When people ask me what my synesthesia is like, I like to recommend that they read Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant by Daniel Tammet. But I am not a savant.
Now, Tammet comes up today because he has recited the first 22,514 digits of pi from memory with the aid of his synesthesia. I find his feat truly inspiring and it gives me a little more hope for humankind just knowing that what he can do is possible.
I can say that, for me, I perceive 22,514 as blue blue yellow black red, with the little bitsy black comma after the first blue twos.
Like Tammet, I also have a sense of primes as standing out, being lonely or special. But I can not "sense" primes as he does. I have simply memorized a few of the common ones like everyone else. 17 is tall and black and pretty. 19 and 29 are both rather edgy and ugly to me. The gold nines in there just feel unstable. I feel sorry for people born on the 19th or the 29th, but I don't tell them this, because I don't want them to feel badly.
I love 3's and numbers that are multiples of three. I was born three minutes before midnight (12 is a multiple of three) on the 3rd day of the 12th month in 1965. I find all the threes in my birthday very harmonious. Tammet also reacts with great emotion to various numbers and I can relate to that.
But I could not do what Tammet does, nor would I want to try. I am not a savant like Tammet. I am slow to calculate in my head. Too bad! All I can say is that my synesthesia definitely makes my memory slightly better than average for certain forms of data.
I don't know if I have Aspergers like Tammet does. People with Aspergers are supposed to struggle to understand other's emotions. I flatter myself to think that I understand people's emotions better than most, and worry a great deal about other people's emotions. People with Apergers are said to have trouble with sarcasm and take things literally, while I feel I am more sarcastic than most. In fact I think a lot of people don't often get my subtle humor, but that could simply be because I am not as funny as I think I am. (I think I am hilarious.)
But like people with Aspergers, I do hate and struggle with eye contact as it makes me feel at times like I am being electrocuted, it is so emotionally intense for me (hooray for the new world of video chats where I get to fake eye contact!)
I also hate motion in my peripheral vision. Ceiling fans make me feel like I am in a giant blender. I hate travel for these reasons. I love routines, I find them soothing. I have some characteristics of Aspergers, but not others. Many more people with Aspergers have synesthesia than the neurotypical population.
I'm more sensitive to physical stimuli and my own body sensations and have to be careful not to alert my very tolerant physician for what might be ordinary body sensations. I've ripped the labels out of a lot of my clothing so they don't touch my skin. Everyone I know seems to like massages and I had to try them a number of times before concluding that I hate them. And to let that be okay for me. I must wear loose clothing so the sensation of clothes on my body does not distract me.
I agree with Tammet that having each number a certain color helps me memorize sequences of numbers and other things as well. Musical notes, letters, other sorts of patterns. My best party trick is memorizing musical patterns.
Tammet gives such a good description of his sense of numbers and letters and sounds as colored and textured. I am so grateful he wrote his book because it helps me feel less lonely. There is something very isolating about having unique involuntary perceptions that you can not easily share with others.
This is how I my brain perceives letters and numbers when I look at text. Although my computer is altering the colors--5 should be more yellow, and there are other things that don't quite match and I don't have time to fix them properly.
When I see text, each word takes on the color of the first letter for the most part. (Holly is red because of the red H.) This first letter dictating the color of the word rule holds true for most synesthetes including Tammet. Extra colors for a particular symbol are "acceptable" alternatives that don't irritate me. Some symbols have what I call Alien Colors and are almost impossible to respresent perfectly as they are very nuanced hues and textures.
Tammet's colors don't entirely match mine (that is common for synesthetes to disagree on color associations, though it is surprising how much we DO agree, which I think says something to the nature of the universality of various linguistic associations.)
How did I learn about my condition?
I was stupidly incurious about my own perceptions until I ran across a book in my mid-thirties on synesthesia called The Man Who Tasted Shapes. I asked around, and was disoriented and shocked to find I was alone in my perceptions.
But aren't we all, ultimately? The story of thinking that everyone else has synesthesia too and taking it for granted for most of one's life is a surprisingly common one for synesthetes.
Here is an interview about my synesthesia that I was asked to do in 2018. It just covers some of the basics. If I were to write all my thoughts on synsthesia it might take a book. Which is another idea.
My goals in embarrassing/exposing myself in this way are:
1) to help other people who also have unusual perceptions to feel less lonely and to investigate their minds to their own benefit.
2) to support brain research
3) to help people who know non-neurotypical people to be more understanding and tolerant of these people's hypersensitivities.
4) I frequently worry that my hypersensitivities will inadvertently offend someone. I never want that to happen. I need more time-outs than most people from stimulus and socializing, but I still enjoy socializing and people. I would like to announce something like, "I come in peace", for the most part. I suspect other synesthetes feel similarly.
