LHS Junior's Essay "Hearing Colors And Tasting Sounds: What Is Synesthesia?" Earns Spot In NY Times

Congratulations to Lakewood High School junior Erica Frischauf for earning a spot in the top 10 for The New York Times' 4th annual Student STEM Writing Contest! Her essay was selected from more than 3,000 entries worldwide. Of the over 3,000 essays received from around the world, the Times chose 10 winners, 11 runners-up and 23 honorable mentions.

The contest required students to select a STEM-related question, concept or issue they're interested in, and, in 500 words or fewer, explain it to a general audience in a way that not only helps readers understand, but also engages them and makes them see why it’s important.

You can read Erica's essay below or go to https://tinyurl.com/y264k8c9

Hearing Colors and Tasting Sounds: What Is Synesthesia?

We’re all well aware of how we use our senses on a daily basis: We might hear a dog barking, or taste a crisp apple. But what if hearing that dog barking also caused you to see the color blue? Or tasting that apple caused you to hear a subtle G sharp? This could be an everyday occurrence for someone with synesthesia. 

Synesthesia is a complex brain condition that involves a mixing of the senses. When one sense is stimulated for a person with synesthesia (known as a “synesthete”) another sense may react. There are many different forms and types of this. Chromesthesia (the association of sounds with colors) and grapheme-color synesthesia (the association of letters, numbers, words and symbols with colors) are the most common, but there seems to be an almost endless number of variations.

For a while, it was thought that synesthesia was just a product of overactive imaginations, but recent studies have shown significant differences in the ways the synesthete brain operates compared to a “normal” one. Each one of our senses is connected to a specific part of the brain. By using magnetic resonance imaging, scientists were able to show that synesthetes with chromesthesia had large amounts of activity in the visual parts of their brain when receiving auditory stimuli — activity that was absent from non-synesthetes undergoing the same treatment. Synesthetes have also been found to have higher levels of white matter, which is responsible for communication between different parts of the brain. 

So why is this? What causes some people to taste bananas when listening to classical music? The answer may lie within their genetic code. Nearly half of all synesthetes have reported that a close relative also shares the same condition, suggesting that it might be a genetic trait. One of the leading theories is that synesthesia is a result of a mutated “pruning” gene. As we develop, some of the unnecessary connections within our brains get “pruned” away. But a mutation in this process could leave some of these connections untouched, resulting in a cross-wiring of the brain. 

One of the more recent focuses of research on synesthesia, though, has been how it may benefit those with the condition. Multiple studies have concluded that synesthetes have exceptional memories. Research has found that synesthetes may have subtly enhanced senses: Those with color-related variations are better at differentiating between similar colors, and those with touch-related variations have a more sensitive sense of touch. Furthermore, synesthesia seems to be more common in artists and poets, suggesting that it may enhance creativity too. 

Looking toward the future, synesthesia may be helpful in curing diseases involved with our brains’ networking systems and aiding those experiencing cognitive decline. It’s already been shown that synesthesia can be induced through drug use, sensory deprivation and hypnosis. Further research into this could provide ways for us to strengthen deteriorating connections within the brain and improve failing memories. Synesthesia is opening the door for all kinds of neural discoveries!

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Volume 19, Issue 9, Posted 12:21 PM, 05.03.2023