Letters are Colors
Credit: photo bt Gerd Altmann

The Fascinating World of Synesthesic Experiences

The letter “K” is red, the month of October is brown, and men named Jonathan are blue. No, I'm not crazy. I have synesthesia.

Synesthesia literally means “union of senses”. It it is a neurological condition where a certain stimulus automatically triggers another stimulus, combining two senses into one. I remember first reading a National Geographic article on the subject many years ago, and being struck by the amazement that  A.) I had a weird neurological condition and  B.) not everybody else thinks in the same manner that I do. Looking back, I don’t know why I was all that surprised; my brain has always seemed to run in weird directions. Since then, I have learned much more about the topic of synesthesia, explored in depth how the condition affects me personally, and I have discovered others among me who experience this phenomenon as well. In fact, I even married one! (The universe is so quirky, isn’t it?)

So what does it mean to have synesthesia? First, understand that it is a neurological condition, not a disorder. Being synesthesic does not qualify you for government cheese. In fact, quite the contrary! I have found that having synesthesia is like being granted a gift, an ability to perceive the world around you in deeper, more complex ways. Synesthesic associations are both involuntary and automatic. They either occur inside your brain or they don’t. You cannot force it nor can you stop it. The associations are usually very subtle, and so ingrained within a person’s cognition that they often don’t even notice them, just as a “normal” person rarely pays attention to the fact that the sidewalk is gray. For a synesthete, sidewalks are gray, and Friday is yellow. Or blue. Maybe your Friday is blue.

There are numerous different types of synesthesia, and it is possible for the same person to experience more than one. I've discovered that I perceive a multitude of different forms of it. I will list the most common types.

Grapheme/Color:  This is the most prevalent synesthesic experience. In this type of synesthesia, a person sassociates a letter or number as being a particular color. For me, my “M” is always seen as a Pepto-Bismol shade of pink. In my mind, it has always been pink and it always will be pink. These associations are always consistent, once a letter is perceived as being a certain color, it typically remains that color throughout the person’s life. Every person’s grapheme/color association is unique to themselves. Your “L” may be green but mine is “yellow”.

Sound-to-Color: A person with this type of synesthesia associates a certain sound or noise with a color. When the sound is heard, a certain color is automatically perceived. For example, when I hear a shrill bell, I perceive an orangish/red color. A loud slamming door makes me instantly feel dark brown. For someone else, a car horn may sound red, or a ticking of a clock may sound grey.

Spatial Sequence:  A person with this type of synesthesia visualizes sequence words in an area of space (as in the space immediately around them, not astronaut space). For example, I perceive names of months as though they are in a clock formation. January is positioned at 12:00, March is at 3:00. Seasonal words like “winter” are positioned in a similar fashion. Some people visualize days of the week or years in a similar way. Again, it is not overt or overpowering. I rarely even notice that it’s happening unless I am being particularly meta-cognizant, or actively thinking about how I think. The associations are just there, a part of your thinking process. A part of who you are.

Personification: Also called “ordinal linguistic personification”. This occurs when you associate a letter or a number with having a human type personality. Sometimes they might even have gender assignments. For instance, my “G” is male and quite bossy. “M” is female and very much the diva. “A” is a fat lady. “S” is a nice, dependable guy, and gets along well with others. For some reason, “P” is weak and I feel sorry for him.  If this sounds ridiculous to you, I wholeheartedly concur with your assessment! I can’t explain why this occurs. It simply does!

Lexical Gustatory Synesthesia: This type of association involves sensing a certain taste when you hear a particular word. For example, a non-synesthete might hear the word “jam” and will think of the taste of jam. But a person with this type of synesthesia might also taste jam when she hears the word “bam” or “Pam” or “ram”, or any other word containing a similar sound pattern as “jam”. I cannot give you personal example of this, as this is one synesthesic experience I do not possess.

While these are the most common types of synesthesia, there are dozens of other ways for one sense to evoke another. For example, my husband visualizes letters as having textures. Some people associate musical notes with colors. Sometimes, pain triggers colors or taste. Really, there is no limit to the possible combinations. A synesthesic experience is simply when any sense triggers another unrelated sense, consistently and involuntarily. The president of the American Synesthesia Association, Sean Day (www.daysyn.com), reports that roughly 3.7% of the population experience some form of synesthesia. Of course, that is only an estimate, since many people who are synesthesic are completely unaware of it. Like I once thought, they believe the way they think and perceive is normal, and have never considered otherwise. So, how do you know for certain if you are synesthesic? Well, for one thing, if you have gotten to this point in the article and you are still baffled at the very idea of associating a word or letter with a color or other sense, then you likely do not have synesthesia. But if on the first line, you thought to yourself, “What does she mean ‘K’ is red?! ‘K’ is purple!” Then welcome to my world.

To explore whether or not you are a true synesthete, visit www.synesthete.org to take the synesthesia test, and to learn more information about this fascinating condition.

For more about synesthesia, check out this book:

Wednesday Is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia (MIT Press)
Amazon Price: $27.95 $15.71 Buy Now
(price as of Jul 10, 2016)