Black and white words on a page, as well as the sounds of words or numbers being spoken, turn into colors in the mind of a middle-aged man. ?Two? is blue and ?traffic? is both blue and brown. He has synesthesia ? an altered state of perception in which printed words and numbers seem to burst with color, flavors take on shapes and the spoken language turns into a mental rainbow. For people with synesthesia, a printed page is never black and white ? it?s red, orange, blue, beige, pink and green.
?This is an alternate perception,? says Thomas Palmeri, a Vanderbilt University psychologist. ?He is normal ? a highly successful, intelligent man ? and he suffers no problems from this unique wiring of the brain.?
The patient is a university professor of medicine. Palmeri says researchers are starting to realize that he is one of what some suspect is a large number of people with synesthesia, many of whom take joy in living such a colorful life. ?They often experience a great deal of pleasure from this altered perception,? says Edward Hubbard, a synesthesia researcher at the University of California. It?s believed that synesthesia occurs because some parts of the brain that perceive color are very close to the parts that process speech, language and music.
This patient?s synesthesia helped make learning the complex words of science easy, when the colors didn?t distract him from study, says Palmeri. ?He sees a palette of different colors when he reads, and sometimes he is more interested in how pretty the page looks than what the words say,? he says. Palmeri, Randolph Blake and other Vanderbilt researchers put him through a series of tests.
The patient sees all printed words in colors, sometimes letter-by-letter and sometimes syllable-by-syllable. Short words have a single color while long words may have many.When he was given a list of 100 words printed in black and white, he said each one had a specific color. When the list was presented a second time, weeks later, he gave most words the same color, missing only a few that he?d said were either beige or off-white. ?These associations are highly reliable,? says Blake. ?[The patient] says that the colors have stayed the same all his life and our observations lend credence to the claim.?
Also, each numeral, except for zero and one, has a color even if printed in black and white. When the researchers presented an image of the number 5 made up of much smaller number 2s, he saw the whole image as a five and it appeared green. However, when he looked at the small 2s that made up the image, each of them was orange.When the numbers were written out in words, they became another color. The colors he sees when he hears words are generally the same as the ones he sees when the words are printed, Palmeri says. Even foreign languages evoke colors. When he heard Korean spoken, his mind flashed colors, even though he couldn?t understand the meaning of the words.
Some researchers believe that about one in every 25,000 people has synesthesia. Other studies suggest it may be much more common, closer to about one in every 200 people, Hubbard says. One theory says that the perception is inherited. The patient?s mother, maternal grandfather and great uncle also have synesthesia, but his siblings and children do not. Hubbard believes little is known about synesthesia because many people won?t admit they have it. Others are surprised to learn that they are unusual and say they thought everyone saw the world this way.
Just how the patient perceives these colors is difficult to understand, the researchers say.?He tries to describe it to me, and I still can?t appreciate it. It?s like trying to describe colors to a person who can?t see them,? says Palmeri. ?How could you describe color to a blind person? You really can?t.?
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Synesthesia occurs because parts of the brain that perceive color are close to the parts that process speech, language and music. Even in a normal brain, local regions of the brain coexist more peacefully with far-off patches of neural tissue than they do with those right next door. For example, performing a difficult verbal task, such as memorizing poetry, will impair motor coordination more on your right side more than your left, because language is almost always processed in the left cerebral hemisphere, which also controls movement on the right side of the body. It?s as if the closer two regions of the brain are, the more they compete for limited computational resources.
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