Synesthesia: Part Two

When people find out that I have synesthesia the first question I get asked is: what is it like living with synesthesia?  I try to answer the best I can but the truth is I have no idea how to truly convey what its like for me any better than a person without synesthesia would be able to relate their "normal" experience of the world.  But I'm going to try my best to relate to you now a little more about what its like for me inside my sensory experiences.


The first type of synesthesia I remember actively having is the gender type, as I related in my story in last weeks post.  My experience with things having gender is really not that foreign for anyone who has ever spoken a romance language since objects have gender in those languages.  The big difference for me is that while everything has gender its not divided by category.  In other words, some chairs are boys and some are girls. 

A female chair

A male chair

A male chair

I've never been able to pinpoint what it is about objects that makes me see one gender or the other and I've never experienced something that is gender-neutral.  That's not to say that such a concept doesn't exist, its just not my experience of the world.  I can tell you that the gender I see has nothing to do with stereotypes of masculine and feminine.  In fact those are ideas I've struggled a great deal with--since some things that are "girly" read as masculine to me and some things that are "for boys" read as female to me.  It also has absolutely nothing to do with sex or sexual orientation.  In my mind gender is just another piece of information the brain processes to help me sort "this is not that" and because I've lived with it for so long its more like background noise than anything.  Imagine walking through a parking lot full of automobiles: you wouldn't think "4 door, 2 door, sport, truck..." for everything you walked past, unless you needed to differentiate for some reason.  The information is there, you just don't focus on it until its needed. That's what gender is like for me.  

Mirror Empathy

Your mind to my mind, your thoughts to my thoughts...

I probably should've started with this one, since as I mentioned in my previous post, this form of synesthesia seems to be the one common type that all syntesthetics share.  I can honestly say that I cannot remember a time in my life when I didn't know what other people were feeling simply by entering the room.  I can feel a mood like a tingling on my skin, neck or back and I find myself physically flinching when I know something doesn't feel good to another person or animal.  Like most synesthetics I didn't even know this was odd until I was in college and participated in a study. When asked about it I was at first confused; it never occurred to me that I couldn't deal with violent images because of synesthesia or that other people can't feel how others feel just by looking at them.  I'd never questioned why I found people so exhausting and needed a lot of alone time to recharge every day but once I figured out what was happening a great many things came into focus for me.

During the study I participated in they showed me a short film with violent images. I didn't even make it to 15 seconds before I had to shut my eyes and my muscles were twitching in sympathy with the areas being assaulted on the film. My brain was flooded with chemicals and lighting up like it was happening to me.  I've always had issues with feeling physically sick when confronted with violence but I just thought I was sensitive. It also explained to me the reason I struggle with things that are "awkward humor" in films or TV because instead of being funny to me, I feel horribly uncomfortable and embarrassed because its like its happening to me.  

I'm great with people because I always know where they're at emotionally, because I can feel it.  But I struggle with it at the same time because there is this constant emotional yo-yo happening in my brain between the reactions I experience that are mine and those that are others.  As I've aged I've become less emotionally expressive to compensate.  The more I became aware that not all of my feelings were my own (or that I could be swayed by the emotions of others) the more distance I've learned to put between myself and my feelings--especially at work.  While its helped me to survive with my sanity intact, people often tease me about being a vulcan, so detached and logical. I guess its fair assessment, since vulcans turned to logic as a way to control all the chaos that their strong emotions produced.  But no matter how much I meditate and am self-aware it doesn't change the fact that I need a good deal of alone time so that I can take a break from the roller coaster of other people's emotions.  

Sound & Color

From the first moment I began making art I had a very strong color sense and can remember knowing that colors sounded right together.  It wasn't until I was a little older and would occasionally slip-up in describing colors that worked together (ie, "these colors sound nice together") that a teacher became concerned I was learning disabledand sent me to the school psychometrist.  It was she who finally gave me a name for what had been happening to me my whole life.  While it was helpful to put a label on how I was different, I still worked very hard to mask it through much of my childhood.  I developed coping mechanisms; namely wearing headphones a lot.  If I can control the sound, or if its predicable in a way that I can anticipate I can push the stimuli to the back of my mind.  But its harder when I'm tired, or there's a lot of random noises around.  I work in an open concept office and there are days when the sounds become so overwhelming--imagine a constant changing flashing, strobe light going off in front of your eyes--and I get a lot of headaches.  On a well rested day I can make it so I don't even really see the colors.  My brain shuttles it to the background.  But if I'm stressed or tired, my ability to filter goes away. I listen to a lot of music that is minimalist in style because the tonal changes are subtle, which means I get a lot of the same color for longer stretches of time which is more restful and can help me combat the over stimulation. I also wear and surround myself with a lot of gray.  The gray mutes the sound for me--so that its softer and not as demanding which helps to ease the stress created by loud colors/sounds.

It's not all bad however.  There are times when it is unbelievably beautiful.  The first time I stood in front of a Kandinsky painting, I cried.  He was also synesthetic and the piece sounds like a beautifully sad chorus.  Interestingly enough, as I was standing in the MoMA looking at this piece and weeping a guard came over, looked at me, looked at it and then said "Synesthetic huh?"  I must of looked really started because he smiled and informed me "We get them in a lot, crying over this painting."  And then he just shook his head and smiled.  What fascinates me is that I've learned there's no 1-1 translation of colors and sounds.  No two synesthetics will hear the same types of sounds with colors.  But we all are in agreement with what sounds good and what sounds bad; but where I hear a chorus, others would hear brass or strings.  Where I hear a-sharp others would hear while the sounds are not universal the ability to please or displease appears to be.  The scientists in the study found it quite baffling and have as far as I know, not come up with a plausible explanation.  But regardless of what we hear, many of us stand before that painting in the MoMA and cry.

There are times that the world is such an amazing experience for me; in the fall when the world is quiet and the leaves change I hear Prokofiev sounds and in the winter when the snow falls its Mahler 4.  I think as I've aged I've taken the sounds I hear and associated them further with music that mimics the pitches I hear when I look at color.  I'm including the painting I saw at the MoMA and a link to music that is close to the sounds I hear when I listen to the painting.  If you can, I would encourage you not to look at the video and instead listen to it and look at the should be able to open the painting up in a lightbox for a closer look while you listen.

Panel for Edwin R. Campbell No. 4



Out of all of my forms of synesthesia this one is the simplest and probably the most fun.  All letters and numbers have personalities to me. 1-10 are the strongest out of the numbers for me when it comes to personalities.  5 is the number of perfection for me--it is actually a him and it has the best of all of the qualities in it; fair-minded, fun loving, diligent and a bit of comic-book nerd.  4 is a girl, the mean jealous type who resents both 3 and 5 and desperately wants to be in the cool kids clique of 7-8-9.  10 is lonely and a little sad, sort of the outsider of the group.  I won't bore you with all of them, this is just a sampling of what its like for me when I see numbers or letters, its like seeing a person for me.  Again, like the color/sound, I don't remember when it started, it was just sort of there for as long as I can remember but my guess would be that it started when I began learning about letters and numbers. 

Number Form

This one is the most interesting to me--I had been told by the researchers in the study I was in that it was possible I would develop other types of synesthesia as I aged.  They warned me that since my brain is predisposed to connecting information that was useful, it might do so again.  Its not that I didn't believe them, its just I couldn't really imagine it. 

Fast forward a few years and my best friend in graduate school is also a synesthetic.  She has number form--which is where ideas and time take on physical location qualities.  For her, theories would have specific spots they belonged in and these spots existed in three dimensional space, a fact I found fascinating.  For a while I would find myself thinking, "if this theory had a space where would I put it?" to see if I could visualize how she saw ideas.  It never really clicked with me, but I did realize that time however, was a natural fit to this idea.  Days, weeks, months, years, these I could easily visualize in a continuum.   I discovered that I could remember dates/events easier if I placed them in a visual continuum but it was all very conscious and in my imagination.  The more I did it, the more habitual it became to imagine time like this.

Then one night about a year later I was fixing a snack and my husband asked me a question about my availability on a day and there was this rushing whoosh as the blocks of time stretched out before me in three dimensional space and color coded.  I was so started I dropped the plate on the floor and jumped.  Looking back on it now, I can see how I imagined time was slowly leading me to this point and I saw the subtle shifts in how I was coding time--like blocks that had more events becoming taller, days taking on color codes, etc.  I just couldn't see what was happening to me until it was done.  As the doctors had warned me, my brain flipped another switch on when it was helpful.

Color Touch

After my shocking experience with number form suddenly appearing, I've been more cognizant of myself and how I'm pushing my senses.  Since I was moved into an open concept work space I spend more time with my headphones on than I previously did.  Its given me some problems because as I'm prepping color theory work, I cannot hear the colors over the music in my ears.  But the ambient noise is also disruptive if I take off the headphones to try and hear the colors.  I realized a few months back that I'd started reaching out to the color to see if I could feel its vibrations on my skin.  I must've done it 15 or so times before I realized consciously that I was attempting to forge a new connection.  Its spotty; sometimes I feel the color sometimes I don't.  But I do think that its coming and that at some point in the near future I'll have a secondary way to tell what colors work together based off of the feelings I get and not just the sounds.  I'm finding myself reaching out without conscious thought to feel and to hear both.  I'm curious to see how this evolves and how long it will take to fully form.  But knowing its coming now, means it won't be so jarring when the switch is fully flipped.


I hope this helps all of you understand, at least a little, what my sensory experience is like.  Please, feel free to ask any questions you have.  As I said in part one, I'm really hoping to spread awareness of synesthesia so that others with it will know what is happening and be aware that there are others that live in a very similar world. 

For more information please check out the American Synesthesia Association.