What’s it like to have synesthesia?
The sky is blue – or is it? Mental images from a synesthete.
I have associative grapheme-color synesthesia. Translated, I strongly perceive letters to have color. When I think of a word, it appears in my head as a mosaic of the letters’ colors. The first letter always dominates the latter letters. For example, “word” is green because w is green, o is white, r is dark green, and d is dark blue. Consonants have stronger colors than vowels, and entire languages can be tinted a certain color because of the dominance of certain letters. French sounds slightly blue to my ears because I hear many e’s (light blue) in its spoken form. When I read poetry, it comes to life with visual images of vibrancy and vivacity. When I write, the color of words has just as much influence on my style as grammar. For the first two decades of my life, I assumed that everyone around me saw these colors too.
I distinctly remember the day that I realized my categorization as psychologically “different”. I was sitting aside my mother in a public lecture at my university with David Eagleman, a New York Times bestselling author and neuroscientist. Three fourths of the way through his riveting dialogue on the subconscious mind, he exclaimed a claim that was met with a resounding gasp from the audience: “There are some people who see words in color!”
My mother and I also gasped, but for a reason other than shock of its revelation. We cast each other a sideways glance as if a scarlet letter had just been painted on our faces. As Eagleman droned on about this condition that he called “synesthesia”, the epiphany that words are actually black and white slapped me across my star-struck face.
It was as if I had been told that Santa Claus wasn’t real or the sky wasn’t actually blue (in fact, the word “sky” is yellow: s = yellow + k = orange + y = green). How was it possible that all of humanity didn’t share these same associations? How could functioning adults memorize grocery lists if they didn’t see the items in color? How could anyone enjoy reading a book if the adjectives didn’t palpably pop in their minds?
I understood at a young age that most people didn’t associate letters with an agreed upon color, but I simply believed that they must see something other than boring black and white. I remember scrunching my nose at my kindergarten best friend’s depiction of the alphabet. “This is all wrong,” I said shaking my head. She returned my gaze, concerned with the validity of her hard work and trusting my word because I was a natural talented at reading. I continued, “Your colors don’t match the letters!” I picked up my crayon set and showed her the obvious: a is red, b is blue, c is yellow, d is dark blue…
When I returned home from school that day, I recounted the episode to my mother, who is also a synesthete. I began to recite my color-coded version of the alphabet, and she stopped me in my tracks to interject, “C isn’t yellow, it’s orange!” I learned that she saw my name as pink, not yellow (l = yellow, a = red, c = yellow, e = blue, y = green). The subject became a running occasional battle over the years until Eagleman’s delivery of our diagnosis.
After my awareness of my synesthesia, my relationship with literature visibly shifted. The association that existed primarily in my subconscious mind was suddenly brought to the forefront of my attention. Whereas before, I skimmed over colorfully descriptive passages in novels, poetry, and prose, I now know that I can stop to see the roses. I indulgently savor words as the richly evocative gifts that they are. Knowledge of my synesthesia has been an asset in finding my voice as a writer in all of its multi-colored tones.
Yet more significant than its impact on my interaction with words, synesthesia has made me hyperaware of the diversity in perception that can exist between individuals. We each see this wild world through such a wide array of lenses (so many w’s in this alliteration – do you see the green now?). Who’s to say a black and white world of words is the truth when it’s so far from my reality? Or that sound can’t be colored as it is to a wide range of musicians with chromesthesia (a form of synesthesia that associates sound with color)? Maybe we can choose which reality we believe, and I choose to see the world in its full rainbow spectrum. Perhaps our varied realities don’t make any individual abnormal, wrong, or disordered, but rather, they add to the range of color in life.