Lexical-motor synesthesia


Few cases have been documented so far of this type of synesthesia, which involves involuntary, consistent associations of certain body movements with words - people's names in particular, but sometimes just words in general too - as they are heard or thought of.

The first reference to the phenomenon – and the only published study so far – dates back to 1966, when ethnologist and psychoanalyst George (or Georges) Devereux wrote about the case of a young Hungarian who had been a friend of his during their teenage years. The boy had the habit of striking poses or making very specific movements each time he heard certain proper names: the name “Jenö”, for example, prompted him to move his foot as if he was pressing down a pedal or stepping on someone else’s foot. Devereux questioned him extensively on this rather odd behaviour and found that there tended to be a conceptual relationship between the movements and the names, corresponding to an action that he had often actually or potentially carried out with someone who went by that name in his early childhood. The name of his doctor, for example, was connected to the movement of tilting his head back as if to receive a spoonful of medicine. Devereux used the term “audio-motor” to refer to the new type of synesthesia he had discovered.

(The study can be read here: “An Unusual Audio-Motor Synesthesia in an Adolescent”, George Devereux 1966)


Recently reported cases of lexical-motor synesthesia

In 2020 I had the interesting opportunity to chat online with someone who experiences the same phenomenon as Devereux’s friend. The whole conversation can be read here. This is a short excerpt:

“Some/most words for me are strongly associated with certain actions or movements - I am almost always semi-consiously seeing abstract actions for words in my mind, ie: as I type the word "word", the movement associated my fingers gently touching my lips (semi-parted) and then reaching out. I get this very strongly for proper nouns/personal names and not very strongly/not at all for more verbs, but most words have an action attached which rarely if ever changes. (...)

Also, the actions in my mind are entirely abstracted, so I can't always express the action with my body accurately if I wanted to. (...)

A lot of the actions also make logical sense (like "word") but some really don't (like "Eliot") (...)
The spelling of word changes the action too, if I am reading it. The same word with two spellings have slightly different but very similar movements. (...)
The actions do tend to make logical sense - socks and Sonya (similar-ish words) are very similar up pulling actions, but the 'ng' sound in Sonya makes it more of a flexing action (ng can also make words more of scrunching action or a downwards action depending on context).

(Source: This post and conversation on Reddit/Synesthesia. 2020.)

Since then, more cases have appeared showing similarities with the previous ones:

Actions for words (I)

Basically every word has a moving image of a dancing body that I see in my mind. Depending on the word it shows a different part of the body (some are just hands or legs, or entire body). The movements don’t last long, it is just very short moving image for each word. The images for each word have been consistent as long as I can remember, and the images are very specific. Like if I try to imitate them they don’t come across quite right. Sometimes it’s hard to read because the moving images kind of take over.

I have no control over it, and the more I focus on the individual word the images get more vivid. I love acting out the body movement for each word. As a kid I loved to go swimming bc some words matching body movement (ones that involve leg movement) was easier to do weightless.

(Source: This post on Reddit/Synesthesia. 2019.)

Actions for words (II)

“It feels like each word has a something sort of in between a geometric shape and an action—closer to an action, but it never comes out exactly right when I try to do it. It feels like a shape represented by an action, If that makes sense. It's usually a hand movement, not as much the rest of the body. I think it's based on how I feel the word is shaped, so certain words with similar letters can have similar motions too. I’ll list a few examples:

Dog: hands held low, making a circular motion

Sand: standing, sliding across a smooth surface

Adventure: right hand facing out, waving from front to back

Clock: like knocking, but sideways"


(Source: This post and conversation on Reddit/Synesthesia. 2021.)

Actions on thinking of people (and not just their names)

"If I quickly think about people, they seem to be associated with a motion. Super faint feeling, but it is there. One of my early supervisors is like turning to my right and moving my right arm up and making a motion as if a dolphin is tumbling. (…) It does not work for everybody and I have to be either super stressed or very relaxed to be able to feel it.

If you were to say someone's name, that person's picture would pop up in my mind's eye. But at the same time, there is a motion that I associated with that person. Everybody seemed to have their own motion. Well, not everybody, but everybody that I know decently.

About 20 years ago, during stressful times, I first noticed it, this association. Thinking about a person gave an itch, and by making that motion in my mind I could scratch the itch. I noticed that I was doing this subconsciously, as far as one can notice something like that. I really had to talk to myself for a moment, as in, what did I just do? Did I really make a motion in my mind? Why did I make a motion in my mind? And then I noticed how it was different for every other person I thought of. It seemed to have a calming effect, making that motion. (…)

In my case, the motion seems totally random and not be related to what that person does or did. They are all motions in 3D though."

(Source: These comments on Reddit/Synesthesia. 2022.)


These cases remind me of some I included on my page about “figurative images as a synesthetic concurrent” under the heading “proper names-images/actions”, such as this one (although the lady in question doesn’t seem to feel driven to actually imitate the actions she perceives):

My husband’s name is Travis,  and when I hear his name I get simultaneous images of a seatbelt being buckled up and a slice of American cheese being unwrapped.”

(Source: This post on Reddit/Synesthesia. 2014.)


Go to the page on motor synesthesia in general


Go to the page on auditory-motor synesthesia (involuntary movements induced by hearing certain sounds)


Go to the page on figurative images as a synesthetic concurrent

This page last updated: 29 December 2021

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