So what’s the deal with synesthesia on TikTok? Harrison says when he first met synesthetes four decades ago, they were reluctant to talk about their condition because they feared ridicule. “That seems to have changed,” he says. “Now it’s a very sexy thing to be a synesthete.”
Of course this could tempt clout-chasers to lie, but SynesthesiaTok may simply be self-reinforcing: The hashtag raises awareness of the condition, which in turn allows more and more people to learn that they have it. Sarah Kraning is an 29-year-old artist and auditory-visual synesthete from Minneapolis who only discovered the name for her experiences in a college psychology class. “It was a very emotional, heavy-impact moment for me,” she says.
When she was a child, Kraning stopped discussing her senses after friends and family laughed or seemed confused. Kraning sees colors, textures, and patterns when she hears sounds, and used to struggle in school when teachers played music during tests. Today, she sells artwork based on what she hears and talks about her synesthesia regularly on TikTok, where she has 512,000 followers. (She’s the one who said Miley Cyrus’ voice was dark green with bits of blue.)
Kraning has taken an array of tests called the “Synethesia Battery” that was developed by University of Texas scientists in 2007—the tests proved her auditory-visual synesthesia was consistent. “I understand it,” she says of the skepticism, “I understand that it’s a very strange thing if you haven’t been educated about it.”
On the whole, however, TikTok has been kind. “It was reassuring to see the acceptance and the positive response,” Kraning says. For her, the app is a way to educate people about synesthesia and raise awareness. “For me as a kid, I felt really alone,” she says. “To have people comment and say they feel really seen, that’s when social media is at its most powerful.”
Still, that doesn’t mean everything is always as it seems (or smells, or tastes). Henry Gray is a 23-year-old bar worker from Newcastle, England, who has 12,000 followers on his account, @henpuffs; here he tells people what their names remind him of, and they can donate to his PayPal in return. One of his videos, in which he says that the name “Kirsty” smells of urine, seems suspicious—there’s a comedic set-up to the video, as Gray is responding to the comment, “My friend’s parents just got divorced and she’s really sad. Could you do Kirsty?”
Gray admits now that he asked a friend to submit the comment—there is no Kirsty with divorced parents. But he is, he says, a synesthete: Since he was a young boy, certain words have always provoked tastes, sensations, and images. He recalls sitting around the table eating strawberry pudding with his cousin Emily as a child, and remarking, “You must really like this!”—it was, after all, what her name tasted like. His own name is a soft ham and cheese sandwich, slightly squashed in a lunchbox.
“It sounds crass but ‘Kirsty’ has genuinely always been the smell of urine,” Gray says via email—though the comment was faked by a friend, his response on TikTok was real. Why did he do it? “My account is primarily to make people laugh and interest people,” he says—he also hopes to gain “a presence” on the app. It worked: The Kirsty video got almost 700,000 views.