Synesthesia: A New Way to See the World

Claire Stratman is satisfied with her art when she is able to taste or smell it. “Once I drew a picture of horse, and when I completed it, it smelled like horse breath to me,” she says. Other times it is more abstract. Stratman noted one of her pictures smelling like “a cool fruit.”

Stratman has synesthesia, coming from the Greek for “joined perception.”  Synesthesia is a perceptual condition in which senses merge, so that one sense can be perceived as one of your others. Another form occurs when the brain combines letters, shapes, names, and numbers with a sense like taste, sight, or smell. According to The Synesthesia Project, a study conducted at Boston University, a person with synesthesia—a “synesthete”—doesn’t necessarily trigger a second sensory experience voluntarily—it happens subconsciously.

There are over 60 different types of synesthesia, and Stratman, a visual artist and musician, has several of them: chromesthesia (sounds evoking color), ticker tape (seeing the words spelled out as they are said aloud), grapheme-color (numbers and letters associating with colors), and mirror touch (experiencing the same physical feeling as someone else experiences it). “There are probably others I experience but don’t notice as much,” Stratman says.

Despite her self-identified synesthetic experiences, Stratman was never formally diagnosed by a doctor. After searching for “Do letters have colors?” online, she learned of the condition. “I was surprised that the results showed it wasn’t the letters that have colors, but was my brain making it seem like they have colors,” Stratman says. She confirmed her diagnosis by taking several other online tests and doing research on synesthesia.

In her research, Stratman found that she wasn’t alone in her condition. One in every 2,000 people has synesthesia, including Lorde, Pharrell Williams, and Vincent Van Gogh. Stratman’s dad even has a form of synesthesia, which is thought be hereditary (though the exact cause is unknown).

But with multiple talents and forms of synesthesia, Stratman has made the condition her own. Her art is affected in a variety of ways. “When I play my instruments [violin, cello, or piano], I can ‘see’ the shapes and colors that the sounds make,” Stratman says. Chromesthesia and grapheme-color synesthesia affect Stratman’s art the most. The latter has helped her with learning to play her instruments.

“I can usually see the color red and know that is where B is,” Stratman says of playing piano.

While synesthesia may enhance senses, there can be drawbacks. Since it can manifest itself in ways the rest of the world can’t see, synesthesia can become difficult and, at times, even dangerous for those affected. So while senses are heightened, so are things like sickness. Someone with sound-color synesthesia who develops an ear infection could not only find their hearing affected but also their vision, as they would be able to see the colors they hear.

But this doesn’t stop Stratman from enjoying her condition. While having synesthesia can be scary or frustrating sometimes, Stratman believes it has positively affected her. “I think it gives me a deeper perspective on life,” she says.

In fact, Stratman isn’t sure she’d be an artist if not for her synesthesia. “Having synesthesia makes the world much more beautiful,” Stratman says, as she believes that most people who experience synesthesia use art as an outlet to share with people how unique the world can look from their perspective. “That’s why I like art, anyway.”