Feb 9, 2009

On Synesthesia and Normalcy

Left: a rough approximation of colors I associate with certain numbers, which is limited by the 32-color palette on MS-Paint

As long as I can remember I have experienced a blending of sensory information. I associate certain sounds with particular colors and hues, while individual letters, numbers, and words possess a wide variety of brighter and darker colors and degrees of luminance. The technical term for this phenomenon is synesthesia, and it has been the subject of scientific inquiry for a few hundred years.

Here are just a few examples that come to mind as I scan the number line and the alphabet:

-- The numbers 1,2,5, and 8 are brighter colors, while 3,4,6,7 and 9 are darker. 6 and 7 are in the darker end of the blue-violet range, 1 is kind of bright yellow, 3 is sort of a forest green, and 5 has an orange tint.

-- The letters a, c, i, l, s, and y have the brightest luminance, while f, g, m, n, and t are the darkest. The letter o is a rather cool and icy blue, h is a dull yellow, f is a darker red-violet, and c is a brighter green color, almost a fiery brilliance.

I associate certain colors with individual notes, and I also connect particular emotions with notes and chords. This is more than a simple "major chord = happy" and "minor chord = sad" structure, though; if I hear a particular piece of instrumental music - especially single instrument recordings - definite colors and emotions appear, an effect that intensifies if I close my eyes and block out "normal" visual stimuli.

I never really thought much about the odd way I experience the world, and when I tried to explain my sensations to others, I assumed that their uncomprehending responses just meant that I possessed some sort of an artistic bent. I remember when I first bought a chorus pedal for my electric guitar, and my friend Jim Butler asked me what the device did to the sound.

Lacking a technical explanation, and drawing upon my sensory experience, all I could manage to say was this: "It adds... color."

I'm not sure if my friend understood, or if he thought I was hallucinating, but it was the best I could do for an elucidation.

In today's news I came across an article indicating that there might be a genetic link to synesthesia. What I found amusing was that the article's author described synesthesia as "a neurological condition," as if this unusual way of perceiving the world was somehow a disability.

Look: I know that I am not exactly the most "normal" person you might come across, and there are days when I might apply any one of a dozen DMS-IV diagnoses to myself, but I hardly think that synesthesia qualifies as "a neurological condition," at least not in the sense of some debilitating disorder. I also resist the desire to even label such a phenomenon as synesthesia. Should I now walk around with a defiant T-shirt that reads: "Synesthestics of the World - Mix it Up!"

If anything, I think people with synesthesia have a gift: the ability to experience sensory inputs on a multiplicity of levels. So back off with your diagnoses and white laboratory coats, you Aristotelian, category-obsessed technicians, and allow me to enjoy my colorful sounds and luminant numerals. I don't need a label, a diagnosis, or a cure, and I am content with my blended sensory weirdness.


Anonymous said...

Mr. Brooks,

Thanks for your kind interest. Our society has 238 dedicated members. Membership dues are now only $40 per year.

You can fill out the form at http://synethesia.info/membership.html at your convenience.

Sean A. Day, Chair

Middle Aged Woman said...

My son associates elements with letters. And when I say elements, I mean earth, air, fire, and water.

microdot said...

I believe that many different stimuli can make us experience something that "isn't" there.
I have a blind friend who often talks of colors and music as being interelated. I think it is a common phenomena for blind people to experience music as a inner vision.

mud_rake said...

I'm thinking that your ability might fall somewhere on the Asperger's continuum or tangentially from it in a new direction. I hope you are not offended.

I base this after watching the Science Channel's presentation of Daniel Tammet. He is autistic and has an unlimited capacity for mathematics. He sees numbers as colors as you have suggested.

There is fascinating work yet to be done in the field of Autism/Asperger's Syndrome. Today is is seemingly a scourge for parents and the children, yet, there are marvelous sensory 'oddities' that suggest much more potential for the human mind than we presently know.

historymike said...


Thanks for the invite - I will keep itin mind.

historymike said...

M.A.W. -

What about rock, paper, and scissors?

historymike said...

Agreed, microdot, that the overcompensation factor for blind and other sensory-challenged people might be related. Same sort of nerve connections and pathways.

historymike said...

Mud rake:

No, I'm not offended at all. There are a few branches of autism and Asperger's in my family tree, and Lord only knows what sorts of childhood diagnoses I might have acquired had I been born in 1994 instead of 1964.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes when I fart, I can smell it AND taste it. Is this synesthesia?

historymike said...

Setting aside the issue of the interconnectedness between the olfactory and gustatory senses, Anonynous, I do not think what you described is synesthesia.

It's just plain gross. Off to the Bad Poster Corner with you, sir.

Molly said...

"There is fascinating work yet to be done in the field of Autism/Asperger's Syndrome. Today is is seemingly a scourge for parents and the children,"

Not entirely. There's a lot of debate within the "spectrum" community between the "cure at all costs" tangent and others who believe the differences should be accepted and these kids should be given all the tools they need to make it through life as themselves, not shaped into some semblance of "normal." John Elder Robison (author of Look Me in the Eye and blogger on jerobison.blogspot) is a proponent of "neurodiversity." I always point parents with newly diagnosed kids in his direction for a perspective beyond doom and despair. There's many others as well.
For what it's worth I also thought Mike's description sounded somewhat Aspergian. Either way, I agree many of these differences are a gift. How boring life would be if we all processed everything the same.