March 19, 2002
3:58 AM   Subscribe

Are you seeing the world differently? You may be suffering from synesthesia, a rare condition that allows an individual to perceive symbols in color. Someone who has synesthesia will read a newspaper in multitudinous colors, often perceiving a color change within particular syllables. In one case reported in this article, a man overhead a conversation in Korean, only to have his mind inundated with colors, despite being unable to understand the words. Rare condition or a state of sensory cognition to come?
posted by ed (48 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I have a mild case of it - I'm sort of like Carol, the person being interviewed here. The interview is also with Richard Cytowic, the author of "The Man Who Tasted Shapes", which is probably the best known book on the subject.

I think associating color with numbers and letters is the most common form of synesthesia. Supposedly only 10 in one million people have it, although I suspect the numbers are much higher. I have involuntary gender association with letters and numbers also - for instance, the number 5 is male. Why? I have no idea, it just is. Colors, numbers, and letters also have distince tastes. You would probably imagine that, yes, green tastes exactly like spinach, but did you know that the letter A, (which is a nice faded pink to yellow gradient, by the way), tastes exactly like melba toast with a hint of parsley? That's capital A. Lower case A is yellow, and tastes like kiwi. And it's female.

But you knew that. Right?
posted by iconomy at 5:14 AM on March 19, 2002

Wow. I am totally amazed by this. And this doesn't involve acid or mushrooms?
posted by adampsyche at 5:38 AM on March 19, 2002

And this is only one form of synethesia -- it could be, for instance, flashes of color relating to some sounds.

I've tried something kind of like this, what I call sensory displacement. It started once when I was in Chicago on a day that dropped 30 degrees or so after I left home, with the wind become very strong. That afternoon I had to stand outside waiting for a bus in nothing but a t-shirt, and was absolutely freezing. I figured that it was all just stimulations on the brain, right? So maybe if I concentrated very hard, I could 'displace' the sensation of cold into something more comfortable -- I chose the sensation of silk being pulled across my skin.

I found that with enough concentration, after choosing a relatively similar sensation, I was able to trick my mind into thinking one was the other. I was able to do this to the point that I stopped shivering, or being uncomfortable at all.

Has anyone had a similar experience?
posted by LuxFX at 5:52 AM on March 19, 2002

Gifts for the synaesthete in your life: The catalog!

This is what I found looking for a synasthesia + Alfred Bester reference via Google. Whoo Hoo! And J. K. Husman's A Rebours, too, on the Fiction page. Quick, stavros! To the liquor organ!

What a thoughtful gift that would be for the synasthete in your life...
posted by y2karl at 6:01 AM on March 19, 2002

Sheesh, I missed the Synesthesia Homepage link in the catalog. The American Synesthesia Association--who knew? And I thought I was unique... ::Sigh::
posted by y2karl at 6:09 AM on March 19, 2002

this has been pretty much normal from my perspective since an acid trip in 1971. see you in refrigerator heaven.
posted by quonsar at 6:11 AM on March 19, 2002

I read an interview once with Bruce Swedein (sp?) the guy who mixes Michael Jackson's records (or at least used to, I don't know if he still does). Michael Jackson records have amazing mixes. Check them out, even if you don't like MJ, the sounds are just amazingly full, thick and clear. Check out Dangerous. Anyway, Bruce said that he heard music as colors, and mixing was about making the color pattern "correct." He said he could tell when a track was done by how the color mix was.
posted by bob bisquick at 6:36 AM on March 19, 2002

I too have a mild form of synesthesia. Mild in the sense that I only truly experience it with the days of the week. However, the effect in itself isn't mild.

For me, each day of the week—or, more accurately, each noun representing a day of the week—instils a very distinct colour, or feeling of colour. For example, Wednesday is orange, Thursday brown and Friday a combination of yellow and black. However, these descriptions don’t fully do justice to how I experience the colours. I’ve yet to find a way to replicate or represent the colours in such a manner that other people may begin to share the experience.

