Thursday, 5 April 2018

On Synesthesia

Friends who come by here often will surely have met Fiona Merrick in the comments threads. 

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.


greta said...

this is fascinating. thank you so much for sharing!

Pen Wilcock said...



Julie B. said...

I thought this was fascinating. I have a granddaughter who I think has synesthesia, although I didn't know the name for it before now. She has ascribed colors to her family members, and perceives smells as having a color too. She says that bananas have a very white smell. She says she herself is greyish lavender, which I can totally see and understand in some strange way, and one of her sisters is yellowish orange, which is accurate also. I was almost afraid to ask what color she thinks I am (beige? taupe? mustard? charcoal?), and was pleased to learn she says I am navy blue.

I loved reading this....thank you both!

Pen Wilcock said...

How interesting! That gives me an immediate and helpful insight into the people whose colours you mention. Now I'm wondering, to what extent is this fixed and to what extent is it relational (objective or subjective)? Could it be possible for another person to perceive the greyish-lavender individual as vermilion or electric blue? Or would everyone see them as a gentle colour (sage green, perhaps, or mushroom). I have no idea what colour I would be. Fog, I suspect. xx

Fiona said...

Thank you, Greta and Julie, for your very kind and encouraging comments, which are much appreciated!

Julie, when I first realised I had synesthesia, I read somewhere that synesthetes who don't yet realise they have a specific, diagnosable condition are broadly divided into two types: those who don't talk about it because they feel odd and different and perhaps fear being laughed at or considered strange, and those who believe that everyone sees and experiences the world as they do and therefore don't realise that they are in the minority when it comes to their sensory perceptions. It absolutely does sound as if your granddaughter has synesthesia, and I was so interested to hear about how hers manifests itself.

Pen, when you wonder whether the colours she experiences in interactions with people are objective or subjective, do you mean that you wonder whether different synesthetes would experience the same colours (or same sorts of colours, eg bright, muted, dark etc) if they were all asked to associate a particular person with a colour? That is a fascinating question because it brings human qualities (and relative degrees and different contexts of knowing that person) into the equation in a way which doesn't always happen (although it can do) with inanimate things such as days of the week. Although I don't have a definitive answer to that question, since I don't myself associate people with colours, I do know from discussing synesthesia with other synesthetes that we sometimes agree on things like our days-of-the-week colours, and at other times not at all. My Tuesday is canary yellow, but I know someone else who sees it as blue. I also have a synesthete friend who associates the colour red with safety and security rather than danger, anger, passion or any of the other more common connections people often make with that colour. It is, as a condition, very subjective in that sense, and it's very interesting both to talk about it with other friends and to read about famous synesthetes (there is, for example, a contemporary composer called Michael Torke who has written a suite called Color Music, which explores the way in which his own synesthesia affects his experience of music) and how it affects them - I'm yet to find anyone whose experience exactly matches mine.

Pen Wilcock said...

Was I asking "whether different synesthetes would experience the same colours (or same sorts of colours, eg bright, muted, dark etc) if they were all asked to associate a particular person with a colour?" Yes — that's exactly what I meant.

For me it's Monday that's bright canary yellow. My Tuesday is a gentle mid-blue and my Wednesday is green. I don't have colour associations for every day of the week, and only for certain people do I experience colour associations. But sometimes I can (as I put it) see a person's light. Which is to say, there is s light field around people, very distinctive and individual in colour, and sometimes I can see it. So it isn't always a flat colour. For example, I have met people with a crystalline light, sort of prismatic.
I have a friend who sees auras, and for a while she had a habit of attending church when I was preaching. She says that when I chat or pray I'm just normal, but when I preach of teach I shoot out rainbows. She used to look forward to watching them in the service!