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Figurative images as a synesthetic concurrent



So what exactly do synesthetes see? Typically, the visual concurrents of synesthesia are colours and/or abstract or geometric shapes, with or without texture. They are not figurative images. For example, the letter A or a particular piece of music might be red, the taste of chocolate might be a rectangle or the sound of an accordion might be a jagged purple line, but synesthesia does not normally produce figurative images like people, buildings, everyday objects or landscapes with natural elements like flowers or trees. However, some synesthetes – albeit a minority – have this kind of experience in response to certain stimuli, and they are actually even quite frequent in the case of some types of synesthesia (which perhaps should not be considered synesthesia but rather some other similar phenomenon, although at present they are usually accepted as such). Here we talk about the types of synesthesia or parallel phenomena that can produce not only colours and abstract shapes but also complete images, with descriptions written by people who have experienced them.


On this page there are descriptions of the following types:
(click on each link to go to them)

Word-image

Proper nouns-image

Music/sound-image

Pain-image

Emotion-image

Person-image

Sexual (and romantic) synesthesia / Touch-to-image


WORD-IMAGE

People with grapheme-colour synesthesia (or phoneme-colour, etc.) habitually perceive colours and textures, but in a few rarer cases they perceive complete images.

It is normal for everyone to make associations between words and images, but only a few people perceive such images vividly, consistently and consciously whenever they hear, read or think about the word in question. Here are some features of these images:

They are highly consistent: the same image tends to be related to the same word throughout the entire lifetime of the person who perceives it.

The images often have movement and are associated with a specific action, meaning they may be related to lexical-motor synesthesia.

They often seem to be linked to childhood memories, perhaps dating back to the time when the word in question was learnt.

In other cases they appear to relate to the sound of the word: simple elements that would make that kind of sound are perceived. They can even be connected with the way a person would position their mouth to pronounce the word. In other cases the association could stem from the written graphemes themselves, so words containing the letter “k” might trigger perceptions of sharp objects, for example.)

One of the people reporting this kind of perception in the descriptions below lost her hearing as a child and learnt sign language, and some of the images she perceives are similar to the sign denoting the word in question.

These figurative visual associations, often associated with actions or movements, appear to be more frequently triggered by people’s names or proper nouns (see below).

There are cases of projector synesthetes who actually see the images physically in front of them (although this is extremely rare), as compared to associator synesthetes who only perceive them in the mind’s eye, but the images are always involuntary and conscious and more than a mere association requiring an effort to be pictured.

“Black Friday” looks like a headless black sheep bouncing around (animated, not gory). “Fresh” is a white sheet being dramatically pulled off an invisible object. “Multiple” looks like a bunch of white grapes popping. (…)

Some words look reminiscent of their ASL signs. The word “help” is a white platform raising up. The ASL sign for it is a palm, with the other hand in a thumbs up raising up together.”

“Fresh” has movement and looks like a scrawny surfer dude with shaggy sandy brown hair and a big nose, sliding across at eye level from left to right with one arm up and out in front of him (and his arm is bendy-looking like it’s made of rubber rather than having a proper elbow and hand).

“Multiple” is a blurry red plastic section of honeycomb down by my chin.

“Periwinkle” looks like one of those cheap shiny metallic and colorful pinwheels.”

“Mistake is a fork with a carrot slice on it, and purpose is a purple diamond.”

(Source: a conversation in the Facebook group Synesthesia, 27/11/2018).

Go to the page on grapheme-shape/texture/colour/image synesthesia


THE IMAGES OF NIKOLA TESLA: SYNESTHESIA? OR AMAZINGLY STRONG HYPERPHANTASIA?

Scientist and inventor Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), the “genius of electricity”, had incredible mental capabilities, clearly those of a savant. They included an eidetic (photographic) memory and extraordinary visualisation skills: he never needed to take notes or draw plans for his inventions. It is highly probable that he was a synesthete. However, the following description of what he would visualise as a child on hearing spoken words seems to be more in consonance with a trait called "prophantasia”, where mental images are actually projected physically as if seen in real life. Rather than a synesthetic concurrent it is the top end of the scale of visual hyperphantasia (see below for a definition of hyperphantasia), as what he was visualising corresponded to the actual object being described and was therefore not idiosyncratic, which is an important feature of synesthesia.

“During my boyhood I had suffered from a peculiar affliction due to the appearance of images, which were often accompanied by strong flashes of light. When a word was spoken, the image of the object would present itself so vividly to my vision, that I could not tell whether what I saw was real or not… Even though I reached out and passed my hand through it, the image would remain fixed in space.”

