Epilepsy Talk

Epileptic Synesthesia: What Is It? | October 3, 2017

A friend of mine with TLE, told me he had synesthesia and I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about.

And so, I set to find out exactly what this mysterious sounding condition was…

First of all, epileptic synesthesia is pretty rare.

It occurs in 4% of temporal lobe seizures and is theoretically caused by the actual electric discharge or abnormal stimulation of the brain in a seizure.

Sight, sound, touch, taste (and, much less often, your sense of smell) sensations can occur simultaneously and also involve involuntary movement.

An example is the sensation of flashing lights, a taste, a feeling of heat rising, and a high-pitched whine.

Here are three other (rather alarming) examples:

You might taste bile, along with tingling in the left wrist, twitching of the left corner of the mouth, and muscular contractions on the left side of the body…

Or you could feel like you have a lump in your throat, accompanied by mouth and tongue movements, flashing lights in the right upper fields and a bitter taste…

Hearing the word “five,” you might see the number “5” projected on a gray background.

Letters turn into colors…colors turn into light.

It’s sort of like a bad acid (LSD) trip. Or more simply, it can feel like a cascade of different auras occurring in tandem, just before a seizure.

However, it’s important to note that just as few people with epilepsy have synesthesia, many people with synesthesia do NOT have epilepsy.

Although medicine has known of synesthesia for almost three hundred years, after interest peaked between 1860 and 1930, it was forgotten, remaining unexplained, not for lack of trying, but simply because psychology and neurology were premature sciences.

Now, after decades of neglect, it’s a hot topic of interest.

And neuroscience is particularly interested in synesthesia because it might lead to a better understanding of consciousness, the nature of reality, and the relationship between reason and emotion.

On the other hand, for over a century, synesthesia has also been used to refer to artistic and poetic sensitivities.

Dozens of novels featuring synesthete-characters have been published, like Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley.

In Frankenstein, the creature says, “It is with considerable difficulty that I remember the original era of my being: all the events of that period appear confused and indistinct. A strange multiplicity of sensations seized me, and I saw, felt, heard, and smelt, at the same time…”

Sort of like a twisting of the senses…or crossed wires.

But believe me, you don’t have to be Frankenstein to have synesthesia!

The famous artist David Hockney, perceives music as color, shape, and configuration, and uses these perceptions when painting opera stage sets but not while creating his other artworks.

Russian painter Kandinsky combines color, hearing, touch, and smell.

Composers include Duke Ellington, Franz Liszt and Korsakov, among others…

Harpist and fiddler Tina Larkin experiences music/color synesthesia.

And, although it hasn’t been verified, Pharrell Williams, of the groups The Neptunes and N.E.R.D., claims to experience synesthesia and to have used it as the basis of the album “Seeing Sounds”.

And this was news to me: Billy Joel and Itzhak Perlman have synesthesia!

Plus, Syd Barrett, founder of Pink Floyd, is thought to have had synesthesia.

In closing, I’d like to write down some thoughts that my friend with TLE synesthesia wrote:

“To explain seems senseless, but I was able to feel the sounds, the senses so ENHANCED that the waves became focused confusion.

 The edge is an odd place. A date, time, SURE, will say goodbye and check in no sweat and laugh at ‘IT’ But the unknown is my demon now…

Losing time in large blocks is something we joke with UNTIL it happens. Is like having a stroke but then recovering 100′s of times.”  — Rick Wichitarick

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  1. My younger Brother always hears sounds in colour, even from when he was very small he would always say a particular song was a certain colour. Touchwood he hasn’t been diagnosed with epilepsy though. I never knew it actually had a name.
    Very interesting.


    Comment by Michelle — October 3, 2017 @ 10:18 AM

    • Me neither. That’s why I researched the article. It was totally foreign territory to me, until a reader brought it up!


      Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — October 3, 2017 @ 10:29 AM

  2. Thankfully he doesn’t have seizures. I do.


    Comment by Deborah Thomas — October 3, 2017 @ 11:36 AM

  3. thanks for explaining those daft artists!!! I couldn’t make sense of them studying them for school courese-would Dali and the melting clock come in to it??


    Comment by Gail — October 4, 2017 @ 2:21 AM

    • Interesting isn’t it? And sometimes a little bit scary. I don’t know about Dali and the melting clock, but I would guess so.


      Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — October 4, 2017 @ 9:46 AM

  4. Thank you for sharing this concept! I was told it was real but was skeptical and only read 2 jl. Articles because I have multiple type of aura because of surgery. Nothing directly to this concept! Thank you!


    Comment by red2robi — October 4, 2017 @ 10:21 AM

  5. I began having symptoms of synesthesia (unknown then, diagnosed now) when I began having seizures from temporal lobe epilepsy. This is the ONLY plus to my not-so-hot situation. After seizures I not only see color as magnified by anthropomorphize or colors come with attached meaning or emotion/personalities. Gold always protected me in my brain during seizures as they are painful. Orange is calming. Red is so beautiful I marvel at it and think at times I could cry at it’s so overwhelming wondrous (sounds dramatic but it feels dramatically poetic). Black is danger and don’t stare at it at all. Gray is abhorrent, my least favorite. Lavender is the past. Interestingly green has always been my favorite color yet has no meaning to me yet. That doesn’t mean it won’t “reveal” itself. It is almost as if they are alive and have personalities. Like most it is very difficult to explain. I have never done LSD but I liken it to a good trip. ha ha


    Comment by Kcleo — October 25, 2017 @ 2:49 PM

    • Although synesthesia is unusual, it sounds marvelous! Especially the red part. (Is that why I love red?)


      Comment by Phylis Feiner Johnson — October 25, 2017 @ 4:06 PM

  6. Hey there, Here’s a little piece I wrote on synesthesia that you may like. Do read and let me know how you find it!


    Comment by Navya — December 25, 2017 @ 11:31 PM

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    About the author

    Phylis Feiner Johnson

    Phylis Feiner Johnson

    I've been a professional copywriter for over 35 years. I also had epilepsy for decades. My mission is advocacy; to increase education, awareness and funding for epilepsy research. Together, we can make a huge difference. If not changing the world, at least helping each other, with wisdom, compassion and sharing.

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