People with a condition known as synesthesia are prone to swapping their senses. They can feel colors, see music, and smell words. This raises an important question for science: What's it like to have sex when you've got synesthesia? Thanks to some inquisitive researchers, we have the answer.
Top photo by Tambako the Jaguar via flickr
People with synesthesia (aka "synesthetes") experience the world differently than most. Their neurological pathways are jumbled in such a way that they associate seemingly unrelated senses or mental states with other senses or experiences. The most common form of the condition is grapheme-color synesthesia, wherein individual numbers and/or letters of the alphabet induce the visual perception of specific color patterns. Other, less-common forms of cross-sensory variation abound, and include lexical-gustatory synesthesia (words are associated with taste), chromesthesia (sound-color synesthesia) and auditory-tactile (sound-touch) synesthesia.
Sex, for the uninitiated, involves a fair bit of touching, tasting, hearing, seeing and yes, even counting. Needless to say, there's a whole lot of sensory and emotional stimulation at work in your typical bout of whoopee-making, and therefore plenty of opportunities for a synesthete's neurobiology to go positively frantic with crosstalk. But so then what is sex like for a synesthete?
As it turns out there's not a lot of writing on the subject, and what we do know is frustratingly vague. Previous research, for example, suggests that orgasm can induce the visual perception of color in a little over 2% of synesthetes. "Kissing and sexual intercourse is a reliable trigger," writes Richard Cytowic in his book Synesthesia: A Union of the Senses, "causing colored photisms, tactile shapes and textures and tastes.” Similarly, touching, caressing and petting (all tactile sensations) are known to induce the concurrent perception of colors, flavors, smell, sounds, and even temperatures. But what of the really nitty gritty details? What does an erection smell like (to a synesthete, weirdo)? What color is an orgasm?
Spurred by the lack of investigation into synesthetic perceptions of intercourse, researchers led by Hannover Medical School's Markus Zedler decided to examine whether these perceptions "have an impact on the sexual experience and the extent of sexual trance compared to non-synaesthetes." Writes Zedler, in the latest issue of Frontiers in Psychology:
In total, 19 synaesthetes with sexual forms of synaesthesia (17 female; 2 male) were included as well as corresponding control data of 36 non-synaesthetic subjects (n = 55). Two questionnaires were used to assess relevant aspects of sexual function and dysfunction (a German adaption of the Brief Index of Sexual Functioning, KFSP) as well as the occurrence and extent of sexual trance (German version of the Altered States of Consciousness Questionnaire, OAVAV). Additionally qualitative interviews were conducted in some subjects to further explore the nature of sexual experiences in synaesthetes.
The upshot of the study, which you can read in full here, is that sexual synesthetes "seem to experience a deeper state of sexual trance without, however, enhanced satisfaction during sexual intercourse." That's all well and good, but of particular note is the table of "exemplary citations" that Zedler and his colleagues created based on their qualitative interviews with sexual synesthetes, regarding how they experience different stages of the sexual response cycle. It is, in a word, excellent:
Recently, a handful of researchers have argued that most people experience synesthesia-like sensations to some degree, but most agree that the percentage of people who experience them keenly is relatively small. Which we suppose makes sense. After all, how many times has your post-coital pillow talk played out like this:
"Was it good for you?"
"Yeah, the wall exploded and my vision went purple. You?"
"Same. Hey, why do you look all yellow?"
Read the full study in the latest issue of Frontiers in Psychology.