If you’ve ever heard of the term ‘synesthesia’, then it will be easier for you to grasp the concept of ideasthesia. In synesthesia, someone with the condition (known as a synesthete), will have the subjective experience of senses ‘bleeding’ into one another. In other words, they might find that hearing music leads to them seeing color or that seeing colors makes them experience taste. The former is what is known as ‘chromesthesia’ and is one of the more common forms.
Ideasthesia is not a separate condition but rather a ‘rebranding’ if you will for the concept of synesthesia. The idea here is that we have until now misunderstood the nature of the condition, leading to an incorrect classification. Ideasthesia attempts to correct this error and in doing so, illuminates some rather stunning potential implications.
The Difference Between Synesthesia and Ideasthesia
Chromesthesia is only one type of synesthesia but it is also perhaps the only type that completely fits the description usually offered by the term.
Consider for example a type of synesthesia known as grapheme -> color synesthesia. In this condition, the synesthete will find that any letters or numbers (collectively called graphemes) that they perceive are ‘shaded’ with particular colors.
Thus for instant, the letter ‘A’ will often be red. Or perhaps the letter ‘D’ would be green. Those who experience this form of synesthesia will often say that they can use this ability in order to help them remember numbers and spell words.
But consider for a moment what is actually happening here: in this case, it is not so much that ‘two senses’ are bleeding into each other. After all, letters are not a ‘sense’ in themselves – they are just a feature that you might observe with your sense of sight.
And in fact, it has been shown that the perception of the letter doesn’t even matter. In one study for example (1), it was shown that a shape that could be interpreted either as an ‘S’ or as a ‘5’ would be colored differently depending on its context. Surround it with numbers and synesthetes would perceive it as being colored the same way as the number 5 – but surround it with letters and they would see it as the letter ‘S’.
Then there are other examples of synesthesia that aren’t even close to being described by the idea of ‘merged senses’. These is even a form of synesthesia for instance called ‘swimming style synesthesia’ in which swimming in a particular style, or even talking about that style, will result in the subjective experience of color.
What this appears to demonstrate is that it is not the perception that causes the experience of color but rather the meaning that we assign to that perception – the concept.
Implications of Ideasthesia
This ‘reshifting’ of perspectives on the subject of synesthesia may help to illustrate some of the potential causes of the phenomenon.
One explanation based on this idea is that synesthesia develops as a ‘learning tool’ that children can use in order to grasp abstract concepts for the first time. When we first have to learn letters or numbers, we have no frame of reference with which to compare these ideas, and so we may attempt to anchor them by relating them to colors, sounds or personalities.
Another implication relates to the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness, where it’s believed ideasthesia may help to explain where the ‘experience’ of being conscious comes from. Here, it is posited that consciousness might emerge from the processing of ‘concepts’ – giving meaning to ideas and information.
In psychology, any subjective conscious experience (a color, a sound, an idea) is called ‘qualia’. It is purported that activating the concept of qualia and categorizing it, may be the basis of consciousness itself. It’s just that ‘seeing red’ is a particularly vivid example of this.
Either way, it is certainly an interesting subject and demonstrates the potential usefulness of understanding synesthesia in order to described broader psychological experiences.