Wired to hear colors and smell sounds

Imagine hearing a color or smelling a sound. What if numbers had texture that you could see, or hours were visualized as the time it took to bake a loaf of bread?

Neuroscientists group these phenomena together under the umbrella of synaesthesia, an unusual mixing of the senses in which a stimulus in one sensory modality (for example, a sound) elicits perception in another modality (e.g., visualization of a color).

This concept seems strange to the average person. On the whole our brains appear to be wired in the same way. We think rationally, we perform complex mathematical operations logically; we hear music, we see colors, we smell the odor of fresh baked bread hot from the oven.

Yet there are people who cogitate in different ways. Perhaps their brains have been hard-wired using different templates.

Take the case of the person with autistic spectrum disorder. Profoundly autistic individuals are unable to communicate with others. Higher functioning autistic individuals can communicate their thoughts, although they lack the ability to read the social cues of others. They operate in their own worlds, light-years from our own. Yet once in a great while autistic individuals appear who possess the ability to explain their innate thought processes.

Animal scientist Temple Grandin relates that her autism allows her to perceive things as animals do. Grandin has used her ability to see how animals cope to design humane systems for handling cattle and hogs during veterinary procedures and slaughter.

In her book Thinking in Pictures, Grandin writes: “I think in pictures. Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full-color movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head. When somebody speaks to me, his words are instantly translated into pictures….When I was a child and a teenager, I thought everybody thought in pictures. I had no idea that my thought processes were different.”

Commenting on Grandin’s recent NPR interview, one listener wrote: “through-your-sometimes-agonizing-sensitivity-and-insight–we-can-see-glimpses-of-the-great-wisdoms—they-can-show-us-about-ourselves–souls/minds/hearts.”

Autistic savant Daniel Tammet has written a book Embracing the Wide Sky in an attempt to explain the process behind his mathematical and linguistic skills.

For Tammet, numbers and words have texture, form and color. He says that, unlike a computer, he does not crunch numbers; rather he “dances with them.” He also describes an overlap between visualizing words and their meanings.

Tammet taught himself French, Finnish, German, Spanish, Lithuanian, Romanian, Welsh, Estonian, Icelandic and Esperanto. In 2004 he set a European record for memorizing 22,514 digits of pi (5 hours, 9 minutes).

According to Tammet, he wrote the book “to show that minds that function differently, such as mine, are not so strange, and that anyone can learn from them.”

Synaesthesia is the exception to the rule that might eventually give us greater insight into how the human brain functions.

Think about it.

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