Are Highly Sensitive People More Likely to Have Synesthesia?

A highly sensitive person experiences synesthesia.

I feel like I’m learning new things about my high sensitivity every day. When I was younger, how different life would have been — for the better — if I’d known what I know now about being highly sensitive.

In a nutshell, being highly sensitive means your brain and nervous system are wired somewhat differently than those of others. You have a higher sensitivity to stimuli, like noise, lights, and activity, and you feel things deeply. As a result, you have a lower threshold before reaching critical mass. This explains why highly sensitive people (HSPs) can become easily stressed out and quickly overwhelmed in situations that might not bother other people.

HSPs did not choose or learn this trait. In fact, we’re biologically wired from birth to be this way, according to Dr. Elaine Aron, author of The Highly Sensitive Person. Although we can learn to cope with the daily stressors we face — and minimize their impact — nothing is going to change our underlying sensitive nature.

What Is Synesthesia?

If you’re a highly sensitive person like me, you might also experience another condition called synesthesia. This sounds like a scary disease or a disorder, but personally, I’ve found it can be a fascinating thing to experience.

Synesthesia is a condition caused by a genetic mutation that leads to stronger connections between certain parts of the brain. Essentially, people with this condition, called synesthetes, experience unusual associations and a sort of “crossing” of the senses. Only about one to four percent of the general population experience this phenomenon.

People with this condition process data in the form of several senses at once. For example, when listening to music, a synesthete might see certain musical notes as different colors. This can also happen for other things that typically have nothing to do with colors, like days of the week, numbers, or months.

How I Experience Synesthesia

Personally, I experience synesthesia with months. When I think of the month of January, I see the color red. February is yellow. May is pink. October is orange. November is brown. December is blue. You get the idea.

Some of these associations are obvious, while others, not so much. For example, October being orange makes sense with all the orange Halloween stuff around during that time. On the other hand, February is my least favorite month and yellow is my least favorite color, so apparently my brain automatically links those two. Also, my mom’s birthday is in January, and she always prominently wore her birthstone (a deep red garnet) on her finger. Because of that, January automatically makes me think of my mom, so it’s a deep red.

My version of synesthesia is of the perceptual nature, meaning that I actually see the colors that are associated with the months. So, for example, when I read the word “December,” I see it written in or colored in with blue.

However, there’s another type of synesthesia — the conceptual kind. With this type, you do not actually see colors, sounds, etc., but you feel the association. Perceptual synesthesia if quite rare, with conceptual synesthesia being a little more common.

The Link Between Sensitivity and Synesthesia

If you’re a highly sensitive person, could you have a higher chance of also being a synesthete? Let’s take a look at the science.

Oxford University researchers found that, like high sensitivity, synesthesia is wired into the brain. In a study, they compared brain activity in two groups of people, one group with synesthesia and one without. They found that synesthetes had higher levels of “excitability” in their primary visual cortex, and it took much less stimulation for this part of their brain to activate. They also found that when they changed the “excitability” in the brain — making it easier or harder for the neurons to fire — they increased or decreased the effects of synesthesia.

Although no direct connection between synesthesia and high sensitivity has been uncovered (at least not yet), synesthesia has long been linked to a hypersensitivity of the senses. And synesthetes report having a heightened appreciation of all kinds of sensory stimulation, from smells to sounds. As one synesthete described, “I tend to get overloaded quickly: like there’s just too much sensory perception coming in at one time, and I have a hard time sorting it out and coping with it.”

That sounds a lot like a highly sensitive person.

So are HSPs more likely than others to have synesthesia? It’s possible, because both HSPs and synesthetes certainly share the characteristic of sensory sensitivity. But we don’t know for sure, as the trait of high sensitivity still needs further study.

Living as a Highly Sensitive Synesthete

Living with high sensitivity and synesthesia means that you’ll experience the world differently than most people. In some ways, this can be a lot of fun (trust me!). There are, however, some parts that are challenging and will definitely take some getting used to.

For one, HSP synesthetes experience life at a heightened level. While intriguing, this also means that they can become even more easily overwhelmed than other HSPs. For example, a simple trip to the store might completely overpower their system due to the influx of sounds, smells, and sights — and the “cross-processing” of them.

If you’re just realizing that you might be a synesthete, you’re probably feeling how I felt when I first discovered it — excited, surprised, and a little special. You might even feel a little concerned about what it might bring. All of those feelings are perfectly valid.

To me, both my high sensitivity and synesthesia allow me to see the world in many different colors and tones — and that’s something I‘ll never get tired of.

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