Synesthesia

(Originally posted oh, I don’t know–a while ago.)

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.

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 just 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. Now, at 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 are unpleasant.

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

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2 thoughts on “Synesthesia”

  1. Picturing/imaging information ‘containers.’ Which surely is connected to our pre-literate selves, when it was oral transmission through the generations that kept information current. Many of us image location of online content, for instance. One rather thinks this sort of specie’s manner of information transmission and retention might well be the origin of the mnemonic memory device visualization “method of loci,” or ‘memory palace.’ I dunno, but I like thinking about it.

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