There was I time when I simply thought I was utterly mad. Now I feel quite fortunate and only wish I could have the experience with more words.
posted by WritePrattle at 6:37 AM on March 19, 2002

Funny, just the other day I was introduced to this concept for the first time in this newsgroup posting -- a guy talking about how he sees numbers as colors.
posted by straight at 6:37 AM on March 19, 2002

Damn, you guys are lucky. My alphabet soup tastes one flavor.
posted by Mach3avelli at 6:49 AM on March 19, 2002

It's a fascinating topic (which I've linked to at home) but it isn't really a form of cognition. Synesthetes do not all agree on the color or sound of different letters, e.g.

However, there is some crossover (in one study, 56% think "o" is white) and one could argue we're just lucky to have almost unanimous agreement on the color of actual things... but then, there are actual wavelengths to be measured in that case, so that we can objectively establish if two things are the same color or not, even if we can't agree on a signifier ("red").

The closest I come to synesthetic is when I have olfactory hallucinations prior to epileptic spells (I "smell" memories and emotions). Epilepsy is a pain in the ass, but the hallucinations can be pretty interesting.
posted by mdn at 7:23 AM on March 19, 2002

So does this mean my anthropomorphization of letters and numbers is an unsual thing?

Seriously? Am I the only one who thinks "5" is a big bully that pushes the smaller numbers around? And "7" in the only number that stands up to 5 and defends the little numbers?
posted by KnitWit at 7:25 AM on March 19, 2002

You got to hand it to those larger numbers. They still run the schoolyards around the world and knock down those pesky ones and zeros at tetherball.

My fascination with this condition makes me wonder if there are any other perceptual associations within the brain that are unaccounted for. What makes artists or programmers form the associations that they do? Maybe Philip Dick was onto something in suggesting that the natural brain is capable of more associations than we give it credit for.
posted by ed at 7:31 AM on March 19, 2002

Am I the only one who thinks "5" is a big bully?

No. The number five is a bastard. Coco Chanel tried to give it some respectability but it continues to behave like a complete ass. Tastes good though. Sort of like a mixture of chalk and coffee.
posted by iconomy at 7:40 AM on March 19, 2002

The only odd association I remember having is that the accordian sound in Nirvana's cover of "Jesus don't want me for a sunbeam" sounds like diet ginger-ale tastes. No colour-number matchups. Sorry.
posted by ODiV at 8:08 AM on March 19, 2002

And "7" in the only number that stands up to 5 and defends the little numbers?

Isn't it the other way around? After all, seven ate nine...
posted by agaffin at 8:12 AM on March 19, 2002

"I too have a mild form of synesthesia"...whenever I hear people self diagnose a condition that is almost impossible to verify, I smell bullshit.
posted by yonderboy at 8:47 AM on March 19, 2002

i really wish i had any sort of case of this. . . it sounds like life would be so much more interesting/beautiful.
posted by Dom at 8:52 AM on March 19, 2002

60 Minutes II did a piece on this, not too long ago.
posted by Fofer at 8:57 AM on March 19, 2002

I'm currently reading a book called Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens, which is a pretty good introduction to the topic. Rimbaud was a synesthete, same for David Hockney. Apparently, there is also a link for color and music note perception.

The most interesting to me is that Nabokov and his wife were both synesthetes, but they did not have they same sensory experiences.

One interesting part of the book talks about the passage in The Phantom Tollbooth where Milo is buying letters of the alphabet to taste. Apparently the letter A is yummy, but the salesman says that X and Z are horrible.

Another interesting thing about synesthesia is that it is completely subjective and largely unverifiable except that synesthetes are by and large consistent in the experiences of color-sounds, color-letters etc. that they report over time, whereas people who are faking it aren't.
posted by elgoose at 9:03 AM on March 19, 2002

it sounds like life would be so much more interesting/beautiful.

But would it? I mean, if this was the way you always have perceived the world, wouldn't it just become your baseline? Eventually, wouldn't you take it for granted? Knowing no differently, the juxtaposition of colors and symbols wouldn't be any more or less interesting than a bowl of soup.

If anything, I think it would be a disorienting difficulty.
posted by Fofer at 9:03 AM on March 19, 2002

Kramer: "I feel Tuesdays..."

