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How to Tell if You Have Synesthesia

Two Parts:Recognizing the Signs of SynesthesiaGetting a Professional Diagnosis

Synesthesia is an odd and rare blending of the senses (sight, hearing, taste) in which the stimulation of one type triggers a predictable and reproducible effect in another type.[1] For example, someone with synesthesia can hear colors, feel sounds and taste shapes. These can be sensed either in the real world or in your mind's eye. Most people with synesthesia are born with the condition, so they don't know anything different. However, once they tell people how they experience the world, they might be told they're hallucinating or going crazy. Being diagnosed with synesthesia is often a relief in these situations.

Part 1
Recognizing the Signs of Synesthesia

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    Recognize synesthesia is relatively rare, but likely under-diagnosed. Synesthesia is considered a rare neurological condition that affects the senses, but its likely that many people who have it are either undiagnosed or assume that other perceive the world just like them. Estimates range widely for people thought to have synesthesia, from 1 in 100,000 down to 1 in 200 (0.5% of the population).[2] As such, if you think you might have synesthesia, then you are not likely so unusual.
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    Know that not everyone with synesthesia experiences it physically. If you actually see colors in the air, smell, hear, or feel things, you have projected synesthesia. This form of synesthesia is rarer than associated synesthesia and is what people first think of as synesthesia. Associated synesthesia is when the reaction is in your mind's eye. For example, if you have colored-letter synesthesia, a projector would actually see it in color but an associator would just think J seems green (or some other color.) Both types are legitimate synesthesia, but not many people know that.
    • Some people with synesthesia (called synesthetes) hear, smell, taste or feel pain in color.[3] Others can taste shapes or perceive written letters and words in different colors. For example, they may see an "F" in red and a "P" in yellow when they read.
    • Some synesthetes see abstract concepts, such as abstract shapes, units of time or mathematical equations floating in space outside their bodies — this is termed "conceptual synesthesia."
    • Take a research-based test for synesthesia if you think you have it:
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    Identify your risk factors for synesthesia. According to research done in the U.S., there are some factors strongly associated with synesthesia. For example, about 3x more women than men have synesthesia in the U.S.[4] People who have synesthesia are also much more likely to be left handed and have a 40% chance of a relative having the same condition. Thus, it appears that synesthesia has a hereditary link, particularly on the X-chromosome that transfers from a mother to her children.
    • In the United Kingdom, about 8x as many women than men have been reported to have synesthesia, although researchers aren't sure why.
    • Synesthetes are generally of normal or above average intelligence.
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    Don't confuse synesthesia with hallucinations. Often when people talk of their synesthesia, others assume they are hallucinating or on drugs, but that is rarely the case. What distinguishes true synesthesia experiences from hallucinations is that they are repeatable and predictable, not fanciful and random.[5] For example, if you taste strawberries when you hear a certain song, then one must always trigger the other sensation in a predictable fashion to be considered a synesthete. It doesn't always have to be two-way, though.
    • Synesthetes often note being teased and ridiculed (usually starting in childhood) for describing sensory experiences that others can't experience.
    • Some famous singers / song writers have synesthesia, such as Mary J. Bilge and Pharrell Williams.[6][7]
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    Be aware that no two people with synesthesia have the same experience. Synesthesia is a sort of cross-wiring of the nerves and brain synapses related to the five senses. And no two synesthetes have the exact same wiring scheme. For example, the most common form of synesthesia is grapheme-color, when numbers and letters each have their own color. The colors assigned to each letter are different for everyone, but many people have red A's. Another common form is chromesthesia, or colored hearing — sounds, music or voices that are heard and also trigger the eyes to see colors.[8] However, someone may see the color red whenever they hear the word "dog", whereas another might see the color orange. Synesthetic perceptions are specific to each person.
    • Researchers think synesthesia is caused by either an unusual cross-wiring in the brain and/or more neural connections than other people without the condition.[9]
    • Some scientists believe that everyone is be born with synesthesia, but that the wiring in the brain eventually becomes more segregated — although synesthetes retain the unusual connections for the rest of their lives.[10]

Part 2
Getting a Professional Diagnosis

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    See a neurologist. Because the sensations of synesthesia can mimic certain medical conditions and head injuries, it's a good idea to see a brain specialist (neurologist) to rule out anything serious. A neurologist will check the functioning of your brain, reflexes and senses to see if you have any physical problems or deficits. Keep in mind that people with synesthesia typically pass all standard neurological exams and are considered normal in that way.[11] If you have a neurological deficit that's causing visual sensations, then you're very unlikely to also have synesthesia.
    • Head trauma, post-concussion syndrome, brain tumors, brain infections, migraine headaches, seizures with auras, epilepsy, cerebral stroke, toxic reactions, LSD "flashbacks" and experimentation with hallucinogens (peyote, mushrooms) can all produce sensory phenomena similar to synesthesia.
    • Synesthesia is usually present from birth, so developing it as an adult is extremely rare. If it comes on suddenly in adulthood, see your doctor immediately for an assessment because it could be related to a problem with your brain / nervous system.[12]
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    See an eye doctor. Some visual sensations of synesthesia can also mimic certain eye diseases and conditions, so it's a good idea to see an optometrist or an ophthalmologist to get your eyes examined. Eye trauma, glaucoma (pressure in the eye), cataracts, retinal or vitreous detachment, corneal edema, macular degeneration, and optic nerve dysfunction are all eye conditions that can produce visual phenomena and color distortion.[13]
    • The vast majority of people with synesthesia do not suffer from any physical ailments of their eyes.
    • An ophthalmologist (eye disease specialists) is likely a better choice than an optometrist, who mainly focuses on determining the acuity of your eyesight and prescribing glasses / contacts.
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    See a specialist familiar with synesthesia. If neurological and eye problems are ruled out and you are otherwise healthy, then seek out a specialist who is very familiar with synesthesia. The specialist may be a neurologist, family physician, psychiatrist, psychologist, speech pathologist, occupational therapist or chiropractor — it doesn't matter. What matters is the specialist's expertise in recognizing synesthetes and giving them advice, guidance and/or support.
    • A synesthesia specialist can give you a variety of tests, such as the Synesthesia Battery, or perform visual / audio experiments to help determine if that's what you have.[14] These tests and experiments are painless and can be done in a few hours.
    • Hypnotism can help reduce the sensations and phenomena of synesthesia, although many synesthetes apparently value the condition and don't want to change it — merely to understand it better.
    • Psychiatric conditions should also be ruled out, such as schizophrenia and delusional disorder, especially if the synesthesia-like experiences start in adulthood.


  • Ask relatives about their sensation perceptions — they may have similar experiences to you and can offer their support.
  • Accept that synesthesia is unusual, but not a disease or disability. Don't feel or think that you're weird.
  • Join online groups geared towards synesthesia so you can understand more about it.


  • If you suddenly see colors and/or unusual shapes, you could actually be hallucinating or experiencing a seizure, migraine or stroke — so don't automatically assume synesthesia. Consult a doctor if these experiences are new to you and are accompanied by any discomfort.

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Categories: Neurological Disorders