Definition and Examples of Synaesthesia

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Synaesthesia: the stimulation of one sense that arouses an attribute associated with a different sense.

Introduction to the term

Synaesthesia (derives from Greek syn “with” and aesthesis “sensation,” literally “the union of senses”) is broadly established as a condition of human sensory systemsOpens in new window that subsists when a person receives a stimulusOpens in new window in one sensory attribute and experience a sensationOpens in new window in another; which as a result, colours may be perceived as smells, smells as sounds, sounds as tastes etc.

Rhetorical Definition

As a rhetorical device, Synaesthesia consists in the stimulation of one sense that arouses a mental impressionOpens in new window associated with a different sense; or the combined use of two or more words that appeals to two different sensory receptors (attributes).

Observations and Examples
  • In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Peter's voice upon entering the Beavers’ hiding place is described as being “tired and pale in the darkness” (99). “Pale” is an adjectival description for sight, but here, it is employed to describe a sensory attribute of sound (“Peter's voice”).
    In the The Sensitive Plant (as in the lines below), Bysshe Shelly compares the scent of hyacinth flowers to the sound of delicate, soft, and intense music, hence employing Synaesthesia, to bring about this effect.

  • “And the hyacinth purple, and white, and blue,
    Which flung from its bells a sweet peal anew
    Of music so delicate, soft, and intense,
    It was felt like an odour within the sense”.
    — (Percy Bysshe ShelleyOpens in new window, The Sensitive Plant)
  • “The music breathing from her face
  • [In this artful construction by Byron, the sense of vision is mixed, with that of hearing.]
  • “And all men kill the thing they love
    By all let this be heard,
    Some do it with a bitter look,
    Some with a flattering word,
    The coward does it with a kiss,
    The brave an with a sword!” — (Oscar WildeOpens in new window)
  • [here, the sense of vision is combined with sense of taste.]
  • ‘Young Swain sneaked into the gallery one afternoon and blushed to the top of his ears when he saw “Trees Dressed in White,” a loud, raucous splash on the wall.’ — (Rube Goldbeg)
  • [Here, Rube Goldberg strikes a blend of sensory attribute of sight with that of sound]

Synaesthesia is widely employed in the literature, although there seem to be rules or norms guiding its application, especially in the aspect of what sensory attributes are compatible and worthy of being paired together.

When we speak of a musician striking a “blue note” while playing a sad song, or when we speak of a certain shade of color as a “cool green”, or perhaps when speaking of a “heavy silence”, we are merely engaging this device into use. Poetic writers of all epoch including the likes of HomerOpens in new window, AeschylusOpens in new window, ShelleyOpens in new window, ByronOpens in new window, etc., all were (are) advocates of synaesthesia, and like to use this artful device to make the intersensonsory description.

Further Readings:
Mark Forsyth, The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase | SynaesthesiaOpens in new window
Xiuguo Zhang, English Rhetoric | SynaesthesiaOpens in new window
Wikipedia | SynaesthesiaOpens in new window