(Source: the online magazine Futurism.)


PROPER NOUNS-IMAGE

Associating figurative images with words appears to be more common in the case of proper nouns. The images often incorporate movement and involve a specific action, bringing to mind the case described by George Devereux in 1966 (which he called “audio-motor synesthesia” although a more accurate term would perhaps be “lexical-motor”). It is clearly conceptual in nature and is connected with childhood memories associated with people’s names.

Here are some descriptions written by people with strong image/action associations evoked by proper nouns:

“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 the online debate platform Reddit/Synesthesia. 2014.)


“James - someone ironing clothes
Ariane / Ariana - someone dropping a letter to the mail
Celine - someone playing a violin
Whitney - someone playing golf
Paul - someone playing billiards”

(Source: This post on the online debate platform Reddit/Synesthesia. 2020.)


And here is an account by someone who has consistent associations between people’s names and images, where movement isn’t involved and the images are static:

“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve made associations with names to a mental picture. Almost every name has an item or a shape that I think of when I hear the name. (…)

Some examples: - the name Ryan is crinkle-cut fries - the name Paul is a slightly curved, dry bar of pinky-reddish soap, but Paula is a set of shoulders - Joseph and Josephine are a top hat - Brianna is garlic bread, but spelled Breyanna, it’s a homemade loaf of white bread, cut in half - Mike is spiky, frosted tip hair - Dylan is a toilet seat (sorry to all Dylans) - Shelby is a cartoon turtle.

Some names have super strong, instant mental images but some others don’t really give me much. And it’s not always a regular item, for example “Devon” is a white semi circle and “Aaron” is a square with a small circle in the top left corner. And spelling affects the image sometimes as well, because “Erin” is a small stud earring.”

(Source: This post on the online debate platform Reddit/Synesthesia. 2021.)


MUSIC/SOUND-IMAGE

In this case it is important to distinguish between what is and what isn’t synesthesia, as both synesthetes and non-synesthetes can associate and create mental pictures with songs and pieces of music and with sounds.


What isn’t synesthesia: “music videos”

Some people, both synesthetes and non-synesthetes, report that certain songs or pieces of music trigger a kind of “music video” in their mind, with a specific location, atmosphere, objects, characters and sometimes a story or narrative. They are consistent: the same song always brings to mind the same sequence, and the “video” often gains in detail as the song is heard more often. They frequently bear a relationship to the words of the song or the atmosphere it suggests (jazz music might induce a scene in New Orleans in black and white, rap music might suggest graffiti, electronica could trigger futuristic or space scenes, and so on.) These manifestations can be automatic, vivid and consistent but they are not synesthesia, as by definition the synesthetic visual concurrent lacks any kind of narrative and it cannot involve figurative scenes of several minutes’ duration. They appear to be more in keeping with an interesting phenomenon called “visual hyperphantasia”. People with hyperphantasia have an excellent capacity for mental visualisation, with an abundance of visual imagery that they can evoke in all its colour, detail and dimensions with no effort whatsoever.


What could perhaps be part of synesthesia, however, is the combination of visual hyperphantasia and synesthetic photisms.

If a person with synesthesia also has hyperphantasia and the tendency to involuntarily create detailed images in their imagination, it is also possible that both phenomena can occur together: the typical colours and/or abstract shapes of auditory-visual synesthesia and the more complete images of hyperphantasia. It is fairly rare for them to happen at the same time, as it is necessary to focus on either one experience or the other, but some synesthetes do experience it in this way. If such people also happen to have auditory-tactile synesthesia (and/or tactile hyperphantasia), the corresponding physical sensations that are being felt can increase the sensation of reality of the visual images evoked and in some cases, in a state of profound relaxation and concentration, can open the door to lucid dreaming (“WILD”, wake-induced lucid dreams).


Image visualisation in a music-induced creative trance

An interesting phenomenon exists that may bear a relationship to synesthesia with musical sequences as an inducer. It consists of the visualisation of figurative images, random but usually very consistent, by people in a state of heightened concentration while playing a musical instrument, and occurs while the person is creating, memorising or learning a piece of music. It would seem to be a rare phenomenon, as yet unknown, although it may achieve more recognition in future. The images perceived are usually of places, people or objects, they sometimes include autobiographical childhood memories, and the same images can repeat, being associated with the same musical sequences. It is connected with the special state of profound concentration and/or relaxation induced by the creative process of playing a musical instrument and memorising new pieces.

