I can smell the colors outside on my lawn
The moist green organic that my feet tread upon
And the black oleander surrounded by blue
I get so overwhelmed by olfactory hues
Synesthesia, the neurological condition that causes stimulus in one sensory pathway to trigger involuntary responses in other sensory pathways (ie hearing colors, tasting pain, touching flavors), kind of sounds like it's made up. It kind of sounds like the thing that happens to people that take hallucinogens and maybe insane people.
But doctors estimate that anywhere between 1 in 100000 to as many as 1 in 200 people are legitimate synesthetes. The most common type of synesthesia is grapheme-color synesthesia, wherein letters and numbers (called collectively 'graphemes') are perceived to have a distinct color--about 65% of people with synesthesia experience this. And I am one of them!
synesthete.org offers a full grapheme-color synesthesia test. In the test, the letters of the alphabet and numerals 0-9 are flashed randomly and the user must pick a color associated with each one. Each grapheme is posted three times. After the user has selected a color for each grapheme three times, the results are analyzed. Here are my results, which as you can see very conclusively determined that I have grapheme-color synesthesia:
Nabokov, whom we've established is one of my favorite authors, was a grapheme-color synesthete too. He described his experience gorgeously:
I have a similar idea of my letters, bordering on and perhaps fully qualifying as grapheme personification, wherein letters and numbers have genders and personalities. Soft, feminine bilabial plosives B and P are a soft, maternal pink. Masculine, nasal M and N are a macho dark green and blue. Simple I and O are white--something that many grapheme-color synesthetes experience in common.
It is difficult to explain but I do not see these colors when I see letters and numbers in front of me. I see that the text I am typing is black on white. But somehow I perceive the letters and numbers to have the color. Whatever part of your brain lights up when you see a blue ball--that's the part of my brain that lights up when I see an E or an S. I am fully aware that it is not actually blue, but my brain recognizes it as being blue. Am I making any sense?
Over the last few years, I've realized that my grapheme-color synesthesia isn't just a random experience that I have. I've come to understand how much it affects my day-to-day life--basically always for the better.
Which seems like it would be easier to remember? You can ask me a year from now what number I used in this example and I'll still remember--that streak of yellow-pink-green is impossible to forget.
Most people can recognize the elegance of the x9 times tables--how the digits in the products all add up to 9, how the first and second digits in the products run exactly from 0 to 9 backwards and forwards, respectively. With the benefit of color, these fineries are amplified and put on display.
Moreover, I have realized recently that I work arithmetic in my head using color. When I see a simple sum, I think not 2 + 3 = ? but rather something more like pink plus yellow equals what? I think when I'm moving really fast it's more like just pink yellow blue. This makes me pretty handy with mental math and adding long columns of numbers and stuff.
Grey is not the preferred spelling in the US for the shade between black and white. But in my mind, it is the only way to spell it. Just look at this.
Does it make sense for there to be a big splash of RED in the middle of the word gray? Ew. No. Grey it is.
Or how about:
Even though Vergil is *technically* better, since his full name was Publius Vergilius Maro, Vergil just looks so NERDY. Everything was fine until that blue E came to town.
You can't crack a book about synesthesia without seeing this chart:
It demonstrates how synesthesia makes inconsistencies jump off the page. A non-synesthete has to hunt around for the 2s mixed in with the 5s. For me, the pink 2s leap out among the blue 5s.
This skill comes in handy, since I make a living as an editor. My grapheme-color synesthesia makes typos and other errors pop out.
My brain immediately identifies that gold-red-pink-yellow ("wakl") is an odd combination before I even consciously realize that there is a typo.
Perhaps my loyal readers who remember my academic background are wondering whether I have a synesthetic reaction to Greek letters as well. The answer is yes. I had never really thought about it very hard until this moment, but I do. I was lost so far in thought as I made this chart that I forgot the omega! Shameful.
I think my synesthetic reaction to the Greek alphabet is very telling. The colors are by and large the same as the letters they closely correspond to in English, whether the letters look the same (as in alpha [Α/α] and A) or not (as in gamma [Γ/γ] and G). But what about the letters that don't have a direct equivalent in English? Like the long E sound eta (Η/η)? Eta takes on not the royal blue of E but rather the green hue of the H and N the capital and lowercase letters resemble. Theta (Θ/θ) makes a "th" sound, and the blue T and green H combine to create a lovely blue-green theta.
Perhaps most odd is psi (Ψ/ψ) and phi (Φ/φ), which make a "ps" and "ph" sound respectfully. My brain is so broken by these characters that they are the only graphemes I see in gradient--psis fading pink to blue to white and phis pink to green to white, mimicking the way the words "phi" and "psi" look spelled out in English. I don't begin to understand what all this implies about my synesthesia but I think it's pretty interesting.
While grapheme-color is definitely the strongest and most persistent and consistent synesthesia that I experience, I have a number of other synesthetic reactions. I often experience taste-color, but it so often corresponds to the color of the food itself that it is usually unremarkable. I mentioned a recipe not tasting "red" enough in this post. I also have music-spatial, touch-color, and a whole passel of other synesthesia-esque experiences.
I know that my synesthesia and my interest in writing have to have something to do with one another, but I haven't quite touched on how yet. Maybe my unique sensory perspective makes it into my writing? Perhaps it will make me Nabokavian. A girl can only type rainbow-colored letters and dream.
What is unusual about the way you perceive the world?