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The Mind's Eye: Synesthesia Has Business Benefits

People with synesthesia see sounds and taste words. Now companies are looking to profit from these mingled senses
The Mind's Eye: Synesthesia Has Business Benefits
Illustration by Jamie Cullen

Michael Haverkamp has a marketable mental condition: When he runs his fingers across the leather of a car’s steering wheel, he sees colors and shapes. “If the texture feels rough, I see a structure in my mind’s eye that has dark spots, hooks, and edges,” explains the 55-year-old German, a Ford Motor engineer. “But if it’s too smooth, the structure glows and looks papery, flimsy.” Haverkamp says these hallucinations, the result of a neurological condition called synesthesia, help with his nuanced work, optimizing and coordinating the look, feel, and sound of vehicle fabrics, knobs, pedals, and more. He shares his preferences for each with designers, who then use that information to build cars that are more pleasing to drivers.

Synesthesia—from a Greek term that translates loosely as “mingling of the senses”—is a nonharmful condition with several manifestations in which varying combinations of touch, taste, smell, hearing, and sight are linked. Everyone has cross-sensory experiences to some extent (hence idioms such as “loud clothing” or “warm colors”), but for synners, as those afflicted call themselves, these connections are more dominant and unavoidable. One person might smell gasoline and involuntarily see purple, while another might read the name “Marilyn Monroe” and inexplicably taste whipped cream. Many synesthetes automatically visualize numbers or days of the week in 3D formations. Some experience orgasms as flashes of bold color. A common theory among neuroscientists is that this stems from stronger neural connections between regions of the brain that are normally separated during development.