It feels like a confession. I have a cross-wired brain, such that some inputs always generate a predictable output from one sense to another. I see text as colored, even though I know it is black and white, and I have what is called "colored hearing". Some physical sensations, like pain, will also be perceived like my colored hearing, as well. Some neurologists' explanation for this is that the "brain pruning" which goes on early in infancy, where loads of connections between neurons get severed, is impaired in synesthetes, and we remain more hyperconnected neurologically. Instead of making the world a mess of sensations it is actually more organized, however, and this helps with categorization and memory.
I feel awkward talking about my synesthesia. First, I never thought it was anything unusual, for most of my life. When I realized that I perceive the world quite differently than most people, it was disorienting, yet philosophically stimulating. I have made a decision to discuss my synesthesia when it makes sense to do so, in an effort both to increase public awareness (although that makes it sound like a disorder, and I view it more as a gift) and also to test my braveness, something I find I have to do repeatedly to keep my braveness strong! Depending on the type of synesthesia, you will hear that as many as 1 out of 200 or as few as 1 out of 2000 people have it. When I first started this post almost ten years ago, I never knew I would be flooded with so many replies of fascinating, sensitive, creative, humorous, insightful people out there!
It's not like I've really felt like I was hiding anything, because I never much thought about it. I have pretty much ignored it most of my life, until I started seeing scientific books pubished on the topic, ("Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens" though I must correct this book title to state that cats are yellow and kittens are gold) and thought, hey, I do that! But I just didn't think about it much! So I starting to contemplate it and talk about it, and have been astonished to find other people don't do it. None of my immediate family do, either, to my great disappointment.
(UPDATE: One of my brother's daughters now says she has this, and is adamant about letters and numbers and their colors and--get this--genders and personality! I don't have the association with gender or personality. Just colors and textures. Of course we completely disagree about the colors and it is fun to compare experiences with her. She says she hate the tennis score 30/15 because it is "Barney Colors": purple and green. To me, there are no purple or green numbers. The only green symbol for me is the letter F, and it is a pale green at that. Really!)
(UPDATE UPDATE!: My cousin, who teaches history--also from my mom's side of the family--says he sees periods of history in different colors, as well as musical modes--he plays the guitar--and it helps him organize ideas. On my mother's side of the family there are two family members with paranoid schizophrenia, many many dyslexics, one person with what might be primary progressive aphasia, and now several people who have revealed some degree of synesthesia. Can some geneticist please tell me what is going on with the language centers of my family's brains?)
I decided to "come out" about my synesthesia, after several years ago, I read the works of the brilliant writer and neuroscientist, V. S. Ramachandran, who verified the phenomenon with magnetic resonance imaginings of the brains of people who describe this phenonenon. He suggests it is a crosswiring that occurs in the brains of some people.
Numbers and letters are always the same color, in my head.
It is as if these symbols have as part of their essence this color. When I look at text, I know the text itself is not colored on the page but my brain interprets it as colored, as I read. At a distance, the page is black and white, but as I read, color after color flashes by as each word goes by. As Ramachandran noticed, for many synesthetes, including me, each word takes on the entire color of the first letter.
This has its advantages and disadvantages, although it is hard for me to tell this since I don't know what it is like not to have it. I can only guess what it is like to not have it. An advantage is that I can quickly pick out text if I know what I am looking for. I can rapidly do sudoku (for what that's worth) because if I am looking for 4s all I have to do is look for the red numbers. But I don't like to do sudoku fast, because that isn't fun for me. I do it slow. I can rapidly pick out words with unusual colors like the turquoise word "photography" for example. But a disadvantage is that I get words that have similar colors confused. Like Richard and David both have a lot of brown in them, so they look sort of the same to me.
