I have synesthesia. No, that’s not a new form of Herpes. It’s a brain disorder. And it’s an interesting one. It’s not the kind of brain disorder that interferes with my daily life, but it does give me a unique way of experiencing the world.
The word synesthesia comes from Greek, and it’s the combination of two Greek words that mean joined and sensation.
Synesthesia is an affliction where one sense or modality is stimulated, but two respond. It’s like a buy one, get one free for your brain. It means my wires are crossed.
I have several types of synesthesia, as most synesthetes (people with synesthesia) do. One of them, the most common type, is called chromographemia – I see letters and numbers in color, even if there is no color.
If you show me an “A”, I see it with an overlay of purple. If you show me a “U”, I see it with an overlay of sky-blue. Even if the letter already has color, my brain tries to replace it with my “correct” shade of color.
Here is my color chart:
Imagine driving down the street, looking at street signs as they change color, or reading a book as the words transform from black to color.
In the graphic below, you see the first paragraph as black, but I see it in color, like the second paragraph.
For me, the way it works is, at first glance, the letters appear in their normal color. But when I start to read the words, or once my brain recognizes the words, the colors immediately change. Until there’s that recognition, I don’t’ see the colored letters.
Now, some synesthetes imagine or sense the color when reading the letters. They “get the feeling” that the letter “A” is purple. I actually see the color overlayed on the letter, like this:
Obviously, this took some getting used to. When I was a kid, I had no idea that I saw things differently than the other kids. And when I did find out, I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t want to be the weird kid. So I kept it a secret.
Bad idea. Not being yourself can really mess you up in the long run.
Since synesthesia is a cross wiring of sorts, and we have five senses and a lot of physical sensations (like feeling pressure), there are many variations of synesthesia.
For example, I have heard that Billy Joel sees color when he hears music, and that the color helps him to compose his music. Many people have this particular mapping, although chromographemia is the most common.
There are people who taste words.
I know a girl who agonized over baby names because certain names brought yummy tastes to her mouth, while others brought bad tastes. Her husband had picked out a baby name he liked, but she turned it down because every time she heard the name, she tasted damp wood!
My chromographemia actually doesn’t bother me, at least now. In fact, I think it made me smarter. It gives me a great memory. Here’s why: If a “regular” person is stumbling for a word, he might say, “What was that word? I know it starts with an ‘s’.”
But me, I would say, “What was that word? I know it starts with an ‘s’. I know it starts with yellow.” I have an extra layer of assistance for remembering words. It also makes me VERY good at crossword puzzles because I see both letter combinations and color combinations. It also gives me a pretty decent vocabulary, as you can tell from my extraordinary use of language in this article.
Synesthesia is a lot more common than once thought. The recent statistic is about 1 in every 60 people have it. And you might think, well that’s weird. I never thought there would be so many. But think about phrases in our everyday language.
“I’m feeling blue.”
“That tie is loud.”
Here are everyday phrases that you never really think about very closely, but if you did, you’d realize they probably came from a synesthete. Who else but someone with synesthesia would compare an ugly tie to being loud?
Personally, I think synesthesia plays some sort of role in human life or has some type of function, since it wasn’t weeded out by evolution.
Then again, God could just be screwing with me.
There’s also a side dish if you will, to my colored letters and numbers. It’s called ordinal linguistic personification. In a nutshell, it means that I sense personalities from my letters and numbers.
So not only did I go through school seeing letters and numbers in color, but they also had personalities that made themselves known to me, and as a kid, it could be pretty frightening. There was nothing worse than waking up in the morning and wondering if the letter ‘C’ was mad at me for getting a 92 on my last math test. It was like having an additional 26 helicopter-parents.
I have yet another form of synesthesia called number form synesthesia. Again, this is a visual manifestation, but I see dates and time on a 3D chart that hangs in front of my eyes. If you ask me to think about March of 1959, a number chart visually appears in midair, before my eyes. My brain then quickly follows the chart backward until it reaches 1959. It’s pretty much instantaneous. Without this chart, I would have no concept of dates. I know this for a fact because when I can’t focus on a specific date, I notice the chart doesn’t appear.
If you were to look at my chart on a piece of paper, this is what you would see:
I drew in some dates so you can see how it flows.
But when I see it in my mind, it hangs in front of my eyes in 3D, more like this:
Bizarre huh? It’s got kind of the Star Wars title thing going on, doesn’t it?
It’s only there for a split second and then it vanishes, although when I’m tired or stressed it can hang there a bit longer.
Synesthesia research has been on the rise for the past 30 years as brain imaging techniques have gotten better, and as more and more synesthetes have come forward to share their stories. Synesthesia research was actually very popular at the beginning of the 20th century but fizzled out because medical science at the time needed concrete proof of the disorder, and there was no easy way to examine a functioning brain back then.
I read many books about synesthesia. All of them were about doctors and patients and theory; no one had really written about what it was like to live with this disorder, day in and day out. So I figured, why not write my own book? Why not share my experiences? Why not win a Pulitzer? So I did.
Wrote the book, not won the Pulitzer. But you probably knew that.
You can find my book here.