Seeing music in colour: Not just for stoners anymore!
November 21, 2011 2:02 PM   Subscribe

Scientists have found that people with synesthesia, a condition wherein people have strong links between sensory experiences (such as hearing music as colours, or recalling a particular taste with a strong visual memory), may be caused by neural overstimulation in the visual cortex. The original paper (abstract and full text in pdf): Enhanced Cortical Excitability in Grapheme-Color Synesthesia and Its Modulation

Synesthesia has also been described as a blending of the senses, and it seems to happen to people whose perceptual neurons get too excited and then take in more stimulus than actually exists. The brain then tries to work through all the inconsistent stimuli and results in senses comingling.

From the results of the original study:
* Unusually high activity levels in these neurons could help them form and strengthen connections between senses, the researchers say, while similar connections in most of our brains simply peter out.

* Other researchers have suggested this tendency to connect two senses could mean that people with synesthesia are better at making connections between other disparate ideas.

Famous people who have reported having synesthesia:
Vladimir Nobokov, author of Lolita
Physicist Richard Feynman
Musicians Billy Joel, John Mayer, Syd Barrett (founder of Pink Floyd), Duke Ellington and many, many more
posted by guster4lovers (59 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Billy Joel? Really?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:03 PM on November 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

The author of 'The Phantom Tollbooth' has synesthesia.
posted by glaucon at 2:08 PM on November 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Scientists have found that people with synesthesia...may be caused by neural overstimulation in the visual cortex.

Really? I thought people were caused by their parents having sex.

or, you know, overstimulation of dangling participles...
posted by Jon_Evil at 2:09 PM on November 21, 2011 [7 favorites]

Reading 'The Phantom Tollbooth' may induce synesthesia.
posted by loquacious at 2:10 PM on November 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

from post: “Scientists have found that people with synesthesia... may be caused by neural overstimulation in the visual cortex.”

Indeed, that's what my father has always claimed I was caused by. He has a talent for making my mother blush.
posted by koeselitz at 2:11 PM on November 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

Dunno, but something about reading posts here always makes me feel blue, whereas clicking on AskMe makes me feel either queasy or envious.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 2:13 PM on November 21, 2011

One of the best posts I've tasted all year!
posted by furiousxgeorge at 2:14 PM on November 21, 2011 [19 favorites]

Joking aside, this is incredibly interesting, thank you. Puts me in mind of the short stories of David Langford (recently featured here) which deal with the possibility that images might be constructed which have various impacts on our minds.
posted by koeselitz at 2:14 PM on November 21, 2011

Hearing The Phantom Tollbooth may be indicative of synesthesia.
posted by 3FLryan at 2:15 PM on November 21, 2011

From the ways I've heard it described, it sounds like if they could figure out a way to bottle it and make regular people experience synesthesia when they wanted to, they'd have a drug for the ages.

I'd love have the feeling of seeing music or tasting color. Without overstating the obvious, I'm sure it would vastly change the ways I viewed the world.
posted by quin at 2:16 PM on November 21, 2011

Seeing music is neat until you discover that you can't drive if the radio is too loud.
posted by restless_nomad at 2:20 PM on November 21, 2011 [5 favorites]

I have grapheme-color and number form synesthesia. Nice to know I'm not imagining it. Wait --

Seriously, I pretty much guessed it wasn't the norm and kept quiet about it. I was middle aged before I found out it was a Thing with a Name. And that my dad has it, too. Cool.
posted by probably not that Karen Blair at 2:23 PM on November 21, 2011

I was in my early thirties when I found out it was a Thing With A Name, but I always assumed that everybody had it and just didn't talk about it. I have grapheme and number (and days of the week; today is Light Yellow Day, and that is how I keep track, should you be interested) colour synesthesia, and envy my friend who has the auditory/colour kind (even though she has uncomfortable experiences at concerts sometimes when the colour of the lights clashes with that of the music).
posted by jokeefe at 2:30 PM on November 21, 2011

I don't know if it's classical synesthesia, but I associate many musical pitches with textures. E is smooth and metallic, F is soft like felt, F# is pointy, A is rough like sandpaper, Bb is clean and wet.
posted by dfan at 2:34 PM on November 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

This always seemed like a much more pleasant form of nonstandard neurological deal than the ones I've been stuck with. I don't suppose anyone wants to trade?
posted by elizardbits at 2:36 PM on November 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

dfan, that sounds like synesthesia to me.
posted by jokeefe at 2:38 PM on November 21, 2011

Yes, jokeefe, days of the week (oddly mostly shades of green for me, although Saturday is blue and Sunday is very pale pink/white), months, years, and decades, too, kinda like that third illustration in the Wiki article.

I love to read, but the words don't taste like anything. I solve that with hot chocolate.

dfan, you're in the club!
posted by probably not that Karen Blair at 2:40 PM on November 21, 2011

That's really dependent on the degree to which you actually perceive that. It's one to thing to associate sounds with texture, as many people do this. It's another thing entirely to actually perceive the sensation of that texture involuntarily and as if it were touching your skin.

It's the former. F natural "sounds soft" the way a picture of a blanket "looks soft" but I don't get an involuntary physical sensation of it touching me.
posted by dfan at 2:56 PM on November 21, 2011

It's an interesting topic for me, as I've always experienced music in colour - going to concerts was always a bit weird, and in some cases slightly distressing, if the light/stage designer "got it wrong" and put blue lighting with a yellow song...I also had the sense of a peripheral "halo"-type thing when listening to songs with a strong colour resonance.

I'd love to see more sustained scientific research into the phenomenon, as it seem like something a lot of people experience at some level, but aren't aware of as being unique. I honestly thought that everyone "heard" music that way until I read an article in Rolling Stone where John Mayer talked about having synesthesia.

It's cool to hear how different people experience it. Thanks for sharing your stories!
posted by guster4lovers at 3:12 PM on November 21, 2011

all numbers have colors; I was probably 12 or so before it became known to me that not everyone observed this.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 3:28 PM on November 21, 2011

I occasionally get bursts of patterns with sound if it's quiet and dark. Great fun when I'm trying to get to sleep and something goes bump in the night.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 3:35 PM on November 21, 2011

Other notable synesthetes: Aphex Twin, Pharrell, Syd Barrett, Nikola Tesla, Charles Baudelaire.
posted by hootenatty at 3:41 PM on November 21, 2011

I know I've mentioned this -- I met someone who had color-personality synaesthesia. For a while he thought maybe he could see people's auras, except that in his case it was way more specific than what the new-agey books were saying; he finally read about synaesthesia in an article and realized, "oh, THAT'S what's going on!"

He was a stage manager, like me, and said that it came in really handy when he was reading scripts - at some point, as he got familiar with the script, he started seeing the print on the page in different colors depending on whose line it was. (People marveled at how quickly he could find his place on a page as a result.)

He told a bunch of this on a break in a rehearsal once, and of course everyone then had to ask "what's my color?" Apparently the essence of my inherent being is a deep slate bluey-gray. Also a few days later, I got stuck in massive traffic on my way to rehearsal and showed up late, and he had to let me in; he came into the lobby to meet me, and my back was to him when he came in. I heard him laughing as he came into the room, but then he stopped the SECOND he saw me, and asked, "wow, are you okay?" He DEFINITELY hadn't seen the look on my face yet, and I've always wondered if maybe my color had changed and that's what he saw.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:47 PM on November 21, 2011 [6 favorites]

There's no codex for synesthesia.

Seriously. The graphic in the Discover Magazine link hurts my brain in a way that very little else does.

If you are curious or bored, The Synaesthesia Battery will test grapheme-color and music note-color synaesthesia, at least. (I took it a couple years ago, not sure what they're up to now.)
posted by restless_nomad at 4:14 PM on November 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

What is is called when letters or numbers have a gender (or personality)? 2,5,8, and 9 are all female. 1, 3,4,6,7 are all males. However, 2 can be male if I imagine it as blue.

However... this is all in my head, not popping out for me on a page of text. Doesn't synaesthesia need to manifest itself as a blending of two senses?

