an introduction to my synesthesia
When I was young, I thought everyone was like me and knew that all sounds came with colored shapes. I have a neurological condition called synesthesia. There are many types of synesthesia, but I believe the researchers who say it stems from certain sensory areas of the brain failing to undergo a normal "pruning" action. This essential brain pruning happens during early embryological development. So, I am just a little cross-wired, or hyper-connected, in my brain, I think. Every time one sense is stimulated, you get another unrelated sense that is consistently triggered.
Besides having this audiovisual or "colored hearing" synesthesia that I just mentioned, I also have one of the most common forms, called "grapheme". In grapheme, text appears overlaid with color. Every letter has a different color, which has remained consistent my whole life, and every word is colored with the hue of the first letter. All words starting with A are red, because A is red for me, every word starting with B is blue because B is blue, every word starting with C is yellow, because C is yellow, and so on. Curiously, common letters have more primary colors, and oddball letters like X and Z have more oddball colors, and this too is common for people with grapheme. My X is sparkly silver, and my Z is always maroon, something halfway between red and brown.
This involuntary linking of senses tends to be genetic, and I have other family members on my mother's side that report various types and degrees of synesthesia. Because the linkages are relatively randomly formed early on in life, we all disagree about what color the letter A is, for example. Even though I know my brain is just manufacturing this sensation, part of me thinks, my god, how could they be so blind as to not see that D is brown? Because it is just so obvious to me. There is an interesting emotional component to these linkages that I find difficult to set aside; seeing a sign in the "wrong" color causes the involuntary reaction, how could they be so stupid to use the wrong color, Car Care is so yellow and not red! And then I remind myself that they are not stupid and I am just strangely wired, and then I feel a tinge of loneliness.
It has only been late in life, in my 30's, that I stumbled across scientific references to this phenomenon and thought, oh, this is somewhat rare and you mean not everyone does this? At that point I started to really pay attention to it. I try to find the courage to talk about it openly, and I've stopped being surprised that most people have no idea what this is, and I then have a lot of explaining to do.
Still, I think most people have some degree of this! If you ask around, what color the highest notes are, say, on a piano, most people will say they are light colored, and small, and sharp and pointy shaped. And of course this is the correct answer! I think. I feel relieved that other people know this! And I do hope you know it is obvious that low pitched notes, which I have to work hard to not call "dark" notes, are black or very dark, and large, and perhaps rounded and fat? When you hear a fast base beat, does it not make a strobe light sensation, with the beat making the dark part of the strobe and the silence in between making the light part? And isn't that strobe light exciting? I don't know how far I can go with this or what people can relate to.
My audiovisual synesthesia does not interfere with my eyesight, it is not something I see with my eyes. Thus I find it harder to describe, than the grapheme. Music is especially difficult for me to describe because it is constantly changing. Where are the colored shapes? Well, I just know they are part of the music, and that they are there. I could not point to where they are. They ARE the music. I just know that they exist simultaneously to the sound. Can you point to a sound? No? So how do I know you really hear it? Well, that is the same problem.
For example, I just know that my husband's voice makes a large dark fluffy thick rope like object that makes other sounds difficult to hear because this rope obscures my view of them. So if he starts talking during a radio show I am listening to, the dark, thick, fluffy rope-like object covers up the other colors and shapes that I was paying attention to. And I feel distress because I am temporarily blinded.
I don't think my audiovisual version of synesthesia is as resolved or defined as other people with this condition. I have heard of musicians with synesthesia who have perfect pitch (I do not, sadly!) and claim that different keys are different colors. I wish I had that, I do not. It is not so distinctive for me as it is for text. The textures of the sounds, and their shapes, are what are most distinctive and easy to describe. They come in all sorts of abstract shapes like spirals, dots, balls, steps, diamonds, ropes, cords, spikes, large flat sheets, and so on.
