Synesthesia and evolution

We've posted many times about synesthsia, a fascinating and bizarre neurological condition in which two ore more senses are linked so that someone, for example, might "taste" sounds or "hear" colors. New research is exploring whether synesthesia, which appears to be a heritable physical condition, has survived evolutionarily because it's beneficial. According to the UC San Diego scientists, "ninety-five to ninety-nine percent of synesthetes love their synesthesia and say it enhances their lives." Advanced brain scans are enabling researchers to better see the increased connections between sensory brain regions and learn more about the neural condition. From National Geographic:

 Wpf Media-Live Photos 000 441 Cache Synesthesia-Evolution-Brain 44199 600X450 The study authors think it's possible such a strange phenomenon has survived in an evolutionary sense because it offers people certain benefits to creative thinking.

Such studies could also help test an idea proposed by some scientists that all humans have the neural mechanism for synesthesia but it's suppressed for some reason…

…Synesthesia is about seven times more common in artists, poets, and novelists than in the rest of the population, and some scientists have hypothesized that synesthetes are better at linking unrelated ideas.

"Why Does Evolution Allow Some People to Taste Words?"


  1. “Why Does Evolution Allow Some People to Taste Words?”

    Urgh… uuuh… I honestly expect better headers from National Geographic; evolution doesn’t “allow”. The same for the premise of the study, that synthesia exists because it is beneficial. Well, we have plenty of stuff we haul around in our DNA from generation to generation, no matter if they are beneficial or not to us. I don’t see how synthesia would be a major disadvantage, so my guess to the question of “why synthesia” is “because”… we are all wired a bit differently. Doesn’t seem to be a major advantage either, as the end of the article puts it: “if it’s so cool and such a great trait, why don’t we all have it?”

    1. Came here to say roughly the same thing. 

      That, plus: the brain is a highly complex system, which can vary.  If the variance doesn’t prevent you from reproducing, then you get to reproduce.

    1. 2cb does the trick. Set and setting and all that – but it can turn music into colours, numbers and smokey-flowy ethereal streams quite neatly … one out of five times, give or take. :)

    2. Through many years of tai chi practice you may be able to connect your sense of sight to your sense of touch, allowing you to “feel” what you see.  This may enable you to “feel” someone who is not actually touching you.  It is pretty weird, yet gives a competitive advantage in a fight: central vision takes visual priority and peripheral vision is mapped to the regions for sense of touch.  Also, the reverse is true, where sense of touch provides a sense of being able to “see” force (detected by actual touch) moving through your opponent.  Pretty trippy stuff, yet not available in a pill – you have to really want this.

  2. We all have it, some of us just need drugs to experience it. The most hilarious synesthesia I’ve ever seen: My girlfriend under the influence of ambien and having sex (with me). Somehow the pleasure of sex was transformed into visions of buildings. It was pretty weird, she was having a great time but she couldn’t stop describing the architecture flooding through her mind.

  3. To some extent all metaphorical language depends on being able to interpret one sensory modality in terms of another. If a sound is said to be “bright” for instance, or “sharp” or “flat”.  Similarly a Hawaiian shirt can be “loud” and “tasteless”. There’s a good talk by V.S. Ramachandran about synaesthesia, and it’s relationship to the evolution of language from 2003 on the BBC website: (lecture 4)

  4. Good ol’ Ramachandran, he’s just ossum!

    Completely agree – everyone has it some to some extent, some more or less naturally, and some more or less tempered by social constraints and habit.

    Watching and listening to growing kids you can witness the modality mixups, unimpinged by those constraints.

    My daughter sweetly asked recently ‘why do I see colourful lines when I listen to music?’ – ossum!!  Because your grandmothers did, and because your mother does, and because I do too!

  5. Uhhhhh it’s not evolutionary, it’s basic. If all matter is sound than it only makes sense for us to be able to perceive things in a fluid manner.

  6. As long as Beethoven’s 5th or Atlas Sound “taste” better than the roasted rutabagas I had yesterday, synesthesia is aces in my book.

