About a week ago, YesButNoButYes shared a video about synesthesia. Psychologist and author, Dr. Oliver Sacks, describes synesthesia as an “immediate, physiological coupling of two sorts of sensation.” I didn’t have a chance to watch it at the time, but today I went back to it and think you might find it interesting, too.
I first heard of synesthesia, not in psych class (which I never took, silly me) but in a poetry class. In poetry terms, synesthesia refers to certain kinds of (often bad) metaphors with crossed senses. You know, the taste of winter, or something. The infamous Tom assigned us the task of writing truly awful poems, and part of it was the abuse and misuse of synesthesia.
The concept fascinated me. See, although I didn’t really know what it was called until recently, I’m a mild grapheme-synesthete. That means that I perceive certain letters and numbers as having colors. As I said in the title, the most clear are the numbers 4 and 5 and the letters E and F. They all have a distinct blue-green tone. Four is bluer than five, which is often quite green; E is usually greener than F. It is pronounced enough that my perception of these three symbols gets muddled if I’m spreading my mental resources too thin. There are many times that I’m multitasking and stressed, and someone will ask me to spell something for them – I’ll catch myself just in time to avoid saying “4” or “5” instead of “E” or “F.” Cool if you’re a hax0r, I guess; less so if you’re an English teacher.
(Of course, I could just be insane. Those near-and-dear know that my mouth doesn’t know the difference between my ankle and my elbow – literally. I wish I had a dime for every time I meant one and said the other.)
Other numbers have colors to me as well. Six is an orangey-red. Two is usually yellow – but if I write it without a loop in the tail, I sometimes perceive it as blue. Nine is usually a dark purpley maroon, although sometimes it’s a bright red. Eight is blue. Seven is a warm color. One is a pale cool color. I can’t specify any more than that – they shift. Three is either red-orange, like six, or green. I don’t know why they change color, but I think it has to do with context. I should track that.
Fewer of the letters, proportionately speaking, have clear color associations for me. The letters B and W are definitely a red/orange color. The letter I is blue or yellow. Ts and Zs are red. Ks are a cool color. Hs are a bluish-purple. Ns are a light brown – kind of the color of the light brown M&Ms, if you’re old enough to remember them.
I’ve got a bit of ordinal-color synesthesia, too. Tuesdays are DEFINITELY yellow, and Wednesdays are a pale red. Thursdays are an orangey yellow. Fridays are a blue/purple. Mondays are reddish. Saturdays are a deeper blue/purple than Fridays. Sundays are sometimes green, and sometimes gray, and sometimes… well, sometimes, none of the days are colors.
I am perceptive enough to suspect that some of my synesthesia is actually a byproduct of childhood experience and a near-photographic memory. If someone could show me a childhood book or TV show I’d known, with the colors and letters printed prominently in these colors, I wouldn’t be at all surprised. Likewise, I suspect that there are some beneath-the-surface connections that play a part. Think about 4, 5, E, and F – four and five are obviously related to the letter F, after all. And four seems more blue – the word “blue” has four letters – while five seems more green, and “green” has five letters.
I wish I had a more pronounced sense of musical synesthesia – I think it would be amazing to “see” music the way some synesthetes can. Many prominent composers and musicians see certain keys, instruments, and sounds as having color. I have had experiences with this, but not consistently. If I remember correctly, I once read that the mastermind behind the “Toccata and Fugue” in Fantasia was a synesthete; at the very least, he produced an interesting approximation of the sensation. (Say that six times quickly!)
I also have had some experiences with spatial synesthesia – feeling as though things that don’t have actual distance or geographic location are somehow placed nearer or farther, more to the left or the right, than others.
And as it relates to memory – yes, certainly, I attribute some of my ability to memorize to my brain’s assignation of colors and place to things that don’t necessarily deserve them. 🙂
Do any of you experience anything similar? According to the almighty Wikipedia, as many as 1 out of 23 people may experience some variety of synesthesia. I’d be very interested to know about your experiences!