The colors of sounds range from black to brown to red, to orange, yellow, and white and silver, gold too. Blue sounds, for me, are not that common, if I were to hear them, it might be like a metallic gong sound of the right pitch, or perhaps certain bells of low or medium pitch, and then it would not be BLUE blue, but a dingy, greyish blue. (I have to spell "grey" with an "e" and not an "a" because "e" is grey and having a red "a" in grey just looks so stupid.) I have never heard anything that is green and can not imagine what that would sound like. For some reason green and sound never got hooked up in my brain.
When I was a little girl I just assumed everyone saw the same things I did. Yet people just did not talk about it, so I did not think about it all that much. There were times when I thought people were talking about it, and I would get terribly excited, and think, finally! Failing to receive any confirmation of my perceptions just led to confusion and disappointment, and then since no one understood what I was complaining about, I stopped even thinking of mentioning it.
Not understanding the assignment
I must have been about six or seven. In my school cafeteria at Arbolita we had special events. One time, a music teacher came, and we all sat on the floor in a circle around her. Large blank pieces of paper were handed out to every child, and we were told that we were going to listen to music, and draw what the music sounded like. At last! Why had no one done this before!
They played some classical music, and, for me, describing the way music looks is quite hard, because it is constantly changing. It is not just a static picture. A repetitive beat might just be a series of dots endlessly going off into the horizon. As simple as that is, how would you draw it? Music is a complicated, ever-changing picture so you can't just draw it because it won't stay still.
Still, I drew lines and shapes and squiggles and all sorts of abstract shapes, which is how it appears to me. I was the only one who did this. Everyone else had pictures of things like houses and people and lakes and trees and real objects. I felt confused. I thought we were supposed to draw the music. I remember one teacher looking at my drawings and trying to be polite but she seemed very disappointed in me. I felt stupid, embarrassed.
Fantasia let me down
I do remember being told that our family was going to see Disney's Fantasia at our La Habra theater in Los Angeles, I must have been around four or five in the late sixties. I was told that for the first time, this film was created so the music would match what you saw! Well, it was about time! I thought. I just could not wait to see this.
I remember sitting in the theater waiting for the movie to start, and being so excited. Finally! I really could not understand why this had not been done before. Even as young as I was, I felt, surely there is a great need for everyone to see on screen the same thing that you are hearing!
I watched and watched and watched, and there were little cartoons of hippopotamuses, and of Mickey Mouse, and even of a symphony playing, but during the whole movie, I could not find even one tiny instance where the music was being matched by any colored shapes on the screen. Did I miss it? I was so confused! I asked several times afterwards, where was the part when the music matched the colors? I did not see it! That was when I started to feel a bit alone.
Laser show disappointment
Griffith Park Observatory, a locus of inspiration and disappointment, but mostly inspiration for my nine-year old self
I had a similar experience going to Griffith Park Observatory, which always simply thrilled me. Such a magnificent setting, and all this exciting science going on, too! Going there when I was young helped drive me to teach astronomy later in life. I cherish my memories of going to this magnificent spot of learning. I must have been about nine, and we were going to a new thing called a laser show at the planetarium there. Again, I was promised that the laser lights would match the music being played. I had the same well it is about time! feeling and excited anticipation of finally seeing what I knew was there when hearing the music.
This was even more disappointing, because many abstract shapes and colors were portrayed by these lasers along with music, but none of them were even remotely like what the music looked like to me! I felt like I was on some alien planet. Crushed! Disoriented, I might have complained a little afterwards, but I think I was learning that for whatever reason, people just did not talk about this or understand what I was talking about. And so I stopped thinking about it, over the years.
Later in life I was delighted to work in a planetarium, and even put on my own laser shows, but these were "canned" shows that were pre-programmed with someone else's effects. I knew by then that no one expected the music to match the colored shapes.
Now I know that not even other synesthetes perceive what I perceive, that we all live in our own little universes. While that can feel lonely at times, I like to think that remembering that we are all wired a little differently helps me feel more respect and compassion for people who don't see things just the way I do.