Fiona is one of several people I've been delighted to meet through writing and blogging whose perspective always encourages and illumines.
Here she is.
In a recent post, she commented on her own experience of synesthesia, and accepted my invitation to write a guest post telling us about it.
So here, in her own words, is Fiona talking about what it's like to be a synesthete. Thank you so much, Fiona!
Social media is undoubtedly a mixed blessing, as we’re increasingly discovering, but one of its more enjoyable features is the opportunity it provides to giggle in community at entertaining photos of our pets. So last week I shared online a photo of our cat, Tabitha, standing triumphantly atop the wall-mounted television, having leapt up there via the piano.
Tabitha (who is a tomcat, but was named as a tiny kitten when we wrongly believed him to be female) is well-known among my friends for his household antics - he stripped and dismantled our Christmas tree last Advent, and regularly climbs inside the dishwasher while it's being loaded - so we all had a good laugh at his alpha-cat stance and endless thirst for adventure, after which the conversation turned to the colour-coordinated books underneath the TV, with opinion divided as to whether my arrangement was beautiful or bonkers. One friend, a highly efficient gentleman who organises his own books chronologically and alphabetically, asked incredulously, “How do you ever manage to find whichever book you’re looking for?”
I’ve known for as long as I can remember that Monday is dark red, that certain musical key signatures are infused with citrus and that most letters of the alphabet and some numbers have their own inexplicable but definitive coloured identities. For decades I attributed what I experienced to nothing more than oddness as a person, and only realised about five years ago that I had a diagnosable neurological condition called synesthesia; this is a perceptual phenomenon in which the senses are more intimately connected than usual, weaving ribbons of colour, scent and taste through otherwise everyday, even prosaic, experiences and concepts. Some synesthetes actually see colours when stimulated by particular sights, sounds or notions - the timbre of a bass clarinet, for example, might “look” a rich chocolate brown - whereas others experience a strong but less literal association between the senses, meaning that the essence of what comprises a particular word or letter might include a coloured “aura” as well as its unique shape and sound; some inanimate objects can even possess human characteristics such as patience or bad-temperedness in the mind of a synesthete, whether or not they can precisely articulate or justify why this should be the case.
My own form of the condition is known as grapheme-colour synesthesia, and is positioned at the opposite extreme from colour-blindness: for me, certain types of information are perceived, stored and retrieved in colour-coded ways over which I have no control or influence. I taught music in secondary schools for a decade, and can still remember years later the form groups to which many of my pupils belonged, because each class - named after different letters of the alphabet - allocated itself a separate colour in my mind and facilitated a strong association between the groups in which they were taught and the colours of their letter names. As a musician, I find that sharp key signatures are associated with oranges, lemons and limes - collectively rather than specifically - whilst their flat counterparts conjure up visions of strawberries, raspberries and blueberries, although I don’t experience any accompanimental tastes or odours whilst playing or singing. And each day of the week assumes a particular colour in my mind, though if there’s any rhyme or reason to each shade and hue, it eludes me; Thursday is a deep purple, but I have no real idea of why.
I know at least five other people with synesthesia, and our different daily experiences of living with it are quite varied: one friend encounters tomatoes as black whilst fully acknowledging their physical reality as red, another “sees” the key of E minor through a lens of sparkling white, and someone else strongly associates digits with distinct colours, which can cause a degree of havoc when performing mathematical calculations. For some synesthetes, the condition can be a bit of a curse, with certain flavours and scents causing more revulsion than might otherwise be the case, or particular colours arousing negative emotions or feelings. For others it’s useful, certainly in the memory department, and often leads to odd quirks of behaviour such as arranging books by colour; even if I can’t bring to mind the author or title of a specific book, I can almost always recall the shade of the spine and therefore easily locate it when it’s ordered within a spectrum, which is how I answered the friend who questioned the logic of my rainbow bookcase. What’s common to us all, however, is the fact that the condition impacts the life of each synesthete in unusual and unique ways, and can explain something about the choices we make in our daily lives, whether or not those choices seem odd or whimsical to others.
Pen writes here sometimes about the sartorial decisions she makes, and the reasons why she opts for comfortable fabrics and unobtrusive colours which encapsulate simplicity, modesty, quietness and a focus elsewhere than upon the wearer. If we’re to live authentically and peacefully as ourselves, it doesn’t make much sense to invite sources of physical, mental or emotional chafing into our personal spaces, or to allow them to irritate and weary us if a better, less draining alternative is possible. And the recognition of what encourages our own personal tranquility of the mind helps to inform the choices we make about our surroundings and the things we can countenance having nearby, whichever of our five senses might be particularly affected by what’s around us, and to what extent.
I’ve come to understand - and have gradually learned to connect this fact with my synesthesia - that certain coloured elements of my environment will promote quietness in my soul and mind, whilst others have the potential to provoke turmoil and overstimulation instead. My books are sorted by colour mostly because they’re easier to find when organised in this way, but also because I find the effect to be soothing, which is beneficial for me and, in turn, for those around me.
I feel far more at peace when there are fewer colour-related demands made upon my sense of sight, which is why the bright orange Sainsbury’s carrier bag (housing plastic packaging waiting to be recycled) and my sons’ royal blue PE bags (ready to receive freshly laundered sports kit when the school term begins) are, when hanging together on a hook, kept out of sight behind the utility room door rather than visually troubling me several times a day on account of their clashing colours. I often drive past a mustard-yellow tub of winter grit sitting next to a rust-brown fence up which a beautiful pale-pink clematis grows in warmer weather; I know that this is not a trio of shades with which I could comfortably or happily live for long, in either house or garden. I work at home and spend far more time there than does anyone else in my family, none of whom are especially attuned to or affected by the various hues and tints of our living area, whereas I am somewhat at their mercy as a synesthete, and feel noticeably more comfortable when dwelling among some colours and combinations than alongside others.
So the communal areas in our house are decorated in neutral and natural tones, our framed photographs are printed in black and white, and the garden fence is a restful shade of Forest Green which complements lavender and buddleja and heather rather than competing with them, while the bedrooms are painted, accessorised and organised according to the respective tastes of each inhabitant. My own desire for visually peaceful surroundings is accommodated in this way, alongside my small sons’ Lego and love of primary colours and my husband’s preference for sorting his own books by genre and size. Through the inclusivity of awareness - of both others and self - a compromise of sorts can thus be reached, as indeed it must be if a shared living environment is to be rooted in mutual respect and to provide a sense of individual contentment for every person living there. And I think it’s always good to try and meet each other somewhere in the middle if we can, whatever our individual contribution to the fabric of humanity, since that fabric is formed by the weaving together of an endless number of fascinatingly diverse threads, taking all sorts to make a world.