Hearing is a complicated process, involving soundwaves, tiny bones, tinier nerve cells, and various neurological pathways through the brain. These various components work together so we can hear diverse sounds, whether a whisper or a helicopter flying overhead. However, for some people with the condition of synesthesia, their ability to hear goes beyond picking up sounds.
Hearing in color
According to Psychology Today, synesthesia is “a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway (e.g., hearing) leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway (e.g., vision).”
Although synesthesia can be experienced in different forms, one of the most common involves people “hearing” color. For such individuals, sounds like a door opening or musical notes cause them to see flashes of color, specific to each unique noise. Other, less common forms of synesthesia result in people feeling physical sensations based on sounds or even sensing distinct tastes in their mouths based on what they hear.
The connection between synesthesia and hearing loss
While synesthesia may seem unbelievable, those with hearing loss or total deafness have long relied on their other senses, whether visual or tactile cues, to understand and experience the world around them. Just consider how smoke detectors can use strobe lights to alert you to danger if you can’t hear the alarm. Multisensory experiences can help you experience sounds in other ways—essentially hacking your brain so, just like those with synesthesia, the stimulation of one sense leads you to experience another.
The best example of using other senses to hear involves music, and studies show how your brain can help bypass your ears to help you experience it. This occurs through the auditory cortex, the part of the brain that processes sound. When people with total deafness were exposed to vibrations from music, their auditory cortex showed activity, which doesn’t happen to those with normal hearing. Since the vibrations are picked up in the same way the brain picks up sound, a hard of hearing person can have an enhanced listening experience, and it can help deaf people perform music themselves.
But that’s not the only way to experience music. Combined with flashing lights, speakers with visualizations, and closed captioning or sign language interpreters to translate lyrics, those with hearing loss can feel, appreciate, and understand music. Multiple companies use these methods to create concerts for those with hearing loss.
Experiencing sound without hearing
People with synesthesia may seem as though they have supernatural powers, experiencing multiple sensory perceptions at once. But if you have hearing loss, you are just as capable of using your other senses to fill in soundscape gaps. As a result, you can enjoy music—and other sounds—without hearing in the traditional sense of the word.