Most everyone is familiar with the concept and reality of hallucinations. There are a variety of illnesses and substances that can produce this effect in people. Certainly if you’re here on this website then you know that schizophrenia can produce hallucinations in some of it’s sufferers. But very few people have encountered, let alone experienced, the interesting phenomenon known as synesthesia.
Synesthesia and schizophrenia have a relationship in that synesthesia itself is a hallucinatory experience and requires a base of altered perceptions to be experienced at all. So what is synesthesia?
What is Synesthesia?
You may encounter this term in the wild spelled as synaesthesia as well, but don’t be confused, they both refer to the same experience. Synesthesia can be defined as a “crossing of the senses.” Others report it as being defined as “the senses coming together.” The point attempting to be made is that when a stimuli enters one sensory entry point in the body an effect can be produced in another unrelated sensory organ’s perception.
The easiest way to explain this are phrases like:
- Tasting a color
- Seeing a sound
- Feeling a thought
- Smelling a sound
These types of phrases are not an exaggeration. This is exactly the experience of the synesthete. Me, the author of this post, has experienced moments where I’ve literally seen sound waves flowing towards me from music speakers. I’ve also lain in bed and touched my skin, which produced an array of colors behind my closed eyelids. People report many other experiences like this, and the combinations are only as limited as our five or six senses (six, if you include the perception of your thoughts). To give broader examples, a person might see the color blue and have the taste of an apple in his or her mouth. A person might experience the sounds and music around them as an amorphous blob of colors shaping and reforming itself in their mind.
This experience is not one that can be summoned forth by your willpower. It is involuntary and can’t be suppressed. It just happens to those dealing with it. It’s not always frightening and can be quite awe-inspiring, depending on how you approach it or if it catches you off guard. For those experiencing this without the assistance of psychedelic substances, synesthesia is a quite stable and reliable experience. A person might have their specific type of synesthesia that occurs and that’s it. It’s not a random smorgasbord being picked randomly from all of the possibilities.
The Prevalence of Synesthesia
This is a tricky question. We don’t really have any solid data on how common synesthesia is because of a few peculiar aspects of the experience. For one, it usually becomes absorbed into other diagnoses and not noticed as a stand alone experience. Someone might begin experiencing hallucinations including synesthesia but only report the broad experience of hallucinating because they don’t realize that this crossing of the senses is beyond the normal realm of hallucinating. Another problem that gets in the way of the count is that many synesthetes (people who experience synesthesia) don’t realize that everyone else doesn’t have the same experience! They’ve had it happening since they were born and just accepted it as a normal experience of life.
The best data we have is still quite a broad range, which estimates the prevalence of synesthesia to be within one in 5,000 all the way up to one in 100,000 people.
Schizophrenia and Synesthesia
The curious thing about synesthesia is that people who experience it as a permanent fixture in their mental lives don’t usually deal with other forms of mental illness. It could be said that synesthesia isn’t a disease or illness at all, because it doesn’t seem to interfere with normal high-cognitive functioning. Memory, general intelligence, and creativity even seem enhanced, whereas items like spacial reasoning may suffer a bit. They also generally will test lower for indicators that there is a manifestation or a risk for impending schizophrenia, delusional disorders, or other psychotic episodes.
However, just because on average people with synesthesia don’t also experience schizophrenia does not mean that we aren’t out there. Not by a long shot. If you think you could be experiencing synesthesia and would like to have more insight into the experience to help differentiate it from “just” normal hallucinations, check out this book called The Man Who Tasted Shapes. You can click the image below to view it on Amazon and read a synopsis and reviews. It is the best casual and yet professional book on the topic to date.
If you know of any other great books on this topic, please share about them in the comments below! More information can also be found at the American Synesthesia Association and the United Kingdom Synaesthesia Association.