in an autopsy. This started when I was about 18 and occurs more often when I’m tired. The smell doesn’t bring back the memory; the memory brings back the smell!

  25. I didn’t realize what I had was “synesthesia” until I made a posting on Facebook that I think in color. A friend sent me a synesthesia link and here I am. I too didn’t even realize that everything had a color until maybe sometime in my mid to late 20’s. It’s simply how I think. The best way I can describe it is I have a prism of color and everything is a color. For me there is nothing conscious about it. I don’t think 3 and then think what color is it? 3 is green, and 4 is brown and depending on what I’m doing or thinking, colors are coinciding and changing on the prism constantly. I’d be interested to learn more about this. For instance, while reading this blog I realized that just like the posting by

    “Anonymous September 23rd I have spatial-sequence synesthesia: *anything* placed in a sequence (human history, for example) occupies a 3D space that’s projected all around me. January is straight ahead. The nineteenth century is always to my left. Friday is always East, but Monday is West.

    I was absolutely shocked when I found out that others don’t see things the same way. ”

    I see all sequential events, in the following format

    February December
    March November
    April October
    May September
    June July August

    -I have though figured out what this format represents, any guesses??

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