Feel free to ask me followup questions.
From my 2018 interview:
I have had at least one fun distraction lately in being interviewed by a synesthesia researcher. And for another study, the Max Planck Institute is storing my spit. I hope they do good things with it. They are studying the genetics of synesthesia.
If you are curious about the life of an ordinary, non-savant synesthete like me, here are my responses:
Do you think synesthesia is a blessing or a curse?
I definitely think it is a blessing. It isn’t a superpower, it doesn’t make me psychic or anything! But I remember things far better than most people because everything gets automatically color-coded involuntarily. So if I want to recall something, I first remember the color associated with it, and then I can remember the rest. I can’t imagine how people remember anything without it. I would feel blind without it and I would never let anyone take it from me. I have never not had it, so I can’t imagine what it is like not to have it. I dream with it of course. It is just my constant reality.
I don’t like how some people mistakenly assume synesthesia is like being on a drug trip where ALL your senses are “mixed up”. My associations are the opposite of random. They are always the same, predictable, and involuntary. There is nothing random about it.
A is always red, B is always blue, the key of G is always orange, etc. If those associations were to change I would find that disorienting and disturbing. Second, it isn't all my senses that are involved. It is one sense mapped onto a second sense in a predictable way.
Is it possible for you to describe what you see?
It depends. For my grapheme (seeing text as colored), that’s super easy. I could draw A as red, B as blue, C as yellow, etc. with various textures. Some letters are “alien colors” though which I struggle to find around me, I have to use poetic descriptions, like C is like “sunshine on white sand” and the letter N is “like the reflection of a pale, blue grey body of water on silver metal”.
For sounds, it is harder. Sounds change over time and I get the overwhelming impression (I don’t see it with my eyes!) of moving colored textured shapes.
If I had some ability to do animation to portray what I sense, I would.
I suspect most people might find my aural landscape more boring than they expect. I have no green sounds, I don’t know why. It is like that connection in my brain was not made, which is a shame as I love green. Blue is also rather rare for my colored hearing as well. Certain metallic bells or metallic sounds can trigger a silvery blue sheet-like object at times. Every other color is evident though.
Base beats are large, dark round objects. High pitched sounds are small sharp edged light colored objects.
People’s voices are like endless tubes or strings or wires, with textures ranging from fuzzy to bumpy to smooth, anywhere from black to brown to tan to grey or white or yellow.
I can’t live with ticking clocks in my house. I get endless series of crumpled-edged tan dots marching off to infinity and it makes me irritable. My husband notices when I disable clocks when we travel. “Holly sign,” he laughs, pointing to all the clocks around the rental that I have unplugged.
How do you feel about music?
I feel very strongly, as I suppose many non-synesthetes do as well. Even when I was very young I was fascinated at how it can change people’s moods. I wanted to study the brain and music in college because of this.
I always have a music track running in my mind, not like a hallucination, but like ordinary (I suppose) visualization that is constantly running. There has been a lot written on people who have perpetual musical imagery and I have that.
The only time my mental music is not running is when there is external music playing.
My mental music is always in one of two forms. It is either an “earworm” (a repetitive motif from something I have recently heard) which invariably gets me in a crabby mood, regardless of what it is, or what I call “dream music”.
Dream music comes during my dreams but also when I am awake, it is involuntary, just two or four measures, almost always in a major key, very simple, repetitive, but it makes me very happy. I joke that I know I made it up because it isn’t very good. It is on the level of Mary Had a Little Lamb in complexity. But it makes me happy.
My theory is two different loops take place in my brain when these happen, and one is irritating for some reason, and the other one is soothing. It might be something similar to a seizure loop. I would love to know how my brain looks different with these two different processes running, say, on a functional MRI.
Over the past several years I have tried to pay more close attention to what is “playing” in my head so I can try to deliberately switch to dream music because that puts me in a better mood! If I have an earworm, I turn on ambient relaxing music to knock it out of my head, or I try to deliberately focus to get my dream music running again.
I have written more about my continuous musical imagery here:
My perpetual music track
I very much dislike background music in most stores and many restaurants. I now understand this dislike of certain sounds is a condition called misophonia, and I have written about that as well.
Very melodic background music makes me feel out of control if I am trying to focus on something else like a conversation. (Melody is like a conversation and I have to work to tune it out. Ambient music which is less melodic is far more pleasant to me and I can have that going.)
I have to shop wearing earplugs just to focus. I feel like someone is shouting at me and I can’t tune it out. It’s unbelievable to me that other people can tolerate this. I do feel like an alien when I see other people happily shopping and the music is just screaming at everyone.
