Talking about and considering the spectrum of diversity within a learning environment is a vitally important aspect of education provision. There have been many articles written about the difficulties that students and teachers face when finding ways to receive and deliver material. Most importantly there is also an ever-increasing understanding that there is no single best way to learn and that each individual has their own style and right to that style. Synesthesia is something this new understanding is benefitting from. But what exactly is synesthesia?
Synesthesia is a particular type of neurological set up from which sensory or cognitive information is expressed through not one but potentially multiple neural routes. Synesthetes are individuals who can experience levels of melding between sound, imagery, colour, taste, and any other combination of stimulus.
This is the form most often studied, partly due to its quantifiable nature and the level of understanding of our physical visual processing system. It relates to an individual’s perception of a colour pertaining to a letter or number. It does not mean that the individual ‘sees’ the letter or number in that colour but rather they ‘know’ it to be the case in the ways that a person ‘knows’ and associates their friend’s name when they see a photograph of them.
This is the conflation of sound and colour stimulus and has been talked about by musicians and composers, along with many other individuals who experience sound in a particular way. For a visual and auditory experience of what this is like for one specific person the video at the bottom of this page offers a very enjoyable simulation (Nb. make sure to use the ‘compass’ in the top left of the screen to ‘turn to face the city’.
This is another form of neurological ‘wiring’, activating the mirror neurons in the brain which perceive action and potentially then ‘perceive’ it as happening to oneself. There are so many aspects of the brain being activated when observing touch that it does not seem unreasonable for some individuals to develop a greater level of temporal inter-wiring and, as experienced by many, a greater level of empathy and capacity to to experience the action as ‘self’.
Recent studies conclude that synesthesia occurs in approximately 4% of the population, and in the past few years it has become much more widely known about. Synesthesia is not associated with any form of mental health difficulty, psychosis (although it can be temporarily triggered by the use of psychotropic chemicals) and it is, in the main, something which most individuals experience as a positive addition to their lives. It is simply another way to view the world and for those individuals it can be an enriching rather than inhibiting aspect.
Unsurprisingly, there are a large number of artists who are known to have their own type of synesthesia. Singer/songwriters Billie Eilish, Tori Amos and Pharrell Williams, writer Vladimir Nabokov, and painter Vincent Van Gogh are all prominent examples. All are highly creative an,d in many ways, groundbreaking. The capacity to see/feel/hear/smell the world in a different way, unbound by the usual conventions and then able to share it with others can be seen as a gift.
Teaching has, in recent years, become more focused on understanding ‘the individual’ and encouraging them to use their unique set of styles and experiences to maximise their learning potential. This creates a learning environment in which synesthetes can well utilise their experience of the world and particular style of processing. It ensures that they are getting their learning in ways that are meaningful to them, and teachers can equally find another path (or two, or three) through which to engage their students.