Sitting on a cold curb after a John Mayer concert, I casually remarked that I absolutely detested his song "Your Body is a Wonderland" due to the layers of encrusted sentimentality and sugar it was coated in. "Exactly," someone said, "The song is crystalline white, almost translucent." I glanced over just in time to see Mayer himself walking away from me. My shock and blushing cheeks soon faded, and I was left wondering what exactly he had meant.
It has come to my attention, thanks to those lovely folks at Rolling Stone, that Mayer suffers from a truly intriguing disorder called Synaesthesia. Synaesthesia is a complicated condition that manifests itself in many ways, all of which entail the linking of the sensory modalities to one another. For example, Chromaesthesia is the specific name for people who hear words and perceive colors that are in no way linked to any real visual perception. These colors are consistent; if Mayer hears the word blister and it elicits the palest of shell pinks, he will always see the word blister as pink. The most common of these Chromaesthesia associations involve numbers, but not all people with the disorder even see all words as colored.
There have been cases of the connection of other sense as well, such as touch to color,(your touch feels like the palest blue), taste to sound, (Caesar salad tastes like the swing of a golf club), smell to color, (Issey Miyake perfume smells like lemon yellow), taste to color, (Hummus tastes like dark green), taste to touch, (Chocolate Turtle Truffle Torte tastes like a stubbed toe), touch to sound, (punching you in the face feels like a pop song), sight to taste, (llamas look like sweet and sour sauce), smell to touch: (lilac smells like soft kissing), sound to smell, (leaves rustling sounds like baseball diamond dirt), sound to taste, (lambs screaming sounds like kettle corn, sight to smell,(sailboats on the Columbia river look like gasoline fumes), sound to touch, (an alarm clock sounds like (breaking a bone), touch to smell, (running your fingers through her hair feels like mint,sight to hearing, amber waves of grain look like gunshots, touch to taste, (holding hands feels like vegetarian pizza), smell to sound, (the naknek river smells like the braying of donkeys, and sight to touch, (your eyes feel like fingers running down my spine).
Note that the associations between the two senses are usually contrary to expectations, in the sense that a person suffering from Chromaesthesia will probably not hear the word "frog" and picture the word as green. In fact, a person with Synaesthesia may have no knowledge that they perceive the world in a special way, which is why estimates of the number of humans with the disorder range from 1 in 250,000 to 1 in 2,000. Those that are diagnosed report no ill effects from the disorder, and in fact many, such as Mayer, are highly gifted in many artistic fields. In fact, the label of disorder seems almost a misnomer.
None the less, the American Synaesthesia Association, along with a select group of psychologists, is highly interested in discovering the cause of the disorder. The first of three prominent theories is Neonatal Synaesthesia, which seeks to explain the associations through experiences in very early childhood, claiming that Synaesthesia is a natural stage of childhood development that remains in the brain of a select few. On a more physical level, Limbic Mediation Theory, seeks to explain the condition with a complicated theory involving the interruption of cortical blood flow, leading to sensations to emerge that usually remain the limbic system, specifically the hippocampus. Cortical Disinhibition Feedback Theory posits that all brains experience feedback relating to the other senses, but a synesthete)'s brain does not block these crossmodal sensations.
In any case, Synaethesia is possibly the most interesting and desirable of disorders. I listened to Room for Squares while writing this, wondering what color Comfortable glows in Mayer's mind. Honey gold splashed on denim blue, in my normal brain.
Baron-Cohen, S., and Harrison, J. (Eds.). Synaesthesia: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers.