1. At what age were you diagnosed with synesthesia?
Had you heard of the condition before or was it a new
concept for you?
I can't remember not having this condition, but I didn't know what it was until about ten years ago. My mother taught me to read when I was four, and the letters in the words that I saw had specific colors. She used black and white flash cards so I don't know where the color came from.
The flash cards would say things like "Everyone Knows That Nose Is Not Toes". And the K's would be this beige-gold, the E's are silver grey, the N's would be dark grey with a bluish tinge—every single letter stood out as a very specific color to me even though the actual letters on her cards were black print.
These colors have always been the same for me, and each word takes on the color of the first letter, although internal letters sort of flash out and give each word a unique character. It always helped me with spelling in school, since all I had to do was remember the color of each part of the word.
I would ask my mom, when I learned numbers, why can a red number (4) and a blue number (2) make a brown one (6) when you add them together? It didn't make sense to me. I still have a terrible time doing basic math in my head and always use a calculator, although I like to think that I am good at graphic or geometrical math.
I also would complain about noises by they way they looked, for example, construction equipment rumbling on our street would make thick black smoky lines, I would describe an insect sound bothering me as "that high thin yellow line".
When I asked my mom about it, she got excited and started taking notes, and acting like I had some special ability. I think she would have liked for her little girl to have a special power, but I could tell she did not understand what I was trying to tell her. I didn't want to disappoint her so I shut up about it.
I usually kept it to myself, because when I did try to talk about it, people looked confused. But most of the time I wouldn't even think to mention it, because it is so normal to me—it is the only reality I know!—so it isn't something I would ordinarily think to mention. So I didn't grow up feeling like I was hiding anything. I just had to remember to not describe my perceptions in a way that made people look confused.
Although I was a good student, I stared hating having to go to school. Overwhelmed by having a lot of sensations at once, particularly at school, I starting getting panic attacks when out in public. I just often felt that what I needed was to be in a quiet room, so I could recover to be able to go out again. My mother worried about all the time I spend alone in my room. I often loathed going outside and encountering more noise and sensations, though I did (and still do) enjoy it in controlled doses.
Because of these behavioral peculiarities, my parents had me see a psychiatrist when I was around 9 years old. I described some of my synesthesia to her, confident she would know exactly what I meant. After all, she was a psychiatrist! But she suggested to my parents that I might be schizophrenic, and even recommended some medication for me! My mother's sister was diagnosed as schizophrenic, so perhaps they were worried that I had inherited her condition.
Fortunately I never took the pills, and my parents forgot about it all. I knew I didn't have the symptoms of schizophrenia, but this scary incident reinforced my desire to keep my sensations of color private.
Sometimes I would forget and slip and talk about it. I remember that about 15 years ago, in graduate school—I was getting my PhD in medicinal chemistry—I had synthesized three drugs which our lab had dubbed "beta-lactcys", "alpha-lactcys", and "cell-cys". We normally would label our flasks, but we ran out of sharpie markers. But we had colored tape!
I told another scientist in the lab, "Well, this is great! We will label the flask of alpha-lactcys with red tape, because A is red. And beta-lactcys will have blue tape, because its name is blue. Cell-cys is a yellow name, but we don't have any yellow tape, so we will just have to use the green."
And I remember my coworker had her face all screwed up in confusion and my heart fell, she didn't understand! Then she just laughed nervously like I was making a bad joke and so I pretended that I had just been joking.
I was never officially diagnosed with synesthesia, but about 10 years ago I was in the now extinct Waking Owl Bookshop in Salt Lake, and ran across Richard Cytowic's The Man Who Tasted Shapes. I immediately recognized my condition as the subject of his book, and secretly sought out more scientific information on the topic. Gradually I have gathered the courage to talk about it to friends and family, though I always feel embarrassed about it.
I've also seen the now classic test designed by Dr. Ramachandran, which has you pick out a triangle of 2's from a matrix of 5's. I do this pretty quickly since the 2's are blue and the 5's are yellow-gold.
The scientific articles that are now such a popular area of research are greatly reassuring to me! I can show them to someone, and say, see, I'm not crazy.
2. How does your synesthesia manifest? (i.e. seeing
letters in color, being able to smell music)
As I describe above, letters, numbers, and punctuation marks and mathematical function symbols all have colors that I see when I read them, even though I know the text is not colored. These colors have always been the same throughout my life.
Some synesthetes with this condition, called grapheme, also feel symbols have a gender and personality. I don't. They are just very distinct colors.
Also, when I hear a sound, the sound is a colored shape. I don't know how else to describe it. I don't see it in front of my eyes, but the colored shape is as real as the sound itself, in fact they are the same thing. The color and shape depend on the pitch and timbre. Base notes, as you may expect, are dark black and brown, treble notes are shades of gold, silver, white, yellow, maroon, red, and orange. Occasionally there is grey-blue but I regret there are no green sounds. (Green is my favorite color.)
The shapes sounds make vary from sheets, lines, spirals, diamonds, balls, and a shape that reminds me of a balled up fist with the knuckles visible. Crickets chirping always make a brown balled up fist shape that repeats itself flashing on and off, for example.
3. Do you belong to a group or organization of
synesthetes? If so, what group, and what are they
I don't belong to any official organization, but now welcome anyone who wants to test or question me—after all, I'm a scientist and want to know more about this, too! I also want to reassure anyone who has it and feels like they might be crazy or strange to feel better about themselves.
I've been able to write to other synesthetes on the internet, and as I suspected, no one has the same colored alphabet or sensations. We really are all wired differently. Some other synesthete will write to me, "I can't believe your M is black, when it is so red to me!" And on a very deep level I know I am right and they are wrong, I know M is jet black! But intellectually I know we are just wired differently.
Surprisingly, however, we may be more similar that we think, too. I have read that it is very common for people who don't think of themselves as synesthetes to see time as having a shape, and this is the most common type of synesthesia. For example, my husband tells me he sees the week as having a shape like a roller coaster. And the perception of the calendar having a shape runs in his family. I tease him that he is weird! (As if I'm not.) Time does not have a shape for me.
And although synesthetes don't agree on which letter has what color, many themes appear common. I was utterly astonished to read an recent article on synesthesia in New Scientist magazine that said that A's are often red, O's are often white, and Q's and J's are often pink or purple. Well, that is all true for me, and my Q and J are reddish purple. I spent the next half hour exclaiming aloud, "how do they know what color my Q and J are? How the hell do they know what is in my head?"
Their explanation was that common letters like A B and C tend to get common, primary colors, and "odd" infrequently used letters like X and Z get more unusual colors. (My X is silver and my Z is maroon.)
4. How do you express your synesthesia?
I'm not sure what this question is asking. If it is asking how I use it artistically, I suppose I do when I compose music for myself. But I don't normally think of sharing it with others unless they ask. It really is sort of embarrassing. But I don't mind embarrassing myself for the sake of knowledge.
5. Are any of your relatives synesthetes?
I've asked my parents and siblings and nieces and nephews and am sad and surprised that none of them have this.
(Update: I have just learned that my niece definitely has this, and perhaps more so than I do. She has not only an association of symbols with colors and textures as I do, but also genders and personality, which I do not have.)
(Additional update: I have also learned I have a cousin and an uncle that have synesthetic associations as well. The cousin, who teaches history, associates time periods with colors. He is also a musician and associates musical keys with colors.)
My schizophrenic aunt died before I decided to ask my family about synesthesia. So I've wondered if she had synesthesia instead and perhaps was even misdiagnosed because of it. Perhaps the medication they put her on at an early age was what really made her act in bizarre ways—but of course I don't really know. She did not have symptoms of schizophrenia that I am aware of (hearing voices and such), but was simply very reclusive and had difficulty interacting with people in social situations.
My mother's brother and his two children are all profoundly dyslexic to the point that they write things out phonetically, so they appear illiterate, but they are highly intelligent normal people that have learned to cope with their disabilities and some write prolifically with the aid of a spell checker. I have wondered if their conditions are related to mine.
6. How does synesthesia affect you on a day to day
basis or when you're doing "ordinary" tasks like
buying groceries or doing laundry?
I'm comforted that I now have a reason for my extreme dislike of crowds and excess stimulus. I've successfully fought what has felt like mild agoraphobia—not wanting to leave the house—for most of my life, and now I just understand that my threshold level for enduring stimulus is just set a lot lower than most people's, and I am sure my synesthesia is a major factor. Understanding this helps me to deal with it. I take stimulus in controlled doses and that way I'm able to socialize normally.
Synesthesia helps me remember things well, and helps me find passages in text quickly. If I am researching, let's say, lactose, I look at an article and quickly pick out the dark blue L's to find where it talks about the dark blue word lactose. This technique also helps me with sudoku puzzles quickly for what that's worth, but I really don't enjoy doing things quickly. When I read for pleasure, I read slower than average.
Although I remember things well with synesthesia, it also has its disadvantages. I can never turn it off, and sounds are always intruding into my thoughts.
I utterly hate it when people whistle in public. I don't like the timbre of whistling. How dare someone penetrate my private brain with their stupid, blue grey line! If they only knew how intrusive it was, they would stop. I usually glare at them and hope they get the point.
When I go out I carry ear plugs with me at all times because I can not endure certain sounds that every else seems to ignore. I often shop with them in. I can't believe the loud music played in stores! It paralyzes me, enrages me, and I have to work to ignore it.
I started out in college as a music major with a scholarship, since I have a skill for duplicating what I hear on the piano or harp. However, reading music is a pain for me, and I quickly realized I couldn't hold a candle to more technically proficient musicians, so changed my major. But I still play music and I love to hear sounds I have never heard before, and love playing with electronic sounds. My brain does little flip flops of delight upon hearing a sound that remains the same pitch but slowly changes timbre. It is like a visual illusion, and part of my brain is going, "how did that sound do that?" I love that sort of sound.
I'm tormented by a lot of man-made sounds, clocks ticking and traffic and so on. Most natural sounds are preferable, although even bird songs can piss me off, and I really hate is the sound of cicadas, which are bothering me right now. They are high thin red lines that so annoyingly thin but fuzz out in sections. I usually don't like red sounds.
There are times where my synesthesia gets more intense, and can even become painful, like before and during a migraine.
If I am studying or reading I need absolute quiet. My husband is a fidgeter and I have to constantly stop him from making endless tan dots (tapping fingers) while I read. He is very understanding and I love him for that.
I can remember phone numbers very easily, and sometimes my husband asks, "OK, do that color memory thing", and gives me a number to remember, like an address. And I'll say, well, that's 2234, so that would be blue blue yellow red. Tim is always exclaiming about how I can remember which number each cable channel is when he can't. So he depends on me as a memory device, which is both flattering and a little annoying when he can't do it himself.
Sometimes I get symbols confused, however, it is not always an advantage! 3, 5, and 9 are all different shades of yellow and gold. So I can get them confused. The names Richard and David both look dark brown to me so I have to work to keep them straight. And for example, if someone's name does not match their coloring I have a harder time remembering their name. For example, Lilit (the name of the interviewer) is very dark, with the dark blue L's and the black I's and a dark brown T at the end. So if I were to meet you and you were blond, I would temporarily feel thrown off and confused.
But this has confirmed for me that, even for people who don't have synesthesia, we are all wired very differently, and we have to be understanding and forgive each others' quirky hardware! It's a miracle we can communicate at all.
I think this is part of why it is so hard to change people, and you had better be sure the change is worth doing before you try it! If someone isn't behaving the way you need them to behave, perhaps you had better ask yourself if it is really necessary, or find another model with different hardware.
I've realized that no one else, not even other synesthetes, can ever really sense what just I see, and that makes me feel pretty lonely at times. I sometimes fantasize about building a device that would automatically transform sounds into the images that accompany them, so other people would "get it". But we have to accept that we all experience the world in pretty different ways.
This realization has made me more sympathetic to people who behave in ways I can't relate to, or see the world in ways that make no sense to me. It is pointless to try to "correct" others by making them more like ourselves. I believe the only corrections to our hardware that are worth considering involve the pursuit of objective truth, and the pursuit of kindness.
7. What misconceptions do other people have about
synesthesia? How do you usually explain it to curious
I tell them that it is a neurological condition where two or more signals in the brain get cross-wired. I have heard that explanation from scientists who study synesthesia, and this both describes how I experience it and makes sense to me.
I'll give people examples of my everyday experience: that words starting with the letter F appear pale green, those starting with the letter A are red, and each letter has its own color. That numbers and punctuation marks are also different colors, and how they help me remember series of numbers like phone numbers.
Also, sounds have specific shapes and colors that depend on the pitch and timbre: base beats in music are these ubiquitous ball shaped black objects that strobe in and out of existence every time I hear the beat, for example.
Then some people ask if it works the other way around, in reverse, like, if I see a black round object would I hear something like a base beat, or if I were to see pale green thing, would I see the letter F? And I think, are you kidding? No way! I say. That would be weird! And I feel like they have not understood me at all. The cross wiring is one-way.
Some people have remarked that my world must be something like an LSD trip. I have never had any sort of drug trip, and perhaps they did not mean to insult me, but I feel insulted. I feel like they must think I am some sort of weird freak. I have written recently that I think it actually makes categorization easier. Acids are red, bases and blue, pieces in the key of A are reddish purple, and so on.
Some people amuse me by asking me what color their name is. I think, well, OK, I can tell you, but another synesthete would say something different. I wonder, don't they understand that what I see is not an objective reality?
Those who aggravate me the most are people who listen to my careful explanation and then tell me they think it is some sort of psychic ability. I can then tell that they have not been listening to me at all and are engaged in wishful thinking. I can't tell the future or read minds any better than someone else with some other neurological condition, such as dyslexia.
More intelligent questions that I have received ask whether it is the same if I read a word in a different language. Of course it is. It just depends on the letters, not the language. Amigo is red since the A is red. Also, I have been asked if I still experience synesthesia in dreams. Of course, it is the same in dreams and never goes away.
8. What is your profession?
I'm a book author and have written a book called Herbs Demystified, a book on the drug-like molecules in popular herbs and how they work, for non-scientists.
For over ten years I taught college chemistry and biochemistry full time, and now I do it online. I wonder if organic chemistry that I enjoy tends attract synesthetes since it involves pattern recognition and noticing what letters (atoms) are connected to which, and how.
Sometimes I've confided with my students that all my hydrogens look red, because my H's are red, and all my carbons look yellow, since my C's are yellow. That my protons are pale turquoise, (with a red plus sign on them, since plus signs are red) and my electrons are grey (with a black minus sign on them, since minus signs are black). I complain about the colors of the plastic molecular modeling kits we use, where carbons are classically represented as black balls, and everyone knows that carbon atoms are yellow. They laugh, at least.
Then I tell them I'm joking, these particles are too small for any wavelength of color to hit them, really. But I encourage them to really imagine these small objects using whatever color they like, since that's half the battle in doing chemistry. I surreptitiously look around the room to see if any student also has synesthesia and has their own version of colored letters. But no one reveals themselves, can you blame them? I'm sure it helps to be a synesthete, in chemistry.