We all experience the world in different ways.
Where we’re born, when we’re born, the choices we make, the people we interact with – all can have a profound impact how we view the world around us. No one’s life experience is exactly the same.
But some of us are simply wired in vastly different ways. And even the experiences that the majority of us would assume to be shared can, in reality, be worlds apart from our own.
Certain sensory processes we expect to be shared, can be wildly altered in other human beings.
There are those who walk among us who can SEE smells, SEE sounds, FEEL scents and make connections that are so alien to *regular* people.
No, they’re not mutants as seen in X-Men but in fact a special breed of homo sapiens who have a condition known as synaesthesia.
We travelled to the TUI Sensatori Resort Negril in Jamaica – a resort purposefully designed to fuel the senses – to meet some synaesthetes and discover more about this foreign way of life.
What is synaesthesia?
Synaesthesia is a neurological condition in which one stimulation of one of your senses triggers automatic and involuntary experiences in another of your senses. In essence, the two or more senses or cognitive pathways are inextricably linked.
It can be as simplistic as someone viewing the days of the week in certain colours e.g. Monday is always red, Tuesday always green and so on, or as mind-bogglingly difficult to comprehend as the ability to feel smells.
It’s said that 4% of the population identify as being synaesthetic in some form, although the way they interact with the world varies greatly from person to person.
Oxford University’s Professor Charles Spence, a renowned sensory psychologist, tells Metro.co.uk: ‘There are many different types of synaesthesia.
‘In fact, the most common type occurs in those who experience coloured letters or units of time – like Monday being blue, Tuesday light green etc.
‘Interestingly, some people have more than one type. So the most synaesthetic individuals might have as many as five or ten different kinds of synaesthesia.
‘I am firmly of the opinion that one can find surprising cross-modal connections between any and every pair of senses.’
It’s by no means a wholly new phenomenon, as Professor Charles Spence explains: ‘People have been talking about synaesthesia since the 1800s if not before.
‘However, for many years people – well, the scientists at least – didn’t really believe that the condition existed.
‘Everything changed in the late 80s/early 90s. It was in this period that people first started scanning the brains of synaesthetes and showed that those synaesthetes who e.g., said that they were “seeing” colours when looking at black and white letters on the page really did show neural activation in the parts of the brain that we know process colour.’
Fascinatingly, synaesthesia is far more prevalent amongst artists, with around 20% of creatives said to be synaesthetes.
Kanye West, Stevie Wonder, Pharrell Williams, Marilyn Monroe, David Hockney and Vincent Van Gogh are among known synaesthetes, with the likes of Michael Jackson and Jimi Hendrix suggested to have had the condition, too.
But why would it be the case that creative types such as musicians, actors and artists are more likely to have synesthetic tendencies?
Professor Charles continues: ‘Go back a century and there is no doubting that it was fashionable to claim to be synaesthetic, but perhaps some were just pretending! However, recent research clearly supports the link between synaesthesia and creativity.
‘Given that one can, in a sense, define synaesthesia as making unusual connections between seemingly unrelated ideas/sensations/inputs then this is perhaps exactly the kind of skill – i.e., making connections that others simply didn’t think of – that is the hallmark of creative thinking.’
British artist Philippa Stanton experiences visual textures, colours and shapes when listening to music, hearing people talking, or tasting and smelling and then creates artworks based on her received experiences.
‘I think I got to my early 20’s before I actually realised that other people didn’t see things in the same way,’ she tells Metro.co.uk.
‘I was convinced they were just brushing it off, as I can’t believe – and still can’t – that there isn’t something else going on inside people’s heads apart from words which describe things or which focus our thoughts.
‘And then I heard a programme on Radio 4 which talked about it and I realised that how I viewed the world was with synaesthesia. It didn’t and doesn’t feel special, which is probably why I didn’t feel the need to ever talk about it… we don’t all sit around saying how great it is to have fingers do we?
‘That’s kind of the level of ordinariness that synaesthesia has for me.’
While Philippa interprets sounds to form her artworks, fellow synaesthete Dawn Goldworm has found practical uses for her extraordinary talents.
Dawn, remarkably, has the ability to both see and touch smells – something she uses on a day-to-day basis as an internationally-renowned olfactive expert.
Her unique abilities allow her to design scents for companies and she is the nose behind fragrances for Lady Gaga, Adidas, American Express, Mercedes Benz and many more.
‘My synaesthetic ability to see colors, textures and shapes when I smell is a unique advantage that I have when working with a brand,’ she says.
‘It allows me to translate a brand’s signature colors, textures and logo into a scent identity that speaks to these key assets not just for me or for the brand but for everyone that experiences the brand.
‘My position as a scent designer does not give me the liberty to decide which smells I perceive as good or bad.
‘A smell is good or bad based on personal subjective memory association, which I must ignore if I am able to create a scent for a target audience of which I am not included.
‘Just as a graphic designer does not judge certain colors as good or bad, I don’t judge smells this way.’
It’s just about possible to get your head around the idea of seeing scents, but what on earth would one feel like?!
Dawn explains: ‘Scents can have all manners of textures from leather, linen, cotton, wood, steel, stone, velvet, etc.
‘When you touch a scent, you can feel it in your fingertips but more importantly, you can feel it with your mind through the emotional resonance of the texture.
‘For instance, scents that feel like cotton are fresh, soft and comforting while scents that feel like stone are cold, hard and strong.’
Dawn’s twin sister Samantha also has synaesthetic tendencies, which begs the questions: is the condition is entirely genetic? Can it can be learned? Or is everyone sat somewhere on a synaesthetic spectrum?
After all his work in the field, Professor Charles has concluded that not everyone can have synaesthesia, although all our senses are more connected than we realise.
He says: ‘I believe that everyone has more or less connected senses. And, that the crossmodal correspondences, the surprising tendency to match seemingly unrelated features/attributes across the senses varies across individuals.
‘That said, synaesthesia proper is more of an all-or-none condition. You either have these idiosyncratic, automatic, conscious concurrents or you don’t.
‘However, I believe we all experience these surprising connections that I call crossmodal correspondences. These correspondences are surprising just like synaesthesia is, but they are different in that most people within a culture, and who knows perhaps between, share the same correspondences.
‘That is, most people no matter where they come from think that bitter is angular, whereas round goes with sweet.
‘Most people, the world over associate a pinkish-red colour with sweet, white/blue with salty, browny-black with bitter, and green with sour.’
So while we regular folk won’t necessarily be feeling smells anytime soon, there’s certainly plenty of sensorial action inside of us waiting to be unlocked.
On a mission to inspire creativity and fuel the senses, TUI Sensatori invited George to TUI Sensatori Resort Negril, Jamaica to meet a collective of extraordinary people who each possess the ability of Synaesthesia; the TUI Sensorialists, in a bid to bring the senses back to life. If you’ve ever wondered how connected your senses are and whether you might have Synaesthesia similar to the TUI Sensorialists, you can take Sensory Expert Professor Charles Spence’s quiz here.