      1. Dunno if it smells like Teen Spirit, but it is purple, black and red.

        I can’t imagine not having synaesthesia; I’ve had it as long as I can remember. Mine mostly has to do with sound-to-sight and grapheme-to-sight, and my mother’s is sound-to-sight and smell-to-sight. I guess it’d be very cool if you didn’t have it, but I don’t know what it’s like not to, really, so I’m no judge.

  7. My first synaesthesia memory is quite early, and seems to hint to it running in the family. When I was three, I had a colouring book with one of the pages showing the outlines of the numbers 1-9 for me to colour with my crayons. “That’s easy”, I thought, because I knew that ‘1’ was yellow, ‘2’ was blue, ‘3’ was green, etc. When I finished, my three year older sister saw it and started laughing. “What are you doing? ‘1’ is supposed to be blue! ‘2’ is red!” etc. I thought she was crazy — how could anyone be so wrong about something so fundamentally obvious?

  8. I’m a pianist and each key I play in has a ‘shape’ in my mind. D major is the most round shape, for example and F sharp minor is like the pattern on Charlie Brown’s sweater. I’ve been playing since I was three and I think those connections were made very early on.  I don’t teach anymore, but if I did I would be designing exercises on paper that would make those visualizations more concrete.

    1. And that’s the downside of it, that you think that even might make sense to someone else. It might, but the chances of that person being a student of yours are slim. I don’t mean to be disparaging, I do mean to point out the difficulty of finding people who can ‘get’ that in a way even close to the way you get it. From what i understand it’s unique from person to person. You may find someone else who sees shapes in music, but odds are it’s not the one’s you do. Still, sounds kinda cool, and I wish you much luck and happy travels.

  9. In Alan Moore’s great comic “Top 10” there’s a character whose super power is synesthesia.  Moore has a lot of fun with the character, for example she perceives someone producing an ultrasonic “dog whistle” sound to be black-lighting the room with ultraviolet light, and does a wonderful job on the conversational difficulties she has in talking to people about the shapes of smells and so on.

    A lot of people on the Autistic Spectrum, and probably a lot of people period, have sensory impressions of abstract ideas.  Numbers, as abstract concepts separate from their grapheme representations, are the most common.  I perceive physics problems as clockwork structures whereas things from chemistry are more like plush toys.  This is really just doing to analytical things what most people do all the time with emotional and intuitive thinking only there it goes the other way from sensory impressions to abstract judgements: someone with a certain posture or way of knotting their tie is “trustworthy” and so on.

  10. The only negative aspect of my synaesthesia is that whenever I see artwork depicting letters or numbers- such as numbers/letters books or blocks for my 16 month-old- most of them look ‘wrong’ to me no matter how beautiful and well-crafted they are. They’re never all the right colours.

    I still wouldn’t want to get rid of it though.

  11. I’m not in the tasting colours category, but lean more toward ordinal personification.  The number 7 has always been the colour green, but also a 35-year-old, weedy, blonde man with glasses.  8 is red, but also a fat, noisy woman in a floral dress.  Recently, I’ve come to see 6 as orange, and a bit of a grifter.

    I feel like this intuitive knowledge of numbers may be of aid in some way, but I can’t really put my finger on how…

  12. I have a few types but one of them is hearing movement. I’ve been in numerous circumstances where I think I’m better at seeing movement than other people

  13. The world would be a fundamentally better place if everyone tasted the shit sandwiches they served, as they served them.

  14. I’ve heard an “extreme” synesthete complain about how chaotic the world is to them. Some just associate one sense with another: the person doesn’t SEE red when they see a number five, but somewhere in the back of the brain, something goes, “red!” But then you have “projecting” synesthesia, where the person does actually see the written number as red. Imagine having three or four kinds of projecting synesthesia at once?

    I have grapheme -> color and ordinal linguistic synesthesia.  Written numbers have color, and numbers and letters have gender and personality. Five is red: in fact, it’s a bright scarlet red. And male. And kinda pushy.

  15. has pepper spray become a legitimate rhetorical device? at the minimum, i could see it being used to win a republican debate;  the other rhetorical devices deployed there aren’t much more cerebral.

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