Synaesthesia is the Communicator’s Greatest Ally

Sometimes it’s possible to do the right thing for the wrong reasons. Take, for instance, the discredited theory of learning styles. It may have no basis in science, but its influence on communicators and teachers has surely been a positive one, hasn’t it?

After all, doesn’t the theory ultimately boil down to the very useful and practical insight that the key to good teaching, and communication, is variety? It reminds us that people are different and that they learn in different ways; so if you want to ensure that they’ll understand what you’re on about, the way to do it is to make sure you present to them in ways that appeal to their different sensory predilections.

The picture that emerges from categorizing people into distinct sensory types in this way is of a brain in which each individual sense occupies a separate silo – cut off from its sensory brothers and sisters. Therefore if you want to cast the net of understanding as wide a possible, your best bet is to package each point you make in a variety of sensory wrappings: images for the visual learners, sounds for the auditory learners, and some physical activity for the kinaesthetes.

But there’s a serious problem with this way of looking at the senses: it’s simply not borne out by the evidence. In fact, it’s a view that’s contradicted both by everyday experience, and by what recent studies of the brain tell us.

Neuroscientist Edward Hubbard* says that “as the infant brain grows into the adult brain, regions that were connected to each other at birth are slowly separated or pruned.” Studies of the brain indicate that when we’re born our senses are mixed up or cross-wired to a certain extent – a condition known as synaesthesia.

For most of us the condition is temporary but for a small number of people, known as synaesthetes, it persists throughout their lives. For synaesthetes, days of the week can be coloured, textures can have tastes and words can have odours.

For the rest of us though, as we grow up our senses gradually become more separate and our synaesthetic sensibility fades. But our early synaesthetic phase leaves its mark, and although our senses become more differentiated as we mature, they never completely disentangle.

Many everyday expressions like ‘a loud tie’, ‘a sharp cheese’, ‘bitter cold’ and ‘sweet music’ show just how commonplace the synaesthetic experience is. There are neuroscientists like V.S. Ramachandran and Hubbard who even argue that the study of synaesthesia may one day lead to a deeper understanding of the creative process by revealing how the sensory cross-wiring of the brain is related to our ability to think metaphorically.

Ramachandran and Hubbard maintain that “far from being an oddity, synaesthesia allows us to proceed (perhaps) from a single gene to a specific brain area… and perhaps even to metaphor, Shakespeare, and the evolution of language, all in a single experimental subject.”**

When we move beyond the simplistic learning styles model of discrete sensory modalities, we find ourselves in a richer, more complex multi-sensory world. A world in which words – spoken or read – have the power to conjure up pictures, sounds, tastes, smells, bodily sensations and memories. A world where Shakespeare’s words – in the chorus of Henry V – can miraculously transform a bare stage into the “vasty” battlefields of France – and summon up the deafening  sounds of horses “printing their proud hoofs I’th’receiving earth.”

A familiar and exciting world in which a father can tell his daughter a story that sets her “imaginary forces” playing and which transports them both to another time and place. Experiences that remind us that the reality of the synaesthetic brain is the communicator’s greatest ally.

*For a more detailed account of synaesthesia, see Hearing Colors, Tasting Shapes by Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Edward M. Hubbard, in Scientific American, May 2003

**Synaesthesia A Window Into Perception, Thought and Language by V.S. Ramachandran and E.M. Hubbard


  1. As a former classroom teacher for 10 years, clearly variety in the presentation of new material helped my students understand and internalize new concepts. However, when planning my lessons, I didn’t rely on connecting to different sensory types or learning styles, but on different levels of the various intelligences of my students, as outlined in Gardiner’s theory on Multiple Intelligences. I wonder what Professor Willingham’s opinion is on Gardiner’s theory and how it’s considered in relation to theories on synaesthesia?

    Lily Iatridis

  2. Hi Martin,

    Lovely post, thanks: two big likes of mine – synaesthesia and Branagh’s Henry V, three if you count Patrick Doyle’s marvellous score – in one place!

    I really enjoy the richness of metaphor and I think synaesthesic language has a lot to offer in that regard. Unfortunately academic papers don’t really permit that kind of writing most of the time, and even blogging has its limits. I secretly think that fiction writers have by far the most fun on that score …

    One of the ways I wish synaesthesic concepts could be used in communication is in visual aids, but I know enough now from reading about it to know that not everyone thinks five is a red number, or that low D on a violin is dark brown …


  3. Hi Lily

    I’m not sure if Daniel Willingham has said much on Multiple Intelligences. Donald Clark has, though. Here, for example:

    He’s very negative (but then he’s negative about most things). But I have to concede he makes some good points.

