A Secret Sense: Synesthesia

Letters have colors. A year is in the shape of an oval. A week starts out like a row of blocks, with Saturday slightly taller, and Sunday the tallest of all. Each day of the week has its own color, too, as do numbers.

A few months ago on Science Friday, Ira Flatow interviewed postdoctoral researcher Amanda Tilot of the Max Planck Institute,and professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Wisconsin Ed Hubbard on a topic called The Color of Music.

Science Friday – The Color of Music

Because Fridays are generally a catch-up day for me—scheduled meetings are rare—I can treat myself to streaming the entire two-hour show as I work. As I listened to this segment, I realized the researchers were talking about me and my sister.

As children, we shared the realization that we experienced what the experts call “mixing of the senses”. Of course, we thought everyone knew that each number was a different color, and that when you closed your eyes to listen to music, it became swirling, dancing shapes in your brain. I was stunned to learn during the interview that only 2 to 5 % of people have synesthetic experiences. I love the fact that the genesis of this in people is from “crossed-wiring” in identified brain regions and occurs in early childhood. (This explains a lot.)

Several years ago my sister lent me a book, which I am sure she still has, about synesthesia—I’ve tried to find it on the web, but no luck. This was the first time I’d heard our unique “condition” named. I have a vague memory that we shared this condition with our mother, but sadly she is no longer around for me to ask.

The Max Planck Institute is conducting a clinical trial to identify genes associated with synesthetic experiences and the researches asked for volunteers. Copying down their website, I took the SynQuiz offered there. Over the years oddly, many of the colors had faded, or I forgot them, but I answered as well as I could and was accepted into the study. I sent my sister the link as soon as I found out about it, she took the quiz and “passed”, also. Our saliva kits are in the mail from the Netherlands.

I’ve always seen each year as an oval, stretching out from whatever time I am in. Now, the beginning of summer—summer and winter occupy the longest sides of the oval—lays whitely before me. Autumn—not surprisingly the color of burnt orange—curves to the left and blends into the icy blue of winter. Spring then, bright green, of course, fills the bottom of the oval as it curves into summer, and so on and so on.

My amateur rendering of what I am talking about.

And the numbers, of course.

Another aspect of synesthesia that I do not experience, and I’m not sure I would like it, is that some people taste words. And some of the tastes certain words evoke can be unpleasant.

I’d love to hear any shared experiences out there.

And here’s love-in-the-mist, just because.



About Jill Zeller

Author of numerous novels and short stories, Jill Zeller is a Left Coast writer, 2nd generation Californian, retired registered nurse, and obsessed gardener. She lives in Oregon with her patient husband, 2 silly English mastiffs and 2 rescue cats—the silliest of all. Her works explore the boundaries of reality. Some may call it fantasy, but there are rarely swords and never elves. More to the point, she prefers to write as if myth, imagination and hallucination are as real as the chair she is sitting on as she writes this. Jill Zeller also writes under the pseudonym Hunter Morrison


A Secret Sense: Synesthesia — 9 Comments

  1. I don’t think I have synesthesia, though there is a cleaning substance used in a lot of restaurant restrooms that I would swear smells pink. It’s a sickly sweet smell and pink comes to mind whenever I smell it. It also makes me cough.

    But that’s an isolated example and may have come about because other sickly sweet things are pink.

    I find the whole idea fascinating and hope you’ll write more about this, both what your own test results show and what they report from the Planck Institute.

  2. Yes! Me too! A trait I also shared with my mother and a sibling. Other family members thought we were making it up. And of course, trying to talk about this with my classmates pushed me even farther into the “weird little kid” category than I already was. I think my ability to visualise letters and numbers in colour helped to hone my grammar and spelling skills—if a word or sentence had the wrong colours in it, I knew I’d made a mistake.

    Funny too, my letters have also faded somewhat over time (the once distinctly green “e” is now a bit yellowish in tinge), but the numbers are still as vibrant as ever, and the overall effect does wax and wane, depending on how focused I am.

    Was the book you mention called “The Man Who Tasted Shapes,” by Richard E. Cytowic? I bought a copy years ago—reading it I felt validated in my experience for the first time, as if I was no longer (entirely) crazy. It’s such a difficult thing to explain to people who don’t experience it, because it’s not really a tangible effect—I don’t physically “see” these colours and shapes but sense them—it’s like an extra layer of perception.

    I have only ever met two other non-family members with the trait. From what I know, Vladimir Nabokov was also a synaesthete.

    • I wish I recalled the book — I’ll have to ask my sister! Looks like there are several out there.

  3. I was so relieved when I found out that others mixed senses, as I’ve done that all my life. Music has sharp images, sometimes smells, certain numbers were ugly, others cool-toned, even numbers blue except for eight, which is sunset colored. They formed shapes that had nothing to do with math, which made math that much more confusing.

    I assumed this smearing of senses was brain damage. Since I read about synesthesia, and found out what it was, I’ve discovered that a lot more people have some form of it than I believe scientists are aware. But most don’t articulate it, or file it under normal conditions, without thinking about it. After all, it *is* their normal.

    • I’m wondering if this patterning is why I’ve never been able to do math in my head—I’ve always had to write the numbers down. Maybe the extra visual was necessary to overcome the three-dimensional structures that my brain was imposing on them (in addition to the colours).

      Well, at least, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!

  4. Numbers having colors: yes. I was scolded in elementary school a couple of times for writing numbers in crayons rather than pencils. But my numbers’ colors are not the same as yours. Days of the week definitely had colors. Music was not colored swirls, but pictures, very vivid and often moving. Not abstract, very realistic for the most part. Some music makes my mouth dry up (didn’t discover this until singing regularly) and other music can make it moist and easier to sing with.

    • My sister and I have assigned different colors to our numbers and letters, too. I just got my saliva kit from the Max Planck institute yesterday. I was lucky to never think this was “weird” — I confess I was rather proud of it, but that was just being a silly, weird kid.

  5. Belated reply, but:

    when you closed your eyes to listen to music, it became swirling, dancing shapes in your brain

    So that does count as synasthesia? I’ve always wondered! This is exactly my brain, and I’ve never quite been sure whether it qualified as synasthesia or not. But yes, I absolutely get motion and sort of but not exactly shapes in my head whenever I listen to music (at least if it’s any good).