I do have some notion in my head that numbers have personalities, but I never thought of it in such a developed way. Maybe I just don't know how to explain it as well as everyone else. I always considered multiples of 2 to be pretty happy because they have so much company.
posted by adampsyche at 9:06 AM on March 19, 2002

Um, I perceive colors in numbers: green is #336633, blue is #003399, purple is #660066...

posted by Fofer at 9:20 AM on March 19, 2002

Smithsonian Magazine had this interesting article on synesthesia in Feb 2001.
posted by onhazier at 9:48 AM on March 19, 2002

this has been pretty much normal from my perspective since an acid trip in 1971. see you in refrigerator heaven

Same here. Since those youthful learning experiences I've been able to 'turn-on' bizarre sensory experiences pretty much at will, and fortunately, to ignore or avoid them at will as well.

In fact, even before any drugs, I used to experience bushes and trees exploding around me in rapid time-advanced space. I wonder if there's a cute clinical name for that?

Sort of like dyslexia too, in that it's likely many if not most people experience it occassionally, with the problems being those who get it too often. Myself I often switch word-placement, especially writing while!
posted by HTuttle at 10:14 AM on March 19, 2002

I always thought that 24 was a bad number to be multiplied into. So, 4 was bad for 6, because it turned 6 into 24, but then, 3 was bad for 8, for the same reason. I'm not sure why the smaller numbers were the ones with the agency, or at least the responsiblity.
posted by bingo at 10:18 AM on March 19, 2002

I was thinking of that passage from Phantom Tollbooth myself - though I don't perceive tastes with letters, just some words. I associate colours with letters, numbers, and days of the week, but I am not a synesthete because I do not associate colours with ALL letters & numbers, and am not always aware of the associations - the ones that do not have a strict association fluctuate in how I perceive them, varying through several shades of the same colour - for example, T is black, or varying dark shades of blue, depending. And I don't always see their colour values - I have to be paying attention to what I'm reading or writing. Music is a bit different - I have very strong colour associations with different sounds.

I still don't consider this synesthesia - I think it would have to be a lot more consistent and strong. But I think it's better that it isn't, because I notice it more and enjoy it more when it doesn't happen all the time. I think many people have these associations - most people, actually. A lot of people personify letters and numbers, for example, like thinking 5 is a bully. That's not much different from colourising them.
posted by annathea at 10:23 AM on March 19, 2002

Strange. I, too, am one who associates days (and months, actually) with colors, but I thought it was my own personal quirk. I had no idea it had an actual name, though I suppose anything and everything is some sort of disorder these days. My Thursday's purple, though, and my Friday orange. Woo. A new way to hit on people - "Baby, what color is YOUR Saturday?"
posted by Zosia Blue at 10:40 AM on March 19, 2002

Diane Ackerman has a great chapter on this in her Natural History of the Senses. There is some correlation between synesthetes but it does not seem to be absolute.

Like other posters above, Numbers for me have their own personalities. I dont think this is synesthesia but something else. Each number also has its own place within a tightly wound semi-fractal clockwise spiral in my mind. 1031, for example, is right above 117. I've tried to draw this spiral many times but it is difficult to do. Nevertheless when I do addition or multiplication in my head, I can see the numbers moving around, rearranging themselves to produce the answer.

The spiral has "straining points" along its curve - the first occurs at the number 13. Oddly, if you ask me to do a calculation in my head whose answer is 13, I will usually get it wrong - including 8+5 which my mind insists is equal to 12.
posted by vacapinta at 10:43 AM on March 19, 2002

I read "The Man Who Tasted Shapes" abouty 8 years ago and was completely fascinated.