As it is now, I always assumed my gender-bias was formed while watching sesame street skits.
posted by Queen Sabium at 4:27 PM on November 21, 2011

The seeing colors... I was trying to explain this to a friend this morning, actually. It's not the same as when the letters are actually made up of different inks (or phosphors) - it's not quite that literal, at least for me. They just... *are* that color. Even when the physical letter is black or white or whatever. It totally makes sense that it's a visual cortex thing, because it's definitely the same... sensation? It just doesn't override what the actual light waves are telling me. (It's the same with music, for me. It's not that I stop being able to see what's in front of me when the music is overwhelming, it's just a really *busy* feeling, like I'm trying to watch two different TVs at the same time.)
posted by restless_nomad at 4:31 PM on November 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

While looking at the Synaesthesia Battery, not really expecting to have any signs of synaesthesia, I saw the question about years or months having specific spatial locations.

For as long as I can remember, the timeline of years has always had a very specific shape, like terrain with architecture, or a side-scrolling game, from left to right. When I think about the 70s, I see a room with stairs from the 60s, and bushes on 1970. 1980 feels like a slow hill climbing to 1990. The 90s feel sparse and flat, like pavement. There's a gateway between 99 and 00, and the 00's are even smaller than the 90s, with some kind of flat platform.

This could just be some imagined amalgam of timelines that I've seen, and not synaesthesia. Or maybe it's the normal way people spatialize time in their heads. But I never think of a year as just a number without some funky timeline segment that appears in my head.

And I can imagine smells as geometric shapes (they look somewhat like billowing/animating Koch curves). But that's not really involuntary enough to call it synaesthesia.
posted by hanoixan at 4:54 PM on November 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

One of the most elegant experiments in psychology that I've ever heard of was a page of numbers - 2's and 5's in a font where one was the mirror image of the other. Normal people would stare at this mess until they had a headache and get about 90% right after a while, while people with synesthesia would just circle all the red ones and be done in a fraction of the time with a fraction of the errors.

As I understand it, there was a pretty significant camp which believed that synesthesia was a learned behavior. That somewhere in the front primatey part of your brain you were just adding in color sensation for no good reason. But if that was the case, you'd have to figure out if you were looking at a 2 or a 5 before it would pop. Apparently, not so much.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 4:55 PM on November 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've always been slightly jealous of ya'll.

Interesting that there is agreement for no codex to experiences. It makes me wonder about the reality of experience and how we all agree certain things are funny, sound pleasant, are correct behavior, etc. If everyone with synesthesia was raised together and the experiences were coded by society, rather than being identified by each individual, would there be agreement?

I've also wondered if there are different perceptions of time, could there be different perceptions of space? Could there be a synesthesia of four dimensions?

Not expressing this well, but curious.

(I'm with elizardbits, why did we get stuck with the crappy neurological stuff?)
posted by BlueHorse at 5:42 PM on November 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Don't be too jealous. I just spent an hour taking the Synesthesia Battery and now have a migraine. So. Much. Sensory. Input. Must. Stop.
posted by guster4lovers at 6:01 PM on November 21, 2011

What is is called when letters or numbers have a gender (or personality)?

Queen Sabium, you just made my day! Although I've met more than a few people with synesthesia, I've never met anyone else who imbued numbers with gender and personalities like I do (9 is the school quarterback who always gets lots of girls but it's because he's nice as well as handsome). This form of synthesia is called ordinal-linguistic personification.

I never watched Sesame Street. I had the worst time learning how to add because a gender + gender wouldn't add up to the right "gender" sometimes, i.e. 3 + 9, both males, add up to 12, a very feminine number. I was so relieved as a kid to hear about transsexual/transgender individuals because suddenly math was logical again.

I've also wondered if there are different perceptions of time, could there be different perceptions of space?

Bluehorse, I also think of time as a large street map with certain years being main streets, other years going north and south, and most years going east-west. When I think of history, I always think of events happening in certain areas of the map. (1988 is a huge north-south street, for example, as is 1918.) Since I was a little kid I've always rocked rote-memorization history tests.
posted by benk at 6:06 PM on November 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

I have a somewhat rare form of synesthesia known as sight-sound synesthesia. Whenever I see *anything* move, it automatically makes a sound in my head, whether or not I can hear it in real life. It's difficult to describe, and I can't make the noises that I hear with my mouth. If it's a repeating sound with two motions, then one motion takes a higher pitch and one motion takes a lower pitch. The pitches get further partitioned as the complexity increases.
posted by thermopoetics at 6:12 PM on November 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

restless_nomad, I like that you used the word "sensation" there because that's always how I try to explain it to people. I think a lot of people assume it's an association -- I see the letter "A" so I think of the color red. But it's not that -- the letter A is the color red. They're the same thing. It does feel more like a physical response.

