I. What is Synesthesia?
In literature, synesthesia (sin-uh s-thee-zhee-uh), (also spelled synaesthesia) is a rhetorical device that describes or associates one sense in terms of another, most often in the form of a simile. Sensations of touch, taste, see, hear, and smell are expressed as being intertwined or having a connection between them. The term is derived from the neurological condition of the same name, where some people experience an actual link between their senses, where one sense stimulates another—for instance, they may feel like they hear a color, smell a shape, or taste a texture. A person that experiences synesthesia is referred to as a synesthete. As a literary technique, synesthesia reflects this condition.
Synesthesia’s presence in literature is usually through a person or narrator that is characterized as being synesthete, which allows authors to uniquely express that character’s sensations and experiences. But, the feeling of synesthesia isn’t something that all authors are familiar with—on the contrary, it is more rare than common. So, it is actually a unique literary device that we don’t see in everyday writing.
II. Example of Synesthesia
The following sentences provide several examples of synesthesia:
- The bright field of wildflowers smelled like purple, magenta, yellow, white and green.
- The stars sounded like piles of diamonds.
- Her voice was as smooth as pudding.
- The scent of smoke burned my skin.
- The blueberry tasted round in my mouth, the same flavor as a circle.
III. Importance of Synesthesia
Synesthesia allows authors to deliver another level of description in literature. It challenges readers to think out of the box and reinterpret their senses as they know them. Most importantly, though, synesthesia is a unique device that very few authors employ, making it quite notable and distinctive when an author does use it.
IV. Examples of Synesthesia in Literature
The beloved children’s fantasy novel The Phantom Tollbooth is rich with descriptions that use synesthesia. The author Norton Juster is a synesthete, and he used his own sensory perceptions to inspire parts of the book, as you can see in the following passage from Chapter 10: A Colorful Symphony:
“I don’t hear any music,” said Milo.
“That’s right,” said Alec; “you don’t listen to this concert—you watch it. Now, pay attention.”
As the conductor waved his arms, he molded the air like handfuls of soft clay, and the musicians carefully followed his every direction.
“What are they playing?” asked Tock, looking up inquisitively at Alec.
“The sunset, of course. They play it every evening about this time.”
“They do?” said Milo quizzically.
“Naturally,” answered Alec; “and they also play morning, noon and night, when, of course, it’s morning, noon and night. Why, there wouldn’t be any color in the world unless they played it.”
Here, Juster uses synesthesia in the book’s fantasy world to express the idea of a connection between music and colors. Alec explains that the sunset they see every day is actually created by instruments that play colors instead of musical notes. He also tells Milo to “watch” the concert, rather than listen to it, because the instruments will create the colors of the sunset; and all of the colors in the world.
In Inferno of the epic poem The Divine Comedy, Dante uses synesthesia to emphasize a place’s harshness:
E’en such made me that beast withouten peace,
Which, coming on against me by degrees
Thrust me back thither where the sun is silent.
Here, Dante refers to a place “where the sun is silent.” Our perception of the sun is usually associated with our sense of sight (its brightness) and touch (its heat), but not with any sort of sound. By asserting that the sun is silent, Dante is highlighting the fact that it is absent from the place he is describing. His description has a greater impact than “the sun can’t be seen” or “there is no heat”—“silent” suggests a dark, lifeless, cold and colorless place that never sees the sun.
V. Examples of Synesthesia in Pop Culture
Synesthesia is a popular device in modern advertising, particularly in the food industry. Brands often relate the experience of eating or drinking their product to some other sensory experience—for instance, a brand of chewing gum may suggest that chewing their gum will make you feel a blast of icy cold air. The classic candy Skittles does this in the commercial below:
Skittles uses synesthesia as inspiration for their slogan “Taste the Rainbow.” As we know, a rainbow is an illusion in nature that we only experience through our sight. Skittles plays with the audience’s senses by tempting them to “taste the rainbow” rather than merely see it.
In the Pixar film Ratatouille, Remy is a rat with a very special talent for food. In the scene below, when Remy tastes food, he has an extraordinary sensory experience:
Here, Remy doesn’t just taste the flavors of the strawberries and the cheese. In fact, he doesn’t comment on the flavor at all—instead, each time he takes a bite he hears music and visualizes shapes and designs. When it comes to eating, Remy experiences synesthesia, which could be the secret to his skills.
In conclusion, synesthesia is a unique rhetorical device not found in everyday writing and literature. It uses words to express a completely different form of sensory perception that forces audiences to step outside their normal understanding of taste, touch, sight, smell, and sound and imagine a relationship between them.