Do you play any instruments? If so, does your synesthesia help you tune and hit the right notes?
I began with piano lessons at age 7, and then explored the Celtic harp at age 14. I love to sing. I won a music scholarship out of 100 contestants when I was 17, to my first year of college.
I feel though my synesthesia helped me “cheat” as I never had the discipline when I was young to read music with ease, or to practice regularly. My synesthesia does help me picture intervals clearly, and I play by ear extremely well. My current music teacher says that I have a gift for duplicating what I hear. It is only my finger dexterity (or clumsiness) that limits how well I play, and building that up is something that requires practice.
Unfortunately I was too young and too undisciplined to make use of my music scholarship. I abandoned music to double major in biology and chemistry, and then got a PhD in medicinal chemistry. It made me very sad for twenty years not to be playing music, but I eased back into it around age 42, starting like a beginner, and resolving to work just as hard as a baby, beginning student. It has paid off over the years, and is again a joy in my life to play for people.
My favorite musical thing to do is to compose. I also love playing for people in nursing homes. People with dementia always remember music even though they have forgotten everything else.
Now that I am 53, I have learned over the past ten years that I can do music again, and it requires practice practice practice!
I deliberately used my synesthesia to train myself to read music at long last, something I thought I would never be able to do. I realized the problem was that black notes on sheet music had no color! Words, numbers, text appears colored for me. That's how I understand what is written. Well no wonder those black dots on sheet music had no meaning. They had no color! No wonder I struggled to read music. The lightbulb lit up over my head when I made this discovery. I realized that I had to give my sheet music notes color in order to understand them!
How I colorify my sheet music and give meaning to otherwise meaningless uncolored notes
So I bought 7 highlighter markers and marked over each note I missed, making every G orange, every D blue, etc (the *concept* of the key of D is blue even though I rarely hear blue sounds; the alphabetical letter D is dark brown). I still do this on occasion but now I associate the position on the staff with a color, which has meaning to me. The black notes had no color and thus no meaning to me. It is such a joy now to open up any piece of music and be able to read it and play. I never thought I could do that when I was young.
How does synesthesia affect your life?
I’m probably more introverted because of it, and all my pockets are all full of earplugs. I think it has helped me academically because it helps me remember things very well.
Is synesthesia ever a burden to you?
I do hate background music in public places. I really hate it! And clicking clocks. So I always have earplugs on me in case I run into a place that I can’t handle.
In general I get overstimulated easily, more than most people. Because of this, I don’t like traveling for long, extended trips, because that involves a lot of stimulation that I have to work to tune out. I enjoyed going to France last year, for ten days, but I don’t think I would have enjoyed being gone longer than that.
It’s complicated too because I greatly miss my four cats when I travel, and that has nothing to do with synesthesia. I’m terrible to plan a trip with. I try to minimize the time away as much as possible. I find it funny that people enjoy winning vacations on game shows. I think they are nuts. I would pay to be able to stay home.
I love to socialize with friends, but if an evening party drags on for many hours I start to feel like my head might explode. I think even non-synethetes feel that way though. It may just be the natural tendency of an introvert, which I am.
I used to have panic attacks, starting when I was about 9, and it was horrible, I felt like I was going to die. I didn’t understand back then it was a consequence of overstimulation. I was so embarrassed and guilty about it.
Fortunately there is a lot of understanding about panic attacks these days. I have not had one for over a decade thanks to a lot of cognitive behavioral therapy which saved me in many ways. I used to avoid situations where I would get overstimulated, which only made my fear of these situations worse. Now I know not to avoid situations, but to plan and take them in small doses, and then greater doses, until I feel very comfortable with them. These days I feel I can pretty much do anything that anyone else does.
I have an extremely happy life, and I feel like I am an extremely happy and fortunate person.
How does synesthesia help you in life?
I am sure it has helped me as a college professor, a writer, a chemist, because it helps my memory. I would joke with my chemistry students that the molecular model kits we used had all the wrong colors for the atoms. OK, hydrogen can be red. But everything else they got wrong. Carbons should be yellow because C is yellow. They are usually black in molecular model kits. They did not consult me.
I can play music by ear better than most. I remember dates better than most. I don’t have a super incredible memory, like that of Daniel Tammet, who is a famous synesthete. He recited the digits of pi to several thousand decimal places. That doesn’t even sound like fun to me. I don’t think I could get very far with that sort of thing. I think I am a very ordinary sort of synesthete. Not like Mr. Tammet.
I can remember phone numbers. Not pi.
You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.