I don't find it surprising that Syd Barrett was a synthete. I've tried to explain to people why I don't like Pink Floyd. It's not so much that I dislike the music -- it just sounds, or maybe, more feels, "wrong" to me, and I've brought up synesthesia more than once in my argument.
posted by darksong at 6:16 PM on November 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

will these researchers start looking at LSD?
posted by moorooka at 7:18 PM on November 21, 2011

"Neural overstimulation in the visual cortex"—daughter of artists, check. I'm a grapheme-color synaesthete from way back. It's responsible for some weird typos I make, actually, e.g. W for 4 (both greens), 2 for S (both light blues), and 5 for R (both reds). A coworker and I tested each other for color consistency one year, each giving an alphabet colors in Photoshop, sending it to each other, deleting the originals, then retesting when we remembered again six-plus months later. Mine were totally the same.
posted by limeonaire at 8:18 PM on November 21, 2011

And yeah, for me, it's more like each letter has an aura of sorts, not visible, but always present. I "see" it more when visualizing numbers, letters, or words than when looking at them in print, but either way, the colors are very definite, and sometimes combine in words in new ways.
posted by limeonaire at 8:24 PM on November 21, 2011

I like that you used the word "sensation" there because that's always how I try to explain it to people. I think a lot of people assume it's an association -- I see the letter "A" so I think of the color red. But it's not that -- the letter A is the color red. They're the same thing. It does feel more like a physical response.

Agreed. Pink is just as inherent a quality of the number four as the fact that it's divisible by two.

My number-colour associations are strong enough to have caused me real trouble when learning arithmetic-- how on earth do you multiply 7 (green) by 3 (red) and end up with 21 (blue and white)? It gave me headaches-- the more I concentrated on the numbers the more vividly I experienced the colours, which was fun aesthetically but not so great when trying to learn multiplication.
posted by jokeefe at 10:10 PM on November 21, 2011

And yeah, A is red. (I'm always a little weirded out by other people's numbers/letters. They're all just so wrong, most of the time.)
posted by jokeefe at 10:11 PM on November 21, 2011

Yay, it's a synesthete party! Welcome, all new members! Try the punch, it's really rectangular! But seriously, this is what makes the Internet, and MeFi in particular, completely awesome. I love you people.

I've had garden-variety colored letters and numbers for as long as I can remember. I'm totally jealous of those of you with the rarer forms like colored hearing or textured musical notes (wow!)

To correct a misconception introduced above: dfan, just because your involuntary associations don't seem to be actually happening for real (e.g. you'd never confuse hearing an F with touching an actual soft blanket) does not mean your experience is not real. If every F you've ever heard has been soft and fuzzy, if you can't imagine an F being any other texture, no matter what instrument it's played on-- you've got the real deal. You're a synesthete. And a pretty special one at that.

For those of you who don't have synesthesia but would like to play along, I wrote a little app a few years ago that visualizes how my synesthesia interacts with memory and attention:

synesthesia and memory. (Flash required.)
posted by otherthings_ at 10:17 PM on November 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

thermopoetics, can you tell us more about this sight-sound synesthesia of yours? It sounds totally wild! Does it ever interfere with your day-to-day business, or is it more of an enhancement?

It reminds me of an old wood-paneled CRT television we used to have... it would buzz at different pitches and timbres depending on what was on the screen. Even with the volume turned down all the way, you could hear the visuals as one scene cut to another: aaaaaaAAAAAAAAEEEEeeeeeeeeiiiiiiooooooooeeeeAAAAAAAAAAAaaaaa....
posted by otherthings_ at 10:36 PM on November 21, 2011

did you all pay the $31.50 to read the full article?
posted by dongolier at 11:02 PM on November 21, 2011

"ordinal-linguistic personification", eh? Me three. It seemed like something that would be related to synesthesia but it's not quite the same thing. It's nice to know there's a name for it.

I think it's a major reason I've always enjoyed watching a soap opera only I could understand. I figured I was unusual in feeling this way about numbers since otherwise I reckoned people would be way more excited to learn prime factorization. I could sit around and factorize numbers all day. It's like chatting with friends.
posted by troublesome at 12:11 AM on November 22, 2011

A really interesting snippet I just read about letter-color synaesthesia in Chinese (study here, I think -- haven't read it yet).
posted by en forme de poire at 12:32 AM on November 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

I have the very-visual-relationship-to-timelines version that someone describes above- for me there's an extremely visual association of dates with history (whether it's something I've experienced or just 'know' about , thinking about events in association with their date makes them appear in my mind with a very visual timeline. It turns out that's also considered a form of synesthesia. I also experience gendered numbers and slightly color-associated ones. I was always aware that the timeline thing was unusual, and the intensity faded somewhat after I became an adult.

Last year I read about synesthesia in Oliver Sachs' book Musicophilia, and virtually all of this was described- timeline visualization as synesthesia, the the experience being more pronounced in children and adolescents, etc. He also talks about all the other versions you guys are describing.

Unlike colored numbers and the like, I think my timeline visual actually helps me- I recall dates in my past quite well if I stop to think of the timeline visual.
posted by girl Mark at 1:02 AM on November 22, 2011

Another thought I had recently: I've just started using Swype, and I've been curious to see whether any of the word shapes start to stick with me and influence how I see words. So far, I've noticed that my husband's name, which is green, can be typed in Swype by drawing something like a 4—which is of course also green. So that's neat, but I'm waiting to see whether any other effects (apart from feeling already like non-Swype keyboards are broken in some way) will emerge, like thinking of words by their shapes. It's probably more of an associative/memory thing than a synesthesia thing, though, but I wonder if any synesthetes in the future will experience new connections as a result of new input methods. This is probably like the alphabet-magnet fallacy, though...
posted by limeonaire at 5:36 AM on November 22, 2011

There is a classic system for remembering numbers that works by assigning sounds to digits. Consonant sounds, specifically, such that you can fill in whatever vowels you like to make your number pronounceable.

I bet there's a fairly strong correlation between synaesthesia and having a strong memory for the things you're synaesthetic about.
posted by LogicalDash at 6:05 AM on November 22, 2011

Also a few days later, I got stuck in massive traffic on my way to rehearsal and showed up late, and he had to let me in; he came into the lobby to meet me, and my back was to him when he came in. I heard him laughing as he came into the room, but then he stopped the SECOND he saw me, and asked, "wow, are you okay?" He DEFINITELY hadn't seen the look on my face yet, and I've always wondered if maybe my color had changed and that's what he saw.

He already knew you were late and probably noticed your posture.
posted by ersatz at 6:07 AM on November 22, 2011

For as long as I can remember, the timeline of years has always had a very specific shape, like terrain with architecture, or a side-scrolling game, from left to right.

Yes! Me too! Years are more like a rolling terrain for me, and weeks also have a physical shape to them. My work schedule, travel plans or plans for a given day also affect the physical "appearance" in my mind of a week or a month or a year.

I had always assumed that the colors some numbers have for me are directly related to the magnetic plastic numbers we used when I was in kindergarten, rather than anything else.
posted by biscotti at 6:23 AM on November 22, 2011

He already knew you were late and probably noticed your posture.

He knew I was late, but he didn't know how upset I was ABOUT being late. When he came into the room, my "posture" was "bent over my bag and digging for my script"; my facial expression was "scowling and on the verge of tears with frustration".

And this wasn't the sort of hesitant scrutinizing you do when you're trying to figure out IF someone's upset by their posture; this was an instantaneous recognition that I was really, really upset.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:08 AM on November 22, 2011

I recently drew a correctly colored alphabet and numbers to try and demonstrate this to someone. It seems like the grapheme-color one is the most common ... I wish I had something more interesting with sounds and textures or tastes!

It is hard to explain though: "The letters all have different colors, but it's not like I literally SEE them, I just ... KNOW what they are as I read them. But kind of know with seeing. But not really. P.S. P is gray-blue and S is red-pink."
posted by little cow make small moo at 7:35 AM on November 22, 2011

I've had sound to taste and taste to color synthesia, thankfully just once each. The only explanation that seemed to work was to remind people of telephone plugboards. Sometimes the operator made a bad connection, so you got a residential connection to the wrong residence. Other times you wanted a residence and got a company. The later one is what my brain did. My brain identified the first, a sound (of an explosion on TV), as a taste (celery oil, which I've never had). With the second, the taste (a new soda) was a color (green, and that isn't a euphemism for grassy).

It's no accident that both involved taste. I'm a supertaster. My plugboard has more spots for taste than most folks, so taste related misconnects are more likely to happen. It also led to the rather bizarre problem of liking a soda's taste but not the color of its taste. Thankfully the second taste was colorless.
posted by jwells at 8:25 AM on November 22, 2011

He knew I was late, but he didn't know how upset I was ABOUT being late.

It also matches with the 2/5 story above, where non-synaesthetes get confused but the synaesthetes can discriminate easily. Adam Cadre had a similar story (which I now can't find) about getting into his car and going, "that's weird, it's summer - why are there Christmas colors?" before he realized that the odometer read 636363, which to him looks like alternating red and green.
posted by en forme de poire at 9:16 AM on November 22, 2011

dfan, do you have perfect pitch? A friend of mine has found a strong correlation between auditory synaesthesia and perfect pitch, or at least relative pitch.

For me, all pitches had an associated "feeling" and "location." I talk abstract because I'm not sure how to convey the feelings, but they are very definite. I can consistently demonstrate where a particular pitch is located. It's not so much a linear left-right sort of thing, they are all over the place in 3D space, but each one is always in the same place relative to me.

Along those lines, each tone has a distinct "feeling" with it - this actually feels like pressure, and often lights up all sorts of nerves. There is often spillover into pure emotional response. This gets interesting when music hits all of those positive response buttons, because it's usually not a particularly happy song, or even GOOD, but some songs put me on the verge of ecstasy. There are also tones that bring a pain response that can be positively crippling at times. All of these responses are immensely entertaining to others in public. They also are more definite and intense based on volume.

This also works in opposite, in that certain feelings and sensations evoke certain tones and auditory pressure. This has lead to confusion when I have told girlfriends and the like that I love how their touch sounds.

I can also navigate by pitch, as bizzare as that seems, and I didn't realize I was doing it for a long time. This is also entertaining to others, because I will invariably get lost, or take turns that make absolutely no sense if I am listening to music while driving.

I just thought I was a damned weirdo for a long time...

On a related note, I am terrified of the LRAD for reasons beyond what most people would fear - Under the right circumstances, that is something that could unlease total destructive force and completely overload my emotional response.
posted by MysticMCJ at 10:34 AM on November 22, 2011

No, Queen Sabium, you've got it all wrong - numbers 1, 3, 5, 6, 7, 9 and 0 are male and the numbers 2, 4 and 8 female. Like benk, I've never met anyone else who did this before, and somehow I'm finding it extremely disturbing to think of someone assigning different genders to numbers than I do - I actually flinched the first time I read your comment!

I've also got number form synesthesia and only learned about a year ago (from someone linking to the Wikipedia article on synesthesia on MeFi, I think) that there's something unusual about thinking this way - I'd always just presumed that everyone did. Actually, I'm still having a hard time understanding how else you could possibly think of numbers.

Now, the interesting thing for me in this thread was that I never thought I had any sort of grapheme-colour synesthesia myself, but reading en forme de poire's story made me smile immediately as I reached the number 636363 as it was so obvious to me that the numbers resembled the colours red and green, and now I'm beginning to wonder if I actually do have a trace of this type of synesthesia as well.
posted by Jelly at 11:23 AM on November 22, 2011

I have letter/number-color synesthesia and it led to some hilarity last year when I was taking my co-worker to get a colonoscopy*.