“I'm curious to know if others and indeed if all pianists see random images or think of certain things/people when they play a piece. I get it with every piece I play, but it's nothing that's connected to the style of the piece..it's much more abstract than that. (...) The last few pieces I've learned (and it's always at the same part of the piece) I have had flashes into my head of random images such as - a crocodile, my sister, a girl I at my work who I have never spoken to, my friend's ex boyfriend (again..don't even know him that well), a boat on the water, a woman waiting for her husband to come back from war..and the word banana. (...) The only way I can describe it is as if you were recalling your dream from the night before and images flash into your head.”

(Source: this forum on the classical piano website Piano Street. 2017.)

Go to the new page on images seen in creative/musical trance

Go to the page on auditory-visual synesthesia


PAIN-IMAGE

Although rare, for some synesthetes different types of pain can trigger an automatic and consistent synesthetic concurrent in the form of a figurative image.

"For example when my back hurts I see a close up of ball of twine and it's kind of dark. When my hands hurt I see a beach on a cloudy day with mountains at the back of the beach, the sand is more rocky and there are some black rocks like obsidian down by the water in front of the "camera".

I say image because it is like looking at a photograph. It's more than seeing an abstract mash of colors and patterns.”

(Source: This comment on the online debate platform Reddit/Synesthesia. 2014.)

Go to the page on pain-colour and pain-shape synesthesia


EMOTION-IMAGE

It is also unusual for a synesthete to visualise emotions as figurative images (the typical concurrents are colours and/or shapes), but cases have been described in which this type of association is involuntarily, consciously and consistently evoked on feeling or perceiving different emotions:

“For as long as I remember, when I feel certain emotions strongly or think back on a memory where I felt such an emotion strongly, I picture a character at the same time.

For example, excitement is a dark-skinned young woman, frizzy hair, dyed a pastel rainbow at the bottom, wearing a purple tank top and black denim shorts, with a unicorn horn headband. Anger is a young pale-skinned man with fawn brown hair, wearing a red flannel shirt. His body cuts off at the torso and has no arms, and he has floating purple hands.”

(Source: This post on the online debate platform Reddit/Synesthesia. 2020.)

Go to the page on emotion-colour/shape/image synesthesia


PERSON-IMAGE

Person-colour synesthesia, where the synesthete associates each person they know with one or more colours, can sometimes be more complex than a mere chromatic association. The colours can have textures, shapes and patterns and also spatial location, and occasionally the association extends into figurative territory, taking the form of landscapes, animals or objects, which may even be seen physically superimposed on the person being observed in the case of some projector synesthetes. It is not clear whether this is really a form of synesthesia or whether these are simply strong, lasting associations linked to some aspect of the person’s personality or appearance or to their synesthetic colours.

“When I think about my grandmother, I get an image of a little robin hopping around. My boyfriend is the colour blue, but also white clouds of a light blue sky, and the ocean splashing against cliffs (gently). My mother is violet, some lavender, and a swan.”

(Source: This post on the online debate platform Reddit/Synesthesia. 2017.)

Go to the page on person-colour synesthesia


SEXUAL (AND ROMANTIC) SYNESTHESIA; TOUCH-TO-IMAGE SYNESTHESIA

Another case is sexual synesthesia, which could also be called romantic synesthesia as its photisms are is not only triggered by sex and orgasm but also by moments of intimacy, hugs, kisses and tactile experiences involving the person with whom the synesthete has a romantic – and usually stable –relationship. It is yet to be determined whether it is actually a type of synesthesia: there has been little research as yet and from what has been documented it can be observed that the concurrents are somewhat different from those of other types of synesthesia and are often figurative, random and inconsistent.

“When I hug him or kiss him, I see strange, vivid images in my mind. Sometimes they are beautiful - e.g. a pulsating mandala of balls of light, or an intricate, sprawling lichen on a mossy rock in a misty forest, or an iridescent frog. Other times they are bizarre and intense - e.g. a multi-limbed, dancing, boldly coloured cave painting of a woman. Yet other times they are mundane, ridiculous and often hilarious - a jar of mayonnaise, or a derpy dog running into a wall, or a cake decorated with raw green beans.”

(Source: This post on the online debate platform Reddit/Synesthesia. 2020.)

Go to the page on sexual (and romantic) synesthesia


This page last updated: 30 August 2021

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