You can't really throw a stick these days without hitting some musician or aestheste claiming they have synesthesia. From Dev Hynes to Kanye West and Pharrell, the rare neurological condition has become a byword for being a musical genius (or at least being really, really good at what you do). But what about the rest of us proles who will never experience the delights of hearing colours or tasting words? Well, scientists might have come up with the solution.
Researchers at the University of Sussex conducted a nine-week study to see if adults could be taught synesthesia. Alongside daily half-hour training sessions to teach them 13 letter-colour associations, volunteers were given e-books with letters consistently written in a specific color.
Five weeks in, nine out of the 14 subjects were seeing coloured letters when reading plain ol' black texts, with many reporting – some even reported seeing coloured letters appearing on a daily basis.
One volunteer even reported seeing ordinary traffic signs explode with colour. “The colour immediately pops into my head,” he explained. “When I look at a sign the whole word appears according to the training colors.”
Study leader Daniel Bor believes that the results point to synaesthesia as a learning tool in childhood. Children with a genetic predisposition to the condition may use colours as "semantic hooks" to aid the memorisation of numbers and letters (and presumably, musical notes).
Sadly, all of the subjects lost their synaesthesia a few months after training stopped. Bor thinks could be a side effect of being exposed to plain text, so his plan is to recreate the experiment with people learning a brand new language in a foreign alphabet (like Hebrew) – he thinks that the formative experience of associating colours with foreign letters will make the synaesthesia stick around.
So can you teach yourself synaesthesia? Maybe, but it'll take a hell of a lot of work. It's probably easier to just bask in the weird and wonderful products of other people's gifts.
Watch Dev Hynes talk about his synaesthesia for TEDxMarthasVineyard below: