Synesthesia is an ordinary experience for me that causes no harm. So until now, I haven’t paid it much attention. I can’t imagine things being different. I can’t imagine what it is like to listen to a sound and not see it’s colour, and feel it.
I was inspired to write this blog by a 6 year old girl ❤️ I hope it’s helpful to her and her mummy, and I hope it makes sense…
Every person with sensory processing differences have different experiences. We seek and avoid different senses because we have lower (than normal) registration in some senses, and, higher (than normal) registration in others.
Additionally, we have the experience that our brains are not just ‘turned up,’ or ‘turned down,’ but “wired differently.” For example, my brain’s ‘wires’ connect to parts of my brain that give me different experiences to most people. Noise connects to pain, light connects to heat, etc. My internal body senses don’t appear to connect to my brain at all.
Recently, I was told that, (if we imagine the traditional five senses) most people tend to experience them as separate entities. Noise makes sound, but, doesn’t have a taste or a pain. Colour is something that can be seen, but, not heard. This clean segregation of the world is what gives most people their sense of reality. To them, this reality feels fixed and permanent, and, they have the impression that anybody standing in their shoes will experience the world in exactly the same way.
But our perception of the world is filtered through the individuality of our brain. And, because some brains, (for instance autistic brains) differ in subtle ways, some people experience the world as a different place.
Synesthesia is ‘pairing, or co-occurring of the senses.’ Apparently, there are over 128 types of Synethesia, effecting 4.4% of the population. Many of these people are autistic, (and there’s science about why, but it won’t all fit in this blog!) I mainly have phoneme-colour, and sound-colour Synethesia. I’ve been this way forever, but, it was only ‘named’ for the first time in 2018, (about a year after my autism diagnosis) when a professional was trying to access how I communicate feelings. (This will be better explained later.) It was picked up again by another professional, in 2021.
Many people *associate different colours/feelings with things. My mum associates the colour blue with sadness, “feeling blue.” My friend associates January with the colour red, because of the birthstone Garnet. He associates the number 8 with ‘green,’ because the fridge magnet is green. The word ‘steak,’ makes his mouth water, and, when he hears the name of his grandmother, he feels sad because she died. These types of deliberate associations are not synesthesia, but part of the human ability to pair senses in preferred ways.
I’m going to try and explain my experience of Synesthesia. People that know me well, know that I have a very intricate love for words. My A levels were in English Language, English Literature, Spanish and French. My degree was English and Creative Writing. My hobby is music/theatre, and, I am particularly passionate about names of people and song lyrics. Words give me joy, and, my emotional relationship with words is stronger than my emotional relationship with people. When I hear a word, I see it in (a very specific shade of) colour, involuntarily; a sentence becomes a picture. Hearing a song is when my Synethesia is most mobile, vivid and layered.
When I was in hospital, I had very reduced verbal communication, but, I did a lot of painting. I painted pictures and the staff would say, “that’s nice, what is it?” I would say “it’s a song!” And then their faces would do peculiar things. Like they’d move their head to the side, their eyebrows rise a bit, their eyes looked like they were struggling with a problem, but, they were smiling about it. I was never happy with my paintings because, whilst I could paint the shapes of the sounds accurately, I could rarely mix the specific colour I was experiencing in my mind.
Many ‘synesthetes’ experience a colour for every letter sound. But, I only seem to experience colour when I hear vowel sounds in a word. Particularly, long vowel sounds. For example, all the words that contain the sound ‘a’ (including ay, a-e, ai, ey, eigh) are always yellows. (Side note: the sound of a cello is also yellow, and shares all the characteristics of honey.) All the words that contain the long sound ‘e’ or ‘i’ are blueish shades, (including ee, e-e, y, ea, ei, ie, y, igh, i-e). All the words that contain the long vowel sound ‘o’ (including o-e, oe, oa, ow,) are greens. And all the words that contain the long vowel sound ‘u’ (including u-e, ue, ew, oo) are purples.
Words with short vowel sounds like a-ant, e-egg, i-ill, o-olive, u-up, have always been reddish-pink colours. I’ve learned these feel ‘uneasy,’ but I have lots of empathy for these words. The emotion words ‘happy,’ ‘sad,’ ‘angry,’ ‘anxious,’ and ‘bad,’ all have the hard ‘a’ sound, but, mean contrasting things. (Both ‘angry’ and ‘happy,’ have blue edges.) They are also all words I do not like to say out loud.
When I hear the Louis Armstrong lyric, ‘I see trees are green,’ I see moving, bluish shapes on a blue background, and the image is gentle. When I experience this blueness, my mood is directly effected, i.e, blue is carefree and good.
This links to my autism assessment, in which I was diagnosed as alexithymic, “no words for feelings.” At the time, I accepted this as accurate, as, I have always struggled to identify and label feelings inside myself, and, on other people’s faces. However, in therapy, (and through the development of my sassy lioness,) I’ve learned that I DO have words for feelings. They’re just not the words most people expect. One reason I mask feelings is that, I am self-aware enough to observe that other people have another language for feelings, that I don’t innately have.
For example, if someone says, “how are you?” They might be expecting, “fine thank you,” or “I’m sad,” or “I feel happy.” My instinctual response would be, “Louis Armstrong, 1967, I see trees are green, blue,” and, I could then draw the image that those sounds and colours give to me.
The first person to realise my expression of feelings was my therapist. She encouraged my synesthetic experiences, and, used them to connect me with really complicated vocabulary like, ‘I feel shame,’ ‘anxiety,’ ‘guilt,’ etc.
It is very hard to ‘bend my mind’ around the fact that not everyone experiences this visual pairing of sound, colour and emotion. Which means it must be hard for others to ‘bend their mind’ around the fact that I do. It’s also hard for me to imagine other peoples’ synesthesia. For example, some people can taste words in their mouth, or, see colours when they taste certain foods, but this does not happen to me.
As my therapist (who, is not a neuroscientist) said, hearing the word “maybe,” and experiencing a lemon-yellow ‘pond’ (with blue diamond-shapes that focus, fly and fade), is as real to me as someone hearing an emotional song and getting goosebumps on their skin. Or hearing the word ‘hospital’ and having ‘butterflies.’ (The word “maybe” is also female, yes, she has a gender.)
How does this help me? I think that this helps me to remember long lists, sequences, scripts and lyrics, because, they create pictures in my mind that never change, i.e., the colours and the movement in the word ‘family,’ are exactly the same as when I heard this word as a child.
When I first learned that this wasn’t how people usually experience sounds, it gave me a variety of worries.
When I have completed choreography projects for dancers, I have never felt I deserved the recognition. People say “how did you create that piece of dance,” and, my instinct is to say “the music just tells me.” The intricate sounds in the music give me the colours and shapes, and, I just have to figure out how to recreate that with the human body.
So, I recently agreed to be part of someone’s university research on synesthesia. I have no idea what they’re going to get me to do, but, hopefully it will be tested and explored, and I will actually get some science about why.
There’s so much more to write, maybe another time. I hope this makes sense.
Non-vocal Sounds and Synesthesia
People That Claim Synesthesia (and Synethesia testing)
Other Types of Synesthesia (this one is going to take some SERIOUS research.