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 and understanding (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. There are many different types, but I am a very ordinary type of synesthete from what I can tell.
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! (I have included some of their posts below). I now know that I am not alone.
What I have learned is that 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 in terms of color and shape. I have more vague links to color and texture from other senses like taste and smell. But then, I think so do most people. How else would you have sharp cheese?
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.
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 the word cats is yellow and the word kittens is gold) and thought, hey, wait, I do that! But doesn't everyone?
And I just didn't think about it much. So I starting to contemplate it and talk about it, and have been astonished and alone to find other people don't do it.
One of my brother's daughters says she is adamant about letters and numbers and their colors and genders and personality. I don't have the association with gender or personality but I have strong likes and dislikes for certain letters and numbers. I have very exacting colors and textures for symbols.
My niece and I compare associations and disagree strongly about many (that's common, though there is a high level of agreement for some common symbols, so much so that linguists and neurologists think something is going on there.) 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. )
I also have a cousin who 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. My cousin calls this our family's "Daniel-itis" as it seems to stem from the Daniel branch of my family, my mom's side.
Several years ago, I decided to talk about my synesthesia if it seemed appropriate to do so, after reading the brilliant writer and neuroscientist, V. S. Ramachandran. He is one of my scientific heroes, as he verified what is going on in my brain with magnetic resonance imaginings of the brains of other synesthetes. He suggests it is a crosswiring that occurs in the brains of some people. That theory makes sense to me.
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 synesthesia. I can only guess what it is like to not have it.
I can quickly pick out text if I know what color word 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.
It can feel lonely if I reflect that I am alone in my particular perceptions. But aren't we all?
There is some sad part of me that will always feel astonished that people don't know what I mean if I try to describe the section of text in a book 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. It's depressing to realize that I am the only one with exactly these cross-connections. Even other synesthetes have different cross wirings. They are wrong, my brain automatically insists, with some astonishment, when another synesthete insists to me that M is red. It is not. It is jet black. Can't you see it? But no.
For me, each word takes on the color of the first letter. This is common for synesthetes.
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. Saturday and Sunday are both that strange, white-yellow alien color of S, but SAturday is tinged a happy red from the A following S, while SUnday takes on a sombre gre- blue hue from the U following the S.
I find phone numbers and series of numbers 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, online. I like the synesthesia battery, because it lets me fine-tune my answers to color associations, which is required I feel to get the answer just right. I mean, L is not just blue, it is deep dark blue. And H is not just red, it is fuzzy red, like dryer lint. My associations are very nuanced. I suspect that aspect is common to other synesthetes.
My synesthesia is not the least bit confusing for me. It aids organization and categorization, as everything is automatically, involuntarily color-coded. I get annoyed by the misconception that the associations are random like what might happen in a drug trip. It's also one-way, not two way, for me and for most synesthetes. That is, just because words starting with F are green, that does not mean that green things invoke words starting with F. The key of G is orange, but orange things do not invoke music in the key of G.
I can 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. Most synesthetes feel this way.
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. It turns out that C is one of my "alien colors" and impossible to describe, although I can see it in my head. I want to say it is sunshine one white sand. I have to use poetic metaphor for some colors.
I would love to see other synesthetic alphabets. It's fun to compare. Over 40% of synesthetes feel that A is red, and I agree. Isn't that amazing? Also, many feel that O is white, and I agree with that too. Common letters tend to have primary colors, while odd ones are unusual colors. My X is silver and my Z is a reddish maroon. But A is red, B is blue, C is that alien yellow color. I've noticed that very vertical symbols tend to be dark though I don't know if this trend holds completely true: 1, 7, I, M and ! are all black. L is very dark blue. T is dark brown.
My synesthetic alphabet
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S
T U V W X Y Z
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 , . ; () ! ? & + @ -
𝝻 ∏ α β Σ
It's very rewarding, by the way, for me to set these symbols in their correct colors. Though most color-pickers do not have the nuance required to communicate all the texture and hue that I perceive. This will be close enough.
As I mentioned, 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 often write wearing earplugs, 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" for me. 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 involuntary 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. Dr. Ramachandran discovered that the optical lobe of the brain lit up for some colored-hearing synesthetes experiencing sounds, which encourages me that I am "seeing" this with my brain, even if I am not seeing it with my eyes.
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. A flanged sound maintains the same pitch but changes in tonality. It is like a flanged sound is doing some sort of magic trick in my head, turning itself inside out while staying the same simultaneously.
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! Please feel free to comment as well.