Synesthesia, Pseudo-Synesthesia, and Irritable Bowel Syndrome


Background and Aims

Synesthesia is a sensory disorder where the stimulation of one sensory modality can lead to a reaction in another which would not usually be expected to respond; for instance, someone might see a color on hearing a word such as a day of the week. Disordered perception of sensory information also appears to contribute to the pathophysiology of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). The purpose of this exploratory study was to ascertain whether these two conditions might be linked in any way.


Two hundred consecutive IBS outpatients were screened for synesthesia and compared with 200 matched healthy volunteers (controls). Positive responders were tested for two types of synesthesia (grapheme–color and music–color/shape) using a questionnaire which was repeated after 3 months to test for reproducibility.


Of the 200 IBS outpatients screened, 26 (13%) patients and six (3%) controls claimed to be synesthetic (P < 0.001). Reproducibility was more variable in IBS patients than controls but despite this variability, 15 (7.5%) patients compared with 5 (2.5%) controls had greater than 75% consistency (P = 0.036), and 19 (9.5%) patients and 6 (3%) controls had greater than 50% consistency (P = 0.012). A reproducibility of less than 50% was observed in seven (3.5%) patients and no controls (0%) (P = 0.015), and these individuals were classified as having pseudo-synesthesia.


IBS patients clearly differ from controls in terms of claiming to have synesthetic experiences. These results justify additional studies on the relationship between IBS and synesthesia to further understand the neural mechanisms underpinning these two conditions and to establish whether they may be linked.

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This study was in part supported by the JCOR10 Fund University Hospital of South Manchester, Manchester, UK.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare they have no conflicts of interest in relation to this study.

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Corresponding author

Correspondence to Peter J. Whorwell.

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Carruthers, H.R., Miller, V., Tarrier, N. et al. Synesthesia, Pseudo-Synesthesia, and Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Dig Dis Sci 57, 1629–1635 (2012).

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  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Perception
  • Synesthesia
  • Visceral sensitivity