You Know the Half of It

March 31, 2018

I have synesthesia. The first line of the Wikipedia article has this to say about it:

Synesthesia is a perceptual phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. People who report a lifelong history of such experiences are known as synesthetes.

Despite attempting to explain this to scores of people, I’m not confident anyone has actually ever understood what I was talking about save for other synesthetes and some people who dropped acid.

Synesthesia presents itself in many ways. One of the more prevalent forms of synesthesia is grapheme-color. Grapheme-color is the association of letters and/or numbers to specific (and I mean specific) colors. Let’s do a thought experiment. Grab a pen or pencil and write the word “sofa” on a piece of paper. Now, when you read the “s”, think of the color green. For someone with associative grapheme-color synesthesia, reading the letter automatically triggers the mind’s eye perception of the color green. For someone with projective grapheme-color synesthesia, reading the letter automatically triggers a visual perception of the color green. Note to the synesthetic reader: if you have grapheme-color and you don’t associate “s” with green, my apologies (and even if you do, it’s probably not the same green I’m thinking of). Note to the non-synesthetic reader: synesthetic associations are idiosyncratic, so even if two synesthetes associate “s” with green, it’s probably not the same shade. These idiosyncratic associations often lead to passive-aggressive arguments.

One camp claims that grapheme-color isn’t actually synesthesia, but instead ideasthesia. The Wikipedia quote above describes a very broad set of experiences, but generally synesthesia is understood to imply activation of one sense triggers activation of another, whereas ideasthesia means activation of a cognitive pathway related to semantic reasoning triggers activation of a sense. I think the concept of ideasthesia has a lot of merit, but I still refer to any ideasthetic experience as “synesthesia” because most people are still overwhelmed by trying to imagine what that is like.

I have a bunch of different kinds of synesthesia. Many of these involve color, and while it would be easiest for you to understand my synesthesia by viewing a visual representation of my experiences, so far I’ve been too lazy to make any. In the future, I hope to write posts that include artwork that explains the phenomenon better than I do. For the time being you’ll have to make due with bullet points. Note: unless otherwise stated, when I say “I see”, I’m referring to my mind’s eye. It’s a long list, so here goes:

