Synaesthesia appears to be an increasingly popular quirk to apply to characters in fictional stories. This revelation sent me on a quest to discover more, particularly since the trait draws so much attention within the scientific community.
Some synaesthetes regularly see colours in conjunction with sounds. Others taste words or feel the touch of drawn shapes on their skin. It is, in simple terms, a blending of sensory perception. This sudden popularity has made it a hot topic for TED talks, university circuit lectures and even daytime TV. In an interview that degraded into something akin to a circus trick, a synaesthete from Blackpool, UK, was asked to explain the taste sensations evoked from hearing the London Underground Stations. He then went on to explain the taste and texture of the presenter’s names, stating that another presenter, Chris Evans, ‘tasted like Spangles’.
Scientists are now busy trying to isolate genes that are responsible for this incredible phenomenon, which is thought to be the result of hyperconnected neurons, similar to the patterns that emerge in Autism. Thus far, neuroscientist Simon Fisher at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, has found as many as thirty-seven genes involved in inherited synaesthesia. His team found that no particular gene or set of genes is responsible for the trait, however, six of those genetic variants are involved in the development of connections between neurons. In addition to this, they discovered that these genes are expressed in auditory and visual cortices during childhood brain development.
The general consensus is that we all had the traits at birth but lost those abilities during childhood. This begs the question; do we all retain the ability to greater or lesser degree? Is it just a case of intensity? I, for one, regularly feel the sense of cold wet spots on my skin when it rains on the windscreen of my car. I can feel the piercing shrill, almost pain, of dog whistles blown by irritating kids in the neighbourhood. Isn’t this just a minor case of synaesthesia?
Different studies cite different statistical prevalence of these abilities. Some have the occurrence at four per cent of the general population, others state as many as one in twenty people with synaesthetic tendencies. The disparity over how common this hereditary phenomenon is, gives rise to supposition. Are the numbers of synaesthetes increasing, or is it that a greater number of people are coming forward for study? If there are more, is this the next phase of human evolution?
Imagine a world where those who experience the world through heightened senses can use those gifts to exploit those of us who cannot feel with such strength. It sounds like science fiction, but might it one day become science fact?
Sam Nash is the author of the FREE prequel sci-fi conspiracy thriller novella series, The Aurora Journals – Now available here https://www.samnash.org. The Aurora Conspiracies Series will be available soon. Release date TBA. You can find her at Facebook.com/samnash.author or on Twitter @samnashauthor .