by Bill Thomason

First published in the newsletter, August 2001

“Oh, I must have had synesthesia!”  Does that sound like a lapse in brain function, or maybe a lame excuse, or maybe someone who has been watching too much Walt Disney.

Actually, synesthesia is an important part of how people organize reality.  Let me give you some background in basic NLP before I explain about synesthesia.  We perceive the world that we live in through our five senses; sight, sound, feeing, taste, and smell.  NLP combines Olfactory (smell) and Gustatory (taste) together inside the Kinesthetic (feeling) category.  That leaves three categories.  NLP people abbreviate the three primary sensory channels; Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic; to “V-A-K.”

Part of what NLP co-founders, Richard Bandler and John Grinder recognized when they were developing NLP was that people tend to have a primary or “lead” representational system.  They tend to start with and stay in one modality more than the other two.

In addition, behavior and language tends to match the system the individual is operating from at any particular moment.  An individual operating in Visual will use Visual predicates in their language.  For example, a person in the Visual “lead representational system,” might say, “I see what you mean,” or “I am getting a clear view of the purpose of this exercise.”

A person in Auditory might say, “It sounds right to me,” or “I hear what you are saying about that.” And then the Kinesthetic person uses language like, “It feels right to me,” or “These are concrete examples, I feel I am getting a firm grasp of what you are proposing.”  Examples of Olfactory and Gustatory would include, “This is a very sweet deal,” or “Something smells fishy here.”

When an activity in one representations (rep) system initiates activity in another rep system, that is synesthesia. A harsh sound (auditory), for example, can cause an individual to feel uncomfortable (kinesthetic).  I had a client who would feel nausea every time he remembered a tone of voice used by his Father.  That would be an auditory-kinesthetic synesthesia.

To begin to understand synesthesia, read the following sentence to yourself.  “Tell me the flavor of what you were seeing when you first feasted your eyes on this fragrant land of rhythms and form not found in everyday experience.”  This sentence is an example of synesthesia.

Let’s take a look at the sentence.  “Tell me” requires hearing and is Auditory.  “Flavor” is something that you taste and is Gustatory/Kinesthetic.  “Seeing” is Visual.  “Feasted your eyes” is Gustatory and Visual.  “Fragrant” sounds like it should be smell or Olfactory.  “Rhythms” is about movement and it involves timing.  You experience rhythm with your body, which would be Kinesthetic and you also hear it, don’t’ you.  “Form” is seen but may also be felt.

Synesthesias make up a large part of how we make meaning from the world around us.  Synesthesia is thought to be at the root of many complex processes including knowledge, choice, and communication (pg. 23, Neuro-Lingustic Programming).  It is thought that many of the major differences between people’s talents, abilities, and skills are due to the order and sequence of these representational system correlations.

Synesthesia is a useful concept in business.  A primary concern in the business context is about how to install capabilities in employees.  Training is expensive and people are different from each other.  An experienced NLP Trainer can help people to unpack beliefs and habitual behaviors that are held together in synesthesias and then install new choices so that learning increases.

In private consultation, an NLP practitioner might help a client unpack a problem state held in place by a synesthesia.  By helping the client take apart a synesthesia and then re-represent the Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic parts of the problem state, the client can get some freedom of choice to notice that the individual parts do not have the same power.  With the synesthesia unpacked, the client can then reframe the problem state to a more resourceful state with new behaviors.

On the other hand, understanding synesthesias can help you communicate more effectively.  Did you notice that the sentence we started with above sounded somewhat poetic.  Poetry is filled with synesthesias.

A characteristic of the classic detective novel is language synesthesias.  The comedic group, Firesign Theater, spoofs private eye novels in a 1970’s skit.  One of the lines goes, “Her words hit me like the hot kiss at the end of a wet fist.”  What does that mean?  You can’t separate the words out and get a logical meaning from language like that, but somehow you know what the character is experiencing.  Outside the synesthesia, it would not make sense.

I just wonder how many ways you can think of now to use synesthesias to generate your experience more powerfully to achieve more of what you really want in life.
Bill Thomason