Understanding sensory perception vital to science

By Lauren Kelly

Imagine being able to see sounds, taste shapes or feel scents. It seems like you’d have to be on drugs to experience things like this, but for some people, it is a natural part of how they perceive the world.

They have what’s called synesthesia, a neurological condition that blends sensory perceptions, creating a kaleidoscopic experience of reality. For people with this condition, different areas of the brain that manage the five senses communicate with each other, producing multi-sensory perceptions. This means, for instance, when a synesthetic person hears music, he or she might also taste it or see it as a colored ribbon floating in front of them. They may even feel it as a temperature, contour or texture in their hands. It is an immediate, involuntary and constant response that is with a person for life.

I first heard of synesthesia while watching a documentary special on the Discovery Channel about a year and a half ago, and since then, I’ve endlessly daydreamed about experiencing it. How cool would it be to have an iTunes visualizer happening in front of you every time you hear music? Have colors appear when tasting food? Be able to smell colors?

A common response from “normal” people upon learning about the condition is: “Wouldn’t it drive them crazy to have that going on all the time?” But in fact, it is a natural part of how synesthetes see the world. Many synesthetes say they wouldn’t want to live without it.

The perceptual phenomenon may be a really cool thing to experience, but studying why and how it occurs in the brain could lead to revolutions in science. Studying synesthesia is more than an interesting fantasy—it could actually tell us a lot about the human brain. With more research being done on synesthesia, more questions are being raised about how humans perceive the world through the senses and what determines a person’s reality.

Scientists are now using information they have learned from studying synesthesia and ideas of sensory substitution pioneered by renowned neuroscientist Paul Bach-y-Rita to help blind people.

“We see with our brains, not our eyes,” Bach-y-Rita said in the 1960s.

According to an Aug. 13 article in Scientific American, a new device made by Wicab Inc., a company co-founded by the late Bach-y-Rita, allows blind people to “see” with their tongues. The device the company has pioneered allows the blind to have optical sensations recreated through a different sensory pathway that bypasses optical nerves.

The device is a lot less ominous than it sounds. The user of the device simply puts on a pair of glasses fitted with small cameras on the lenses, which sense values of dark and light. This information is then collected and transmitted to a plastic stick that is pressed against the tongue, relaying information to the brain via nerves on the tongue, allowing people to “taste the light,” according to Scientific American.

Besides providing blind people with simulated sight, the information and data collected from studying the condition of synesthesia could eventually help people with other sensory deficiencies like deafness, or even let people experience the blending of senses that comes with synesthesia. This is, in itself, worthy of further research and funding.

This research opens up countless new possibilities in studying the subjective experience of consciousness. What is real? When someone sees a floating ribbon of sound in front of them, are they imagining it?

“Synesthetes simply have a different texture of reality,” said Doctors Richard Cytowic and David Eagleman in their book, Wednesday is Indigo Blue. “Reality is much more subjective than most people suppose. In this light, synesthesia catalyzes a paradigm shift by highlighting the dramatic differences in how individuals objectively see the world.”