Ever since I was little — I guess ever since I knew letters and numbers — they each had a color when I pictured them. For example, S and 6 were always yellow, E green, 7 brown, L and O white with black outlining. And the days of the week had colors too: Tuesday was yellow, Wednesday green, Thursday purple, and Saturday, also yellow.
I never really thought anything of it; I assumed everyone saw the same thing.
Within the last year or so, I vaguely remember reading something about seeing numbers and letters as different colors. I don’t remember where I saw it, but I said to myself, “Oh, so it is a real thing and not everyone can see it.” And I quickly forgot about it.
A few weeks ago, I saw a book on the New Books rack at the local library. I am a book fanatic, and even though I have plenty of books on my shelves, I can’t go to the library without getting a book. It was a novel called Tuesday Nights in 1980. It is about an art critic with synesthesia. He sees and even smells things associated with paintings. The book contained some information about synesthesia in the introduction, and I then started to do some research. I don’t know any other synesthetes, so please let me know if you are one.
Synesthesia is a sort of crossing over of one sense into another. There are many different types. One of the more common forms is the type I have, known as grapheme-color synesthesia, where letters and/or numbers are perceived as colored. Although they always appear pretty much the same color to the same synesthete, the colors are not universal among different people. For example, I see 6 as yellow, but someone else might always see it as blue. However, studies have found that sometimes synesthetes see the same color for a letter or number; for example, A is usually red.
Generally, this “condition” lasts throughout someone’s lifetime. The colors I see seemed to have faded throughout the years, but many are still there. And not every number or letter has to have a color associated with it.
It is likely that synesthesia develops during childhood when children are learning abstract concepts for the first time. Grapheme-color synesthesia develops when children start to identify letters and numbers.
As with me, synesthetes are unaware their experiences are unusual until they realize other people don’t have them. Most synesthetes report that their experiences are pleasant or neutral, although, infrequently, people complain that their synesthesia leads to “sensory overload.”
Although it is labeled as a neurological condition, many of us consider our synesthesia as a gift rather than as a handicap. Synesthetes often use their special abilities to memorize things, do mental arithmetic, etc. Many of us are involved in creative activities.
Years ago (synesthesia was noticed as far back as the 1800s), it was thought that synesthesia occurred in maybe 1 in 20,000 people, but now it is thought that as many as 1 in 23 people may have some form of it. And there are many forms in addition to grapheme-color:
Tone → (color, movement) synesthesia: People see colors when they hear certain tones of music.
Spatial-sequence, or number form synesthesia: Numbers, months of the year, and/or days of the week appear in precise locations in space (for example, 1980 may be “farther away” than 1990 or 5 may be to the left of 2), or may appear as a three-dimensional map (clockwise or counterclockwise).
Chromesthesia: Everyday sounds such as doors opening, cars honking, or people talking can trigger seeing colors– 0r certain musical tones.
Auditory-tactile synesthesia: Certain sounds can produce sensations in parts of the body. A specific word might feel like a touch in a specific part of the body. This is one of the least common forms of synesthesia.
Ordinal-linguistic personification: Ordered sequences, such as numbers, days of the week, months of the year, or the alphabet are associated with personalities and/or genders. For example, the number 7 could be a teenage girl with an attitude, or the letter M might be little boy who is whining all the time.
Mirror-touch synesthesia: A rare form of synesthesia where individuals feel the same sensation that another person feels (such as touch).
Lexical-gustatory synesthesia: A rare form of synesthesia where certain tastes are experienced when hearing words. For example, the word automobile might taste like chocolate. I often felt that the number 4 smelled like paint, so I don’t know what that’s all about!
Spatio-temporal synesthesia: A mental map of days, weeks, and/or months, where people say that they can “see the time,”for example, as a ring or circle.
So what causes synesthesia? It is thought to be increased cross-talk between brain regions specializing in different functions. For example, the experience of seeing color when looking at numbers and letters might be due to cross-activation of the grapheme-recognition and the color areas of the brain.
A study found that synesthesia is found in 4.4% of the population, 1 in 23 people. According to that same study graphemes-color synesthesia if found in one percent of the population. There is also research to suggest that the likelihood of having synesthesia is greater in people with autism.
So what creative people whom you might know have synesthesia?
- The artist Kandinsky
- The author Nabokov
- The artist David Hockney
- The musician/composer Duke Ellington
- The composer Rimsky-Korsakov
- Musician Billy Joel
- Violinist Itzhak Perlman
- Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead
- Happy Pharrell Williams
- Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat, who experiences colors as scents
I would love to hear from you if you are a synesthete. I believe there is a national organization for us – which I don’t belong to, since I just found out I am one!
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