- Synesthesia comes from the Greek words syn and aesthesis, literally meaning together-perception. As commonly defined, people with synesthesia have mixed senses where one sense unconsciously triggers another. Some people can taste colors and feel words. However, the most important thing to remember is that everyone with synesthesia experiences it differently. No two people with synesthesia experience the same thing, even if they have the same form of synesthesia.
- The most common form of synesthesia is associating letters and/or numbers with colors. For people without this, letters and numbers in black ink are just plain black. But for people with synesthesia, black letters and numbers are full of color. Patt Duffy explains learning to write: “I realized that to make an R all I had to do was first write a P and then draw a line down from its loop. And I was so surprised that I could turn a yellow letter into an orange letter just by adding a line." But other people with synesthesia will disagree with Patt’s colors because the associated colors are different for every person. When Valdimir Nabokov, a famous Russian novelist, was a toddler, the colored letters on his wooden blocks irritated him because they were the wrong colors. For him, “there is steely x, thundercloud z, and huckleberry k. . . . And today I have at last perfectly matched v with “Rose Quartz’ in Maerz and Puls’ Dictionary of Color.” Researchers often have people with synesthesia choose from hundreds of paint tiles to make a list of how they see the alphabet, but letters can change and be shaded differently depending on what letters surround them.
- While certain drugs can trigger an experience like synesthesia, synesthesia is not caused by drugs. Brain imaging has shown that synesthesia is involuntary and cannot be reproduced by a person without synesthesia. Synesthesia also stays mainly consistent over time, and is thus hard to fake. Even though synesthesia is a real phenomenon, many people stay quiet as to not be perceived as weird or on drugs. In my experience, most of the people I have met with synesthesia (fairly mild forms) do not realize that it is unusual or do not realize that there is a name for what they have.
- Another form of synesthesia is linking color and music. This led to disagreements between Liszt and Rachmaninov over what was the correct color for the key they were composing in. Liszt would say to the orchestra, “O please, gentlemen, a little bluer, if you please!” Duke Ellington, who is also recognized as having synesthesia, had his own thoughts on the subject: “If Harry Carney is playing, D is dark blue burlap. If Johnny Hodges is playing, G becomes light blue satin."
- Synesthesia can also involve taste, such as James Wannerton and his dislike for the earwax tasting name “Derek.” One man with synesthesia tastes broccoli every time he hears his girlfriend's name. He doesn’t like broccoli. Richard “tastes like a chocolate bar-warm and melting on my tongue.” Spelling can also effect a word’s taste. For one woman, “‘Lori’ tastes like a pencil eraser, but ‘Laurie’ tastes lemony.”
- For Michael, the senses are mixed a bit differently. He feels shapes on his face and hands in response to flavors and does not like to serve chicken that tastes round instead of pointy. Carol feels guitar music on her ankles, violins on her face and trumpets on the back of her neck. And MW can feel the word mint on his hand as a “cool glass column.”
- Scientists do not know what causes synesthesia. Some theories are that synesthesia is a result of brain "cross talk," a genetic neural connection overabundance or "a reduced amount of inhibition along feedback pathways.” The most fascinating theory is that every one is born with synesthesia, but the brain grows out of it.
- Synesthesia has its own share of mysteries. Synesthesia tends to run in families, but in some pairs of identical twins, only one has synesthesia. A small amount of people have lost their synesthesia at puberty. Roman numerals have no color to people with number-color synesthesia. There was also a colorblind man with synesthesia who could only see color when he looked at numbers.
- Some of my favorite random synesthesia anecdotes: Getting nauseous from the sound of wind chimes. Not being able to eat ice-cream because the vendor’s words sounded like black cinders. Seeing 7 as a man with a mustache. Hearing “oh”’s and “ah”’s from a painting. Every word having a different physical movement, easily demonstrated by a body-pose. Tasting blueberries when seeing a skyline. Feeling acupuncture as layers of colors. Seeing December as a red area to one's left. Feeling a song as a square.
Oh. And thank you to I Beati for this award. I will pass it on as soon as I am done hoarding it.