I was sitting in the doctor's office cross-stitching a Christmas present for my boyfriend. Everyone else in the office was really old, and the little elderly southern women among them made approving clucking noises at seeing a young person busy with the lost art of needlework instead of protesting Wall Street or marrying outside of their race or whatever it is kids do these days. One of them approached me as the rest of the waiting room watched.

"What are you cross stitching, dear," she asked.

"The Doxology," I replied.

"Oh, how nice! Let me see!" Even better! Not only am I cross-stitching, I'm cross-stitching a popular Christian prayer! Hope springs eternal!

I turned the hoop towards her so she could see the squares of color that I always see instead of letters when I look at words ("Praise God" is green-blue-red-yellow-red-green Red-white-green). She stared at the blocks of colors and then looked back at me.

"I have synesthesia," I explained to her gravely. "So I see letters and numbers as colors. I'm sewing the Doxology the way I see it when I read it. I think it adds something to it, don't you?"

The woman's mouth made a little "o" (white) and she backed up as quickly as her bum hip would allow. Nobody else talked to me for the three hours that I sat there, and I felt like I had a big scarlet letter stuck to me (which would mean either "a," "g," "m," or "s"). Ah, synesthesia. Killing nosy waiting-room conversations before they even begin.

*And it wasn't even Take Your Co-Worker to Get a Colonoscopy Day!
posted by staggering termagant at 11:37 AM on November 22, 2011 [5 favorites]

Burhanistan writes: Everyone likes to think that they are very special, but there's a big difference between associative imagery and then hardwired perceptions that cross "normal" sensory boundaries. I guess we'll have to leave it at that.

What dfan describes does not seem to be just "associative imagery", but actual synesthesia. Also, I'm not sure why you need to be so rude to him and the others who have shared their experiences here. Did someone crap in your oatmeal this morning? (Quick, someone get this guy some rectangular punch!)

In neuroscience circles, synesthetes are classed roughly into two groups: projectors, who perceive their synesthetic sensations as if they were coming from the outside world, and associators, whose synesthetic sensations are purely internal, "in the mind's eye". Both groups are considered true synesthetes. In both groups, the sensations are hardwired and immutable. The only difference is the perceived origin of the sensation. Projectors perceive it outside themselves, and associators perceive it internally.

Everything dfan has said so far strongly suggests that he has synesthesia. A testing session or two in a lab with a good research team would certainly prove it one way or the other.
posted by otherthings_ at 12:05 PM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Late to the party but I wanted to add my own experiences. I have grapheme-colour, personality-colour (though it's milder now than it was in high school), sound-colour, taste-colour and smell-colour. The most obnoxious is smell-colour - strong perfumes/colognes will literally blind me - and a close second is taste-colour - beer tastes a really gross dark green/brown and the alcohol spike to some drinks has a dark yellow-green that's unpleasant to me.

I'm an associator for grapheme, personality and sound so that's a relief. Sound can impede my function a little if it's an extremely pleasant sound (green/blue) which awkwardly enough encompasses the typical male vocal range... yeah.

I just noticed that they're all to colour. I've never really thought about why that might be. I've also never listed them out like that; my senses sure are crossed!
posted by buteo at 11:30 PM on November 22, 2011

Anyone have sound-taste synny? I remember hearing a sound once that gave me a vile swimming pool chlorinated doesn't happen often thankfully!
posted by flutable at 3:53 AM on November 27, 2011

Anyone else experience their synny more when they're tired?

I've experienced it less as I've aged, and suspect that my brain (in order to keep me functioning) has found "alternate routes" for processing. (Perhaps I've just learned to discount conflicting stimuli). When I'm tired, though, all these subconscious coping skills are out the window. Late night at a live Pat Metheny show once I lost all the other visual input but the music... it was cool, but upsetting too.

I ---sometimes --- see sound as colors and patterns, and also experience touch as colors and patterns. Many of these colors would not appear in any paint or crayon box I've ever seen.

I've also tasted colors and sound. There's a female folk singer whose voice tastes like lightly sweetened buttermilk to me. Zooey Duhamel singing sometimes has a similar flavor.
posted by theplotchickens at 2:29 PM on November 27, 2011

« Older Revising Research   |   The Only JamPad Band? Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments