When I was five years old I was reciting a phone number to my mum and instead of saying the number ‘three’ I called it ‘green’ – assuming she could see what I did. Mum brushed it off as a moment of childish imagination but I truly believed that she would be able to understand that green meant three. It wasn’t until many years later when I brought up my strange numerical and alphabetical perceptions that I realised not everyone saw the world the way I did. I was used to it and didn’t think anything of it, so when I started researching this phenomenon and learned that I share it with only around 4% of the world’s population, I started to become more vocal about it.
Synesthesia, meaning ‘to perceive together’, causes my unique comprehension of colours and numbers. A broad term that commonly describes a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway triggers automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. The condition can present itself in multiple forms usually coming under the blanket of either projective synesthesia, where colours, shapes, or forms present themselves when stimulated or associative synesthesia which combines a strong sense triggered by stimuli when it is produced. There are around 60 to 80 more types under both of these broad categories.
I fall under projective synesthesia, more notably, the grapheme-colour variation. Under this type, every single letter and every number from zero to nine has its own unchanging colour (for numbers greater than nine, each numeral still holds its original colour, rather than becoming a new colour). Interestingly, this can hold true for languages with other alphabets than a Romanic one. For example, I don’t speak any languages that use a Cyrillic alphabet, such as Russian, however when I see the letters written down they each have their own colour like they would in a familiar Roman alphabet.
To explain to someone without synesthesia how I see letters and numbers can become quite difficult but one way is if you imagine the letter ‘A’ written in black ink on a white sheet of paper. When I look at that ‘A’, I can see that physically it is written in black ink. However in my ‘mind’s eye’, when it is being processed by my brain, I can also see the ‘A’ as written in yellow. It becomes like another intangible layer over what I know as real. However, the yellow ‘A’ feels just as real as the black ‘A’. The colour processing is instantaneous and even in my peripheral vision or when I’m not concentrating on specific words or numbers, the colours are still there. This is the same for every other letter and number in my brain, each having their own distinct and unwavering colour, some colours are even hard to explain due to their unique shade. But other grapheme-colour synesthetes don’t share the same number/letter colour combinations as each other.
Not much is known about how natural synesthesia develops – however you can develop synesthesia in other ways, such as from drug use, head trauma, epilepsy, stroke, or even from hypnosis or meditation. Neuroscientists VS Ramachandran and EM Hubbard, who studied grapheme-colour synesthesia in 2001, proposed that ‘synesthesia results from an excess of neural connections between associated modalities, possibly due to decreased neural pruning between (typically adjacent) regions that are interconnected in the fetus’.
Studies into the tracking of brain function and architecture led researcher Simon Baron-Cohen to find that those who have synesthesia have an abundance of connections between neurons. By using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) Baron-Cohen was able to show that for those who reported coloured hearing (chromesthesia), visual areas of the brain showed increased activation when presented with sound – something that doesn’t occur in the brains of nonsynesthetes – or people who don’t experience synesthesia.
Other research by Dr Daphne Maurer has suggested that every person is born with the same neural connections to account for synesthesia, however most of us lose those connections as we grow. It could pose the question that if, as humans, we only use 10% of our brain power, could synesthesia be part of the other 90%?
There have also been suggestions that it has to do with ‘ideasthesia’, meaning that synesthesia comes from how one extracts meaning from stimuli as a child, developing it as a response to their first understanding of the stimuli. There is also some evidence pointing towards synesthesia being a genetically inherited trait dominant in the X chromosome. However in a study on identical twins who both had the same genome with the potential for synesthesia, only one of the twins had documented experiencing it. It is now thought that synesthesia can be determined by multiple genes, more than one location in those genes and an intricate method of inheritance. As far as I know, the only person in my family with the condition is my stepmum, who has the lexical-gustatory type, meaning that certain words will trigger specific tastes for her (e.g. the word ‘bark’ may trigger the taste of bananas). While it’s interesting to have someone else close to me with the same condition, for myself it (knowingly) hasn’t been genetically acquired.
It is said that synesthetes tend to be more creative, especially those who have the most common form of chromesthesia. Those who have this form find that certain sounds such as everyday noises like footsteps and people talking will trigger colours and for others it’s certain types of musical notes or keys, which usually results in the person being considered ‘pitch perfect’ due to their ability to see colour and associate it with the correct pitch. Many of those in the entertainment industries, mainly musicians due to the added ability to use their chromesthesia to their advantage, are also synesthetes, such as Billy Joel, Pharrell Williams, Charlie XCX, and Hans Zimmer.
I find the connection with creativity to be particularly true for myself having graduated with a degree in creative arts and always preferring tasks that require me to utilise my right brain more than my left.
If you asked most synesthetes whether they would rather not have this condition, the general consensus is that we feel lucky to have this almost super-power in some ways. I find myself using my synesthesia very often particularly if trying to memorise a sequence of numbers or the spelling of a word. It also makes it easier to recall phone numbers and names and generally just makes the world around me more interesting. Word searches can also be pretty easy when you’re looking for a pattern of colours rather than the words themselves. It influences many of my decisions and how I go about things too. As a child I would get so frustrated when trying to colour in bubble letters because instinctively I would want to colour them as they appeared to me but often that sequence of colour would be unattractive. It felt so wrong to go against their ‘natural’ colours even in the pursuit of prettiness. I also find myself associating names with the auras of people or certain aspects about them. When we named our dog I chose her name due to its letters having earthy colours which matched her brown coat.
Occasionally there can be draw-backs to the grapheme-colour form as I’m sure there are with each type of this phenomenon. These usually only occur when I’m already tired. If I try reading a book for example there can be a bit of sensory overload from the colours I can see in my
periphery. T he words above or below the ones I’m reading distract me. I imagine it must be like this for someone with dyslexia with colours jumping all around the pages.
As already mentioned, it can be hard to explain this condition to nonsynesthetes as sometimes it is viewed as having ‘hallucinations’ or as a child, an overactive imagination. The grapheme-colour variation appears to be the easiest to live with however. There are many stories of chromesthetes feeling overwhelmed amongst people and in restaurants, of not being able to enjoy life’s pleasures such as music due to the intense sensory overload of the colours projected around them.
However, much like many people with synesthesia, I wouldn’t have it any other way. After 22 years, I’m way too attached to the numerical and alphabetical colours that have stuck with me all these years. Not to mention the tips and tricks I have learned to make the most out of this unusual phenomenon.
VONNY VAN OS