  • Grapheme-color. One interesting thing I’ve noticed is that though I have different associations for each letter (and number), when those letters and numbers compose to form words or other numbers, I don’t associate the letters with colors in isolation anymore. Words and letters tend to have a single color or gradient dominated by the first or first few symbols. Though most of the time this is associative, I’ve found I occasionally project colors onto my surroundings.
  • Sound-color. Probably my favorite kind of synesthesia. Whenever I hear any kind of sound, I’ll “see” a mix of colors, patterns and motion in 3D space in my mind’s eye. This is especially nice when I listen to music because it’s like having a personal music visualizer. I have taste in music just like everyone else, but when it comes to color vibrancy and excitement, electronic music takes the cake. I find it easier to isolate the different parts of an electronic song than a rock song, which leads to a different association for each element, and overall a more inspiring experience.
  • Ticker Tape. I find this kind of synesthesia weird but fascinating. When I listen to anyone talk (including my internal monologue), I see a line of subtitles of what they’re saying in my mind’s eye. I can read the subtitles left-to-right, but they move across my mind’s eye right-to-left, which is odd and not great UX in my opinion. Additionally, the words I see are colored according to my grapheme-color synesthesia. I plan to write more about ticker tape because I’m curious whether I can identify which fonts presumably influenced my association, and if there are any patterns in tone, speed, accent, etc. that influence the typography.
  • Temperature-color. When I feel different temperatures, I see different colors. I believe these associations were heavily influenced by media I saw as a child (the typical hot = red, cold = blue), but I still think it’s synesthesia since I immediately think of the color upon experiencing the temperature, and it seems the associations have texture and variation. Room temperature looks like a shade beige-white, and my mind frequently relegates it to background noise since it’s always there.
  • Touch-color. I think it may be more precise to say I have a color association for different stimuli to my nerve endings, as I see colors for sensations including, but not limited to, touch. When I sit on a couch I see a vaguely buff-colored outline of my lazy shape where it presses into the furniture. When my muscles tighten, I see the tightness as a 3D object. I frequently go to the doctor for running injuries, and it’s nice being able to point out in a model or muscle diagram what exactly hurts. When I walk down the street, I see a dotted outline of where my skin touches the air, formed by my moving hair follicles. I was once hospitalized for food poisoning. When I took a water IV, I saw the rush of cool water into my bloodstream as a light blue, 3D visualization of the vein structure of my forearm, which to this day is the coolest experience I’ve had with touch-color.
  • Taste-color. Different tastes trigger different color associations. However, I don’t know of a way to isolate taste from the feeling of food in my mouth, so it’s possible that I just feel food differently with my mouth than my skin. The associations are different though. For example, pickles feel like a brush of paint on a palette, but taste sparkly. This is a fact and I do not accept discussion on the matter.
  • Smell-color. One of my favorite colors is how diesel smells. I don’t know why. It’s sort of a smoky, amorphous green-black.
  • Sound-motion. When I listen to music I move. This is different from tapping a foot to a beat; I need to move different parts of my body to each discernible part of a song, and if I hold back my face gets kind of twitchy (unpleasant, I know). I’ve found it best to move my hands and fingers since they have the highest concentration of easily-moved articulated joints in the smallest space, though my eyelids will suffice if I’m feeling lazy (concerning, I know).
  • Emotion-color and color-emotion. When I feel, or see other people feeling an emotion, I see a color. When I see a color, I feel an emotion. These positive feedback loops can occasionally get out of hand so I try not to indulge (with varying degrees of success, as this is all involuntary). However, I do have a number of songs with happy colors in case I ever need a pick-me-up.
  • Ordinal Linguistic Personification. This one is super weird and I’m in the middle of a more detailed write up, so I’ll just link to the Wikipedia page for now.
  • Spatial-sequence. I perceive measurements of time as 3D objects occupying distinct spaces around my body. Spatial-sequence is a bit hard to describe because it mixes perception in the mind’s eye with physical position in real space. For example, I think of a calendar year as a slightly warped, looped ribbon. The ribbon is comprised of twelve parts representing the months, each with a color and separated from its neighbors by a black outline. I conceptualize the loop as occupying a space above my right shoulder. It takes significantly more imagery to describe my perception of a week or time in general, so that may occupy a later post. Interestingly, most of the architects I’ve spoken to share this form of synesthesia.
  • Number-form. When I see or think of a string of numbers—in particular numbers following a regular pattern—I visualize them in a specific way. For example, when I think of even numbers, my representation is a very slightly graded triangle. The triangle is composed of an in-order line of even numbers that start with 2 and increase in font size until around 1,137,232 when the triangle peaks, and then the numbers begin decreasing in font size until they trail off into infinity.

You’re entitled to take a breath. Continuing on: In the fall of 2012 I read an article about synesthesia which made me realize two things: 1) There’s a label for what I have (it’s a nice gradient of green and white and really rolls off the tongue), and; 2) Everybody else doesn’t have it. How bizarre.

I’ve done a lot of introspection since finding out what synesthesia is, and I’ve discovered that my perception of the world is relatively quirky. One thing I can’t wrap my head around, however, is how you perceive the world. I have no idea what it’s like to not see color in my mind’s eye all the time, and consider the prospect quite baffling. Since the associations are involuntary, I can’t just not experience them, and I don’t believe I ever have. So, I just assume that life without synesthesia is quite dull. You can try to convince me otherwise, but I have your senses too, you know.

Replacing sassiness with openness and a side of narcissism, I want to share my experience with everyone because I think it’s for the most part awesome. With virtual- and mixed-reality technologies and creative tools on the rise, it’s easier than ever to hand out samples of my mind’s eye. I consider sharing this a lifelong project.

Last but not least, if you have synesthesia or think you might, please reach out; I love to talk about it.

© 2022 Duncan McIsaac