Synesthesia. A word a surprising amount of people have heard, but many do not understand.
According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the word synesthesia comes from the Greek syn- and aesthesis, meaning “union” and “sensation,” respectively. Its figurative translation means “to perceive together.”
Synesthesia is, by definition, a sense impression made on one part of the body or on one sense that is produced by stimulus to a separate sense or body part. To simplify, synesthesia can be thought of as a “crossing over” of senses.
Synesthesia is not a disease, nor is it a hallucination. It is a genetic biological phenomenon, unlearned, more common in females than males. It is believed that one in every 2,000 people are synesthetes, the term used for those individuals with synesthesia. Famously, Vladimir Nabokov is reputed to have been a synesthete.
There is a widely-accepted theory that synesthesia is caused by a genetically driven overabundance of neurons in the brain. Synesthetes tend to be musical, artistic, and/or good at spelling and history. The musicianship and artistic abilities come from the lives of synesthetes being, for the most part, saturated with color. The enhanced spelling and history ability come from these colors, too. If the colors of the letters or numbers are amiss, the synesthete can more easily locate mistakes and fix them.
I myself have synesthesia. Mine manifests in the form of letters and numbers having colors, genders, and personalities, especially numbers under ten. I also “see” music. Music usually looks to me like colors, sometimes shapes, and occasionally scenes, like paintings.
The way synesthesia works for me is that I see that letters in a book are black. I know the ink is black; I see the ink is black. But in my mind’s eye, the place where one visualizes things, (for example, memories) the letters each have their own colors. This is one of the reasons I love reading so much, because the words become tiny paintings comprising a larger, more beautiful whole.
My favorite words because of my synesthesia and the colors of its provides are “beautiful,” “meadow,” “dinosaur,” and “bride.” My favorite pieces of music are Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” which is deep blue and speckled with silver, with moments of the palest yellow. I also love “By a Sleepy Lagoon” by Eric Coates, which is peach and sky blue and green. The letter “A” is red, “I” is a pale ice blue with a tiny tint of lavender, and the letter “T” is forest green. They are that way because they’ve always been that way. I’ve never known a time when those letters didn’t have those colors.
Synesthesia varies from person to person. The colors of my alphabet, while they largely conform to those of most English-speaking synesthetes, vary slightly from that alphabet. My sister and my father have synesthesia as well, and their alphabets differ from mine, with some similarities. We get into joking fights about what color certain letters are.
I wouldn’t trade my synesthesia for anything. It literally makes my life more colorful. It makes music and reading more interesting and delightful. I’ve never lived without it, and I wouldn’t like to. If you’d like to know what color your name is, comment below, and I’ll let you know!
Carpenter, Siri. (March 2001). Everyday fantasia: the world of synesthesia. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from: http://www.apa.org/monitor/mar01/synesthesia.aspx
Harrison, J.E., & Baron-Cohen, S. (Eds.) (1996). Synaesthesia: Classic and contemporary readings. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.