I'm astonished that people don't know what I mean by the section of text which has a lot of yellow in it, or the part of music where the notes get all sparkly and silver or where black and white strobing spirals twist upwards. I honestly feel rather disgusted that people don't know what seems obvious to me. It's all I can do to just not mention it and remind myself that others don't have these sensations and try not to think about it too much. It's too depressing to realize that I am the only one with exactly these cross-connections. Even other synesthetes have different cross wirings, and in my opion they are wrong about things. I am joking, but part of my mind says that of course they are wrong to think that photography could be anything but turquoise. I mean really.
Words aren't all one solid color however, they are nuanced by letters other than the first one. Actually, some internal letters in a word do "pop out" and can bother me, for instance the word "grey" ought to be spelled with an E, not an A, because E is grey and A is red! The red A just looks silly in there to me.
I find phone numbers and series of numbers quite easy to remember. I think, well, that phone number is mostly red and blue, so it has 4s and 2s in it, and it ends in yellow (then I might get confused because 3,5,and 9 are various shades of yellow, with nine being the most gold, and three being more yellow.)
You can take a test for synesthesia, on page 5 of this scientific American article.
My synesthesia is not the least bit confusing for me. Well, except I get some words confused, that start with the same color. Like words starting with T and R. Or C and S. I can't imagine a world without it. Indeed, I don't know how anyone remembers anything without it. I strongly feel it helps me remember things very well.
When I was little, I would ask if it was OK for the letter C to be white, rather than yellow, because there is some variability for certain symbols. But the confused responses I would get made me embarrassed to talk about it further.
Some people I hear from try to turn it into some sort of mystical thing, and I find this annoying. I think I would know if I had magic powers, since I've always wanted them and have failed to possess them. Good grief, I'm certainly not a mystic at all! I'm just a funny little woman with a funny crosswired brain. So upon hearing such comments I shut up even further.
Now, finally people are talking about it in a scientific context! Hooray! So I have gathered the courage to reveal what seems to me to be a very ordinary vision of the world.
Other webauthors have summoned the courage to publish their own colored alphabets and I must say I strongly disagree about their colors! I mean this kindly and am poking fun at myself--Ramachandran says synesthetes do not agree about their perceptions.
so here is mine:
My synesthetic alphabet
A B C C D E E F G H I JK L M N O O P Q R S S
T U V W X Y Y Z
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 0 , . ; () ! ? & + @ -
𝝻 ∏ α β Σ
(extra letters show an alternate color which is acceptable.)
Some of my colors are what I think of as "alien" colors in that I can search throughout an entire roll of pantone colors and not feel that any of them are at all close. I know the color exists, in my head, but don't think I could point to it in the world around me. I can only come up with metaphorical descriptions, like "C is like sunshine on white sand", or "N is like the reflection of a pale blue sky on a pale grey piece of metal." Each color is very specific, and some have definite textures as well.
I also have synesthesia concerning sounds, so sounds are incredibly distracting for me. I have invested lots of money in ear plugs and ear muffs and take them everywhere. I write with them in, and my poor husband is always getting shushed so I can concentrate. The clock is ticking! Too many regularly spaced, little brown dots! The backhoe is backing up! Bright red dashes, how horrible! (I don't like red sounds.) And the funny thing about white noise? It usually really is white. Or grey.
Looking at other people interpreting this phenonmenon in the web, I don't know why they think it makes music "beautiful". It just is what it is. It's not like I am seeing this stuff in front of my eyes, but I get absolutely overwhelming impressions of sheets, dots, blobs, spirals, dashes, diamonds, and various shapes colored either black, brown, orange, red, grey, gold, silver, white, and sometimes maroon or reddish purple. Blue and green sounds are quite rare. I have no control over this, and the same sound always gives the same colored shape.
I think this is why I get incredibly excited hearing sounds I have never heard before, I get euphoric playing with electronic sounds. I am especially intrigued by "flanged" sounds. They bring me inexeplicable joy.
Here are more links
BBC radio article, "Purple numbers and sharp cheese"
PNAS publication "The Perceptual Reality of Synesthetic Colors"
Click on the "comments" below to see what I've heard from other synesthetes and people who are curious about synesthesia!