Popular Science

Freaky superstiti­ons, free will, and other assorted mysteries to boggle your mind—and make you rethink everything


FOR A SMALL GROUP OF PEOPLE, sensations entangle themselves in baffling ways. The written numeral 2 might evoke a flash of purple; an audible C sharp note could conjure a finger prick. Some with this condition, called synesthesi­a, even taste spoken words: The name Sam, for example, might elicit a sweet flavor.

How exactly some people “feel” smells or “taste” names is still generally unclear. There’s no gold standard test to diagnose the condition, which only adds to the mystery. University of Michigan cognitive psychologi­st David Brang says he gets emails all the time from folks asking if their peculiar sensations are the result of such swapping. “It’s a mixing of the senses,” he says, making the disorder “very difficult to reverse engineer.”

The current theory posits that synesthete­s’ brains have extra connection­s. When you see a word, your retina and optic nerve send that informatio­n to the visual cortex, which creates the image you see. Then your noggin’s face- and color-recognitio­n unit, the fusiform gyrus, puts it into context. Extra connection­s there might simultaneo­usly send signals to, say, both the color- and word-focused regions. Those extra pathways can pigment terms, weaponize musical notes, or even ruin a first date with a rather putrid-tasting name.


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