Tuesday is long, thin and a smooth ice blue. My sister is acid yellow and spiked all over. And the number nine is scarlet velvet, just like Ravel’s Bolero. Now before, you set the social media police on me (or start searching for photos of my family under ‘weird and wonderful diseases’), I should probably let you into a secret: I have synaesthesia.
The dictionary defines synaesthesia as “the production of an impression relating to one sense by the stimulation of another sense”. But that doesn’t come anywhere near describing what’s really happening. Synaesthesia is an incessant eruption of the senses; in my head, everything links to everything else. Which means that whether we’re taking about facts, figures or philosophy, a whole host of colours, shapes, movements, placements, sounds and connections are being sparked. Mention something as simple as ‘cat’ and you’ve ignited a mental explosion akin to the Fourth of July. (A date which appears to either side of my eyes in spikey, deep royal blue, with a discordant brass and percussion overlay!)
Why I’m a synaesthete, I don’t know, but I do suspect it runs in the family. And I’m fairly certain that most people who share my condition have no idea it’s not commonplace. I discovered synaesthesia during a psychology class: the professor talking at length on the subject while I skulked in my seat, throwing confused glances at my fellow students. Surely, I thought, everyone does this?
A quick conversation with the teacher – and a couple of tests later – it was confirmed: I was most definitely a synaesthete. I went home and told my mother. “But surely,” she said, “everyone does this?”
For years we’d been referring to the ‘ribald red’ of C sharp, and the ‘grainy green’ of October. We just hadn’t realised we were relatively rare (an estimated four per cent of the population has some form of synaesthesia) in our way of thinking.
From what I understand, the synaesthete’s brain works differently: senses overlap and interchange, information is not filed in one place but linked to a myriad of other data (thus synaesthetes often seem to make intuitive leaps, or recall facts from years past), and normal rules don’t apply. And while it can be a strain (everything I see, hear, smell, taste and touch sparks memories, connections and irrelevant thoughts), synaesthesia can also be extremely useful.
Learning the gender of German nouns, for example, was relatively easy: feminine was red, masculine green and neuter white, and every time I recalled a word, the appropriate colour would flash in my head. It’s also been extremely valuable in quizzes: long-forgotten facts can be dredged from the depths of my mind if I just allow my brain to make the right links. And telephone numbers or licence plates are a doddle (as long as I can get the colours, textures and sounds in the right order!).
It gets even weirder: people are also colours and shapes (and often have soundtracks). Over the years I’ve worked out that those my brain classifies as ‘white’ or ‘classical’ are generally steadfast philosophers, while the ‘sharp reds’ are ideas enthusiasts, and ‘green basses’ play by the rules but can be extremely selfish. In fact, synaesthetes need a whole new language to explain their thought processes; describing a relationship as “indigo concrete poured underneath ivory silk, overlaid with a minor key” doesn’t even begin to describe what’s going on in my head! Words, it seems, are not nearly enough.
But it’s all worth it because, although being a synaesthete sets me apart, it also holds me together. It helps in my work (if a piece feels sludgy grey, I’ll shoot it through with pointed vermillion words, or a wave of golden phrasing) and my friendships (trust the minor navies; party with the crimson majors), colouring my creations and lighting my world. Without synaesthesia, I’d be living in a cardboard cut-out world. Now, please excuse me. It’s Monday, so my acute yellow angles are playing havoc with my ability to craft cobalt squares…
Do you think you might be a synaesthete? If zero is white and one is black, you may well be experiencing one of its forms. For more information, visit http://synesthete.org
I’d love to hear from you, whether or not you’re a synaesthete!