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Tactile-visual synesthesia

Touch-colour, touch-shape and possibly touch-image


One very uncommon type of synesthesia involves perceiving colour or shape sensations in response to a tactile stimulus of some kind: the sensation of being touched, the sensation of touching something, the perception of the textures touched or tactile sensations on the body such as water or a breeze.





For some people, rather than just colour or shape, tactile sensations evoke the visualisation of figurative images that are involuntary and automatic but not consistent. This might not actually be synesthesia but rather a parallel phenomenon, little studied so far, showing similarities with hypnagogic hallucinations (images seen on the verge of sleep). It is currently accepted by some researchers as a possible manifestation of synesthesia.


The following are descriptions of experiences where touch sensations produce concurrents of colour or visual images.


Touch-colour


In this case a tactile sensation consistently gives rise to a colour perception, seen either physically or as a mind’s-eye impression. The latter case (associative synesthesia) is probably much more common than the former, although in any event it is a very rare type of synesthesia.


“When she held a palm-sized object made of plastic, wool and foam she said: ‘There are many different textures here and there are colors for each texture. The smooth plastic outside part is a sort of blue-green silver grey color; it’s metallic. The spongy bit is yellow, the wool is another color. For some reason, the inside of the plastic is white. That’s quite clear.’”

(Source: the study The color of touch: A case of tactile-visual synaesthesia (J. Simner, V. Ludwig, 2011) on the synesthete EB, who experiences colour perceptions on touching different objects. The study also mentions a person with similar colour sensations, although in this case he projected them – i.e. saw them physically – while EB was an associator who saw them in her mind’s eye only.)


Left: “The feeling of freezing cold water flowing down my back, drawn from memory." Right: "The feeling of a hot shower.”

(Images: nottellingunosytwat, in these two posts on the online debate platform Reddit/Synesthesia. 2020.)


Acupuncture and massage can sometimes trigger colour experiences.

“I had acupunture, and when I closed my eyes I saw a oval red form in my right eye. After some time it turned to grey and white. (…) I also have had different colors show in my eyes (when closed), when having a massage.” 

(Source: a comment in the blog The Splintered Mind. 2006.)

 

The colours, shapes and images seen on receiving acupuncture and massage might either be a kind of tactile-visual synesthesia (and are generally accepted as such) or they could in fact be more closely related to hypnagogic hallucinations, i.e. the fleeting, non-consistent colours, shapes and figurative images some people see when they are on the verge of sleep or in situations of profound relaxation such as meditation. The latter would particularly be the case when figurative images appear rather than colour and abstract shapes. This also bears a similarity to sexual (or romantic) synesthesia, which can be induced by touch.


The artist Carol Steen often writes about both her visualisations during acupuncture sessions, when she sees shapes and colours she describes as being of a clearly synesthetic nature, and the hypnagogic images she also frequently experiences. In this text she describes what she sees and explains how she has started to have both types of visions together:


“During an acupuncture session, once all the needles are in place, I will watch the colored shapes move. It’s very much like watching a movie. (…)

This particular vision was usual when it started, but after about 5 minutes that changed. At first, I watched my usual moving, soft edged, forms which, that day, were a lovely shade of bice green mixed with yellows, much like golden daffodils in the Spring. This vision was suddenly pierced by a hard-edged, extremely detailed, bice green and yellow colored, symmetrical hypnagogic vision. I was seeing both kinds of visions at the exactly same time! Since that first time, this has continued to happen."

(From the article Two Kinds of Visions, Synesthesia and Hypnagogia: A Comparison by Carol Steen in Revue Iris, 2019, Dossier Acta Litt&Arts no. 11.)


"Vision" (1996), oil on paper. In this picture, artist Carol Steen painted her synesthetic response to acupuncture (image taken from “Synesthesia in Art”, in the blog Welcome to Nowhere).

 

This experience with acupuncture sounds very much like some of those recounted by people who see hypnagogic images before falling asleep or as part of sexual (or romantic) synesthesia:

“Particularly when I am undergoing acupuncture I see images of faces… many different faces... some I can describe in detail. I never know any of these faces. It is fascinating and strange at the same time.”

(Source: This comment in the blog The Splintered Mind. 2006.)



The following example of touch-image, which I find quite compelling, might also be connected with the random figurative hypnagogic-like visions that can appear with sexual (or romantic) synesthesia in response to touch:

“When I am stroked or touched a picture just pops into my head. Sometimes I see it projected on to what I am looking at and sometimes it is in my mind's eye, but they are always small individual pictures, like a biscuit, a red umbrella, a frog etc. One time I had a pain in my side and when I pressed it I saw a cup and saucer filled with smalI potatoes.”

(Source: Jacqui, in the Gallery section of the website Sensquence. 2007. )

 

The following pages of The Synesthesia Tree also have more examples of related types of synesthesia:


Sexual (or romantic) synesthesia


Seeing flashes on hearing loud or sudden sounds


Figurative images as a synesthetic concurrent


Pain-colour synesthesia


This page last updated: 30 April 2021

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