    My view on Multiple Intelligences is the similar to my views on Learning Styles. There’s a lot of bluster and some people seem to take offence at their very existence. I think it’s their application that counts.


  4. Martin Shovel says

    Hi Lily,

    Thanks for your comment and question. Again I don’t want to be a party pooper, but I think you’ll find that despite its seductiveness – we’re all smart in our own way – there is a lack of hard scientific evidence for the theory of multiple intelligences – as well as some definitional problems too.

    Here are some links that might interest you:

  5. Martin,

    Fascinating. Hugely enjoyable too.

    I was musing in a blog post just two days ago, though in a very much broader way, on Shakespeare’s ability to ‘paint pictures with words’ and describe an entire scene from a bare stage to such effect that the audience is transported by the image. Henry V certainly illustrates this beautifully, but so do lots of other characters of course. Enobarbus for one.

    But your thought-provoking post got me musing on the place of synaesthesia in poetry. Might such a (pre)condition explain why some describe their worlds in such richly embroidered metaphors? Or even simple ones. The originality, for example, in the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins might owe much to living in just such a multi-sensory world, expressed through infinite wordplay. ‘The wind-wandering, weed-winding bank’ of the river is just one phrase that springs to mind.

    Thank you for elevating my workaday thoughts to a somewhat higher plane .. if, alas, only briefly!


  6. Good discussion and excellent video. Is NLP anything to do with this?

  7. This is the best part of Twitter…
    On a cold and rather sad memorial day, which looks like just another sunday afternoon, I’m sitting by the fireplace, MacBook on my lap, writing a new post, reading tweets and following threads with total serendipity.
    Thank you Martin for inviting poetry and literature into the world of business presentation. You opened the Pandora Box and it’s fascinating.
    If our senses gradually become more separate as we grow up, then I think I never grew up.
    Let me please add a “French touch” to this Shakespearian discussion.
    The author that immediately came into my mind when reading your post, Martin, is the great French poet, Charles Baudelaire.
    “All nature is one temple, the living aisles whereof
    Murmur in a soft language, half strange, half understood;
    Man wanders there as through a cabalistic wood,
    Aware of eyes that watch him in the leaves above.
    Like voices echoing in his senses from beyond
    Life’s watery source, and which into one voice unite,
    Vast as the turning planet clothed in darkness and light,
    So do all sounds and hues and fragrances correspond.
    Perfumes there are as sweet as the music of pipes and strings,
    As pure as the naked flesh of children, as full of peace
    As wide green prairies — and there are others, having the whole
    Corrupt proud all-pervasiveness of infinite things,
    Like frankincense, and musk, and myrrh, and ambergris,
    That cry of the ecstasy of the body and of the soul.”
    Poetry exists thanks to synaesthesia…

  8. Martin Shovel says

    Thanks for you comment, Brian. In answer to your question: probably yes. NLP tends to have at least one finger in most cognition-related pies!

  9. Martin Shovel says

    Great comment, Marion – and a wonderful poem! Yet again you’ve put your finger on the nub of the matter – it’s all about ‘inviting poetry and literature into the world of business’. One of CreativityWorks’ key interests is ‘the poetry of everyday language’ – and how to encourage more of it in the world of work.

    Taking up Chris Atherton’s point about the contrast between the language of academia and blogging, on the one hand, and that of fiction, on the other – in our experience, the gap between them doesn’t have to be the chasm you might expect. In fact, the best communicators in the world of work instinctively bring poetic language into the workplace.

    Poetry, and all the arts, definitely exist thanks to synaesthesia – and the good news is that though synaesthesia fades in most of us, it never disappears!


  10. What a wonderful mix of ideas. I have taken poetry into the workplace, although what I once called “Poetry in Business”, I had to change to “Unlocking Creativity (TM)” because the former was like holding garlic up to a vampire. Poetry gets to the parts that prose finds difficult and does it much more quickly. Its use combines head and heart (and gut) and creates a far better decision making process, be the readers/listeners be any/all of the VAKD types.

  11. One of the reasons I’m such a believer in well-told stories is because of their appeal through our imaginations to our senses. Not just to our hearing, but to our seeing and smelling and feeling.

    There are good reasons for using PowerPoint (in a limited way for certain presentations), but the reason most commonly given by trainers — that doing so appeals to the visual learners in the audience — is pure bunk. Thanks for debunking it.

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