Orgasm synesthesia: experiencing colors, tastes & scents at orgasm

By Maya Khamala

We experience the world via our senses in ways that differ vastly from anyone else—sex and orgasm are no different. This is why I’m personally not super surprised that some people reportedly see colors and taste flavors when they cum. Yum, right?

The condition is known as orgasm synesthesia, but just plain ol’ synesthesia exists too: synesthetes (those who have it) experience the world in a way that is hard to describe. Words can have color, sounds can have smells, tastes can have shapes, and numbers can have tastes—for example. Other senses can get mixed in too. But those with orgasm synesthesia don’t necessarily have the non-sexual kind, and vice versa.

Sex of the senses

This 2013 study looked at 19 people with synesthesia who have reported experiencing symptoms during sex. The study found that for people with sexual forms of synesthesia, sex is “more spiritual.” Indeed, the group reported more feelings of “oceanic boundlessness” and “visionary restructuralization” than controls did. Go figure. Although descriptions of sex are sorta kinda impossible to verify or compare, since everybody experiences (and describes) sex differently, synesthetic or not, sexual synesthetes often describe different perceptual sensations for different stages of sexual activity, from arousal to climax. With excitement reaching its plateau, for instance, one person described fog transformed into a wall, and orgasm itself as the wall bursting, and “ringlike structures … in bluish-violet tones.”

Michelle, 24, describes her very first orgasm, at 19, as seeing white and green light in the periphery of her vision. “It was like a cue that yes, this is it,” she told Bustle. And for some, orgasm triggers more than just ooh-ahh colors. Tammy, 31, has “waking dreams,” including one in which “lizard people were making a diplomatic deal with fully sentient polar bears using a gelatinous robot with many mouths.” She also experiences tastes and scents when she orgasms.

How common is orgasm synesthesia? 

According to a 572-person study as described in the book Synesthesia: Perspectives From Cognitive Neuroscience, over 4% of the population experience synesthesia, and 1.2% of them experience the orgasmic kind. Although a 2006 study found no significant gender differences among synesthetes, Markus Zedler at the Hannover Medical School in Germany knows more women synesthetes than men. And of course, as with all stats, this number may be higher, as many synesthetes don’t realize their experience is different than anyone else’s, and many likely choose not to share it even if they do.

What causes it? 

Maybe you’re asking 'cause you want a piece of the sexy kaleidoscope pie. While the actual causes of this phenomenon known as orgasm synesthesia haven’t been studied very much at all, sex researcher Nicole Prause, Ph.D. finds plausible explanation, describing how “shifts in brain state appear to occur to allow the orgasm experience to happen before the orgasm actually occurs.” In this state, the brain may lose control over sensory areas, preventing us from filtering out visual signals and other stimuli. Meditation has also been associated with some of the sensory experiences described by synesthetes.

The downside? 

Researchers found that people with synesthesia seem to go into more of a trance during sex than those without, often having profound physical and psychological experiences, yet this did not coincide with “enhanced satisfaction during sexual intercourse.” In fact, according to the study (which was small and limited in scope, I remind y’all), on average, synesthetes were significantly less satisfied after sex than people without the condition. 

The researchers suggested that this decrease in satisfaction might be due to the fact that synesthetes are unable to fully share their sexual experiences with partners who do not have the same caliber of experience. This, in turn, may lead to a feeling of isolation. Now while I’ll personally vouch for the importance of intimate connection and engagement with one’s partner during sex—which includes the sharing of experiences, of course—this researcher logic comes off a bit like major conjecture to me, and I’m not fully buying it. Just one gal’s two cents. Plus, none of the people Suzannah Weiss of Bustle talked to could confirm this supposed isolated feeling, and rather emphasized the spiritual one. So, really, it’s hard to say. 

“To be clear, it's not a condition that needs treatment,” says Clare Jonas, a UK-based researcher and science communicator with a focus on synesthesia. “For most synesthetes I've spoken to, synesthesia is neutral or enjoyable, and it's associated with benefits like better memory and increased creativity.”


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