I can kind of relate to the people who have personality attachments to numbers, I kind of get a slight emotional response to numbers, its not something that I've ever really quantified. I do think prime numbers are the strongest though.
posted by mutagen at 11:01 AM on March 19, 2002

i don't think it's synaesthesia - i've always dismissed it as just residual mistaken associations from the long-forgotten days of my infancy - but certain words/concepts have always had sensory associations for me. for example, the word "panda" and the visual impression of that animal taste like broccoli to me, and the word/concept "hunger" is undeniably brown...
posted by ab3 at 11:11 AM on March 19, 2002

Twentieth century mystic composer Olivier Messiaen associated chords with specific colors. He claimed not to have actual synesthesia, but he was very specific about the shades that went with each chord. There's something of a complementary relationship from one chord to another similar to complementary colors depending on how many similar notes they contain. Interesting stuff.
posted by mblandi at 11:15 AM on March 19, 2002

Very nice letter-color page that I was originally pointed in the direction of by this MeFi thread from a while back.
posted by MUD at 11:46 AM on March 19, 2002

oohh, just read the Benjy section from "The Sound and Fury" I smell tragedy.
posted by alex3005 at 12:39 PM on March 19, 2002

I just found an article published today on wired - The Man Who Lives in a Rainbow - about synthesia. It goes over a lot of what's been covered in the previous articles, but has some interesting information nonetheless.
Link thanks to
posted by will at 12:44 PM on March 19, 2002

Certain words used to produce mental images for me. For example, the church I went to when I was growing up had these really old-fashioned heavy-duty brass door-closers on their heavy wooden doors. For some reason, whenever we would sing a hymn that mentoned the word "redeemer," i would get a flash of one of those door-closers in my head. In fact, for a good long time, as a child, I thought door-closers were actually called "redeemers." I mean, I knew the hymn wasn't about door-closers, I just thought it was another meaning of the word. I cannot imagine where I got this idea. I also thought "Fine" was a boy's name.

This doesn't really happen anymore, though. I think you can see why it might happen to a kid, when his or her brain is still making connections.
posted by kindall at 12:48 PM on March 19, 2002

I'm tempted to bake you all up a batch of mayonaisse-flavoured cookies, dyed neon orange, in the shape of numbers and letters...
posted by five fresh fish at 1:02 PM on March 19, 2002

For me, each day of the week—or, more accurately, each noun representing a day of the week—instils a very distinct colour, or feeling of colour. For example, Wednesday is orange, Thursday brown and Friday a combination of yellow and black.

Okay, the orange Wednesday is correct, but you are way off of on Thursday, which is a dark indigo, and Friday, which is a nice apple green. The days of the week do follow their own pattern, because normally a word begining with W would be a rusty brown colour. But Wednesday is in a class all its own...

I love comparing notes with fellow synasthetes, though it gives me an odd, nearly quesy, feeling trying to get my mind around the idea that (for example) four is any other colour than pink. Pink is an inherent quality of the number four, same as the fact that it is divisible by two... I also think that all this is more common than might be thought. My son is synasthetic, and I know of others.
posted by jokeefe at 1:38 PM on March 19, 2002

Rare condition or a state of sensory cognition to come?

Actually, some scientists argue it's a state of sensory cognition from the past. They hypothesize that synesthesia may have somehow been useful in keeping us alive at some earlier evolutionary stage, before we became the conscious Homo sapiens we are now. For example, if the sound of some huge animal's growl nearby you also produced a sudden flash of red light, it may have caused the fight-or-flight response to kick in a little faster. And as we became more able to think for ourselves, synesthesia became less useful and got pushed out of our brains to make room for something else. I wonder if our cats have it.

Interestingly, this is the one form of synesthesia I myself have. Sudden loud noises cause me to see brilliant flashes of yellow light. And yes, it's always yellow.

I once dated a girl who was a total major-leage synesthete, though. Every letter a color, every song as much a symphony of sight as well as sound, etc. Her sister had it as well; it runs in familes, so there's almost certainly a strong genetic component to it. The fascinating thing is that it's practically never seen by the synesthete as a burden, but an essential integral part of their senses, from which they would be just as devastated by its sudden loss as we would be if we suddenly went deaf or blind, even if they have a case so "severe," as my GF did, that most people think they'd go crazy if they suddenly acquired the condition.

whenever I hear people self diagnose a condition that is almost impossible to verify, I smell bullshit.

Whenever I hear unqualified people smugly impugn others using false allegations (as elgoose noted, it CAN be verified rather easily), I smell bullshit.
posted by aaron at 1:45 PM on March 19, 2002

I was just reading a post by titboy in the synesthesia thread from last April:
there seems to be a certain stereotype of a person who has synaesthesia. they're predominantly left handed females, and often have good memories (due to the helpfulness of being able to cross reference experiences with colours and sounds that are otherwise unrelated).
Both my GF and her sister were left-handed females with excellent memories. I think there's enough going on in this area to earn someone a Nobel Prize if they can ever figure it all out.
posted by aaron at 3:32 PM on March 19, 2002

How strange. Just last night (or maybe it was the late-night repeat of a previous show, I forget), Jay Leno was doing "Headlines" and displayed one that read School board chief hears visions for future; as the audience got it, he jibed, "And perhaps he smells sounds as well!" Happily, the term synesthesia came immediately to mind. And bingo, here's this thread. I wondered if had been prompted in any way by that exchange.
posted by dhartung at 5:05 PM on March 19, 2002

Umm, if two people with synesthesia do not get the same reactions from the same stimuli, then what we've got here is merely a systematic sensory interpretation problem specific to each individual, and that's about all. It's mildly interesting in an academic sense, but by definition not insightful at all.
posted by Hildago at 5:17 PM on March 19, 2002

Thank you for this thread. When I write, my thoughts accrete from some other world of sensation, but it's not an analogue of colours, sights or sounds which are present in the "outside" world. Also, when I am designing software I carry a model in my head, but it's beyond description. It's as if there's a tangible world of thought, which I can access but not translate. But I never think in words either (I find it slightly strange when people tell me that they do, because for me words are an imperfect model of thought, manufactured briefly after the event). I do sometimes experience flashes of colour with louder sounds, and I seem to consciously blend/remix colours, sounds, sights, tastes, sensations when I'm reaching for inspiration about something, or remembering. However, I usually access this through a conscious effort, and by degree: it's not there unless I push the envelope.

whenever I hear people self diagnose a condition that is almost impossible to verify, I smell bullshit

But what colour is it?
posted by walrus at 6:30 AM on March 20, 2002

I wish it were bullshit, so that I could deal with it better at other times.

I hear colors, so everywhere I go is a peculiar background music related to what I can see. I've had to leave places that were too noisy, though otherwise there was nothing terribly wrong, visually. And, much to my chagrin, it has nothing to do with colors "going together". If so, I'd be in fashion, making a mint. No, I find that certain colors (and patterns) go well together, even when my wife looks at me and says "I know you weren't going to go out wearing that."

In fact, now she sets out my clothes for me, so that I don't get to pick my own comfortable music. So, I now only buy grey, blue, and black, to avoid the issues of mixing muted reds with amber or green. Oh, and while I love bagpipe music, there are some kilts out there that can cause much more pain than a mis-tuned piper.....
posted by dwivian at 7:33 AM on March 20, 2002

You must hate paisley, and the entire 60's hippie fashion thang must deafen you...
posted by five fresh fish at 8:31 AM on March 20, 2002

Umm, if two people with synesthesia do not get the same reactions from the same stimuli, then what we've got here is merely a systematic sensory interpretation problem specific to each individual, and that's about all.

Scientists sure seemed interested in that woman that was able to see more colors than anyone else on the planet. (We had a long thread on that a while back, but I can't find it.)
posted by aaron at 1:18 PM on March 20, 2002

I will happily admit that paisley is a pain, yes. But, mainly because of the colors involved (some are actually rather nice). The hippie fashion can be bad, because there is a strong lack of midrange sound (blues and purples) in most of the tie-dye shirts. But, the browntones produce a nice tambre that makes it worth watching.
posted by dwivian at 8:43 PM on March 20, 2002

aaron, it seems elgoose agrees that it is largely unverifiable except when tested over time as opposed to these anecdotal testimonials to which I was refering.

Tetrachromats are verifiably genetically different than us trichromats. Tetras are actually detecting more accurate and subtle color differences because of the physical mechanics of their retina, those with synesthesia simply detect the same stimuli as everyone else but process it differently.

While I believe that synesthesia is a true condition, I think there are more interesting mysteries of the human mind, such as how people like John Sharon perceive spirituality.
posted by yonderboy at 5:27 AM on March 21, 2002

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