artist, body awareness, sensory experience, sensory grounding, synesthesia, synesthete, synesthetic
I haven’t written a non-love letter blog post in a while, and while I intend to keep up that project, I also want to talk. There is so much to talk about. Today, a noncontroversial topic: synesthesia.
I read an article about synesthesia in New York Magazine–more specifically, why so many artists have it. I have it. There are many different kinds, many associations. For me, there is a consistent pattern of colors representing all the numbers and letters. There is also a visual interpretation of time, such as a sideways S curve representing the calendar year (the months of January through May are descend vertically, then 180 into an upward curve beginning at June, then another 180 downward curve beginning at September). The years are in rows of 10, like a line of typed text, each decade ending with a hard return–until the year 2000, which curves upward slightly and hasn’t broken yet.
The technical term for my two types of synesthesia (there are at least 80 documented types) are “graphemes to vision” (letters/numbers with colors) and “spatial-sequence” (numbers and years with precise locations, or mapped).Approximately 162 million of the 7.4 billion people in the world experience this. This does not make me special or superior in any way, but it does make me feel good because the NY Mag article explored the fact that synesthetes often become artists.
I look for reasons to explain why I grew up artistically or creatively inclined. No one in my family is (and it’s TBD whether anyone has synesthesia, which is often hereditary). My creative pursuits were never really encouraged. They were tolerated, but were never given the same importance as my math and science grades or my mile time during my brief stint on the track team. By those measures, I was, ahem, not measuring up.
It wasn’t all bad. My mother did take me to art lessons when I was a kid. She acknowledged that I wanted to write. My whole family did. But they found a way to falsely frame that desire so they could understand it, rather than actually trying to understand it. Stacia wants to be an English teacher, they decided. Stacia wants to be a reporter.
Nope. Well. Edit: Stacia was a reporter for a bit, and teaches online writing classes now. But in my era of college applications and aptitude tests, these occupations were furthest from my mind. I wanted to wear bohemian clothing, drink wine, and go to fancy NYC book parties. That was my idea of being a writer. You can stop laughing now.
I have a vague recollection of being very young, perhaps in preschool or kindergarten, and coloring my name. I remember a teacher encouraging me to use a different color than pink for the second A in Stacia, to not repeat any colors, and my flat-out refusal that was deemed contrariness. I remember having to explain myself to my mother: But A isn’t blue, it’s pink!
Synesthesia fascinates me. Brains fascinate me. Exploring my own synesthesia is another way of increasing body awareness, and it aligns with some of the work I’m doing to heal after trauma. I didn’t know it was a thing until years and years ago, when a friend asked me to proofread a calendar she’d made and I said her colors for the days of the week were wrong (yeah, the days and months all have colors, too. Usually a word’s color is whatever dominant color emerges from the letters–most often, but not always, the first letter). She said, “What do you mean, Monday is red?” I explained, and she was so into it! She said she knew it meant something but didn’t know what it was called. I didn’t learn the word for it until it was an answer on Jeopardy! one night, around age 25. Once I knew the term synesthesia, I started reading about it. Some people “taste color.” Others “smell noises.” How cool is that?
In my research, I learned that, according to the BBC, “Research on synaesthesia is not as extensive as you might expect: it was disregarded as a phenomenon until the advent of MRI scans in the late 1980s, proving that corresponding areas of the brain really do light up in synaesthetes – but it’s thought it may be more common in artists.”
My business is the art of words, and my words have colors. Did those colors make words more appealing to me? Was I drawn to them because of the colors? I think not, because numbers also have colors and I am by no means drawn to math! But something in my brain associates one type of sensory experience with another with such immediate clarity that Monday is in fact inextricable from red, and that something is where my creativity is likely rooted.
Choosing words, then, is a visual process as much as a linguistic one. I’ve thrown a word out because it looked too bright or loud on the page, or “clashed” with what was already there. I’ve made poems that are entirely green to me. And I frequently choose synonyms when the word itself doesn’t look like, um, itself. For example, yellow isn’t yellow, but grayish. I see both–gray and actual yellow–when I say or read the word. When writing, I might pick gold instead, which looks more like itself.
Maybe this isn’t interesting to anyone but me, but there it is.
Do you experience synesthesia, or know someone who does? I love talking about it and learning about how others sense things, but I’ve only ever conversed with two people who actually have it.
And while you could figure it out from my little color key above, let me know if you want me to tell you what your name looks like in my head. 🙂
Update 7/20/16: So of course one of my favorite bloggers has written on this topic before and I feel incredibly sheepish for having missed it when she first posted it more than a year ago. (To double down on my sheepishness, Shareen Mansfield mentioned synesthesia on her recent Open Thought Vortex post, which I had bookmarked to read but hadn’t gotten to yet because Monday I was, you know, writing this post!) Shawna Ayoub Ainslie wrote about her synesthesia at The Honeyed Quill, and her piece blew my thoughts on my own experiences wide open. Things I do, ways I think, that I never considered as having anything to do with synesthesia now make a lot more sense. I emailed her and told her I could bear hug her for articulating some of it for me! I’m relatively new in my understanding of synesthesia and am looking forward to continuing to explore it.
I kind of have it, I think Tuesday is light yellowy-green (Most T-Words are green) but when somebody says, “Tuesday”, I don’t see green in front of me or anything. Also, my words only have colours is I give them colours.
Automatic Ema said:
I completely identify with you seeing words and letters as colours. I also see sounds as colours too but I was musical from a really young age, so that might have influenced it.
This raises a question for me – whether synaesthesia is purely some different mental wiring at birth, or whether introduction to different stimuli (for example, me being introduced to piano at 4, or even you colouring in your name), can shape it.
I have to say though, where you exchange words because their colours clash, I just tend to ignore that. But, again, maybe that’s a difference in our environments? I grew up with music (therefore rhythm is far more important to me than colour) and you grew up loving art more than I do (I draw pretty much all the time, but your passion is far stronger than mine I think).
All in all, interesting, personal and really, really good to find someone who can coherently express their life with synaesthesia.
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I think it’s a chicken and egg thing–you could argue on either side about which came first. You said you see sounds as colors and consider that your being musical from a young age might have influenced this…or you were born seeing sounds as colors and so became musically inclined at a young age? Alas, our memories are going to fail us when it comes to answering the “which came first” question. What’s most interesting to me, in terms of “proving” that synesthetes aren’t just making it all up, is the consistency of the associations, and the lack of a discernible pattern (because patterns would be easy to contrive, while the randomness–like, for me, J and K both being shades of yellow, the string of 6-7-8 being different shades of green, all vowels being gray-ish except A–seems more organic because it’s kind of inexplicable). Fascinating subject, no matter what. Thanks for reading and commenting!
Bethany Fehlinger McKay said:
This is so interesting! I am going to sit down with J and read this. I am curious if he has the same insights.
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This is so interesting to me, especially how it affects your writing. My husband and daughter both associate colors with letters and numbers, but not the same colors. Numbers and letters don’t have colors for me, but they are gendered in my mind and always have been. I don’t know why, but I think of 2, 4, and 7 as strongly female, for example, while 3, 5, 6, and 8 are strongly male (1 and 9 are kinda gender-fluid).
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Neat! Check out this chart, I think maybe “personalities” could cover the gender thing? http://www.daysyn.com/Types-of-Syn.html
I will say that I don’t always purposely write synesthetic poems. But I do always experience color with my word selection, and I’m sure it unconsciously affects my choices more often than I realize. Thanks for commenting! xo
I think it’s most definitely a personality thing because 3, 4, 6, and 8 are nice, quiet, shy numbers. 2, 5, and 7 are pretty bitchy.
It’s funny that you wrote about this because Alex and I have known each other for 20 years, and we had never talked about this until about six months ago when our daughter brought it up. Also, he says you’re wrong about As. According to him, they are definitely yellow. 🙂
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