A, meet R; you two would get along: Life with synaesthesia

‘A’ IS A fit, popular male and quite attractive… ‘F’ is quite unassuming and shy, probably male, and submissive to its neighbour ‘G’, who is a loud, unpleasant and arrogant female… ‘P’ has a lot of authority, a doctor perhaps, and ‘Q’ is a stern-looking, argumentative woman… ‘W’ is very mumsy and caring and ‘Y’ is a sycophantic male from somewhere in the Levant.

Although it might sound as though we’re watching a kids’ TV show, it’s not like that. They’re just seven of the 26 ‘things’ I’ve known for as long as I can remember. You see, letters aren’t just letters to me, but also characters with distinct personalities and mannerisms. Might sound bizarre, but it’s not as confusing as it sounds (well, not to me, anyway). I’ve always been very good at spelling; I mean, I’ve never had any problems at all. Of course, plenty of reading and writing and seeing the word ‘in action’ helps a lot, but when I was younger, part of my technique when learning a word was each letter having its own personality. I can remember learning to spell words, and just as I knew ‘C’ and ‘A’ and ‘S’ were to appear in the word ‘castle’, I knew their characters would appear, too, and the individual personalities in each word were just as important and intrinsic to the word as the letters themselves. For example, ‘L’ is as much a slim and elegant female in heels as she is represented by a right angle, and if you were to change her personality, she would no longer be the letter ‘L’, just as if you turned her upside down, she wouldn’t be the letter ‘L’ anymore. That’s how strong the link is. I hope I make some sense, although I should mention that I don’t really use that technique anymore…

Perhaps a Collins definition of what synaesthesia is might help clear things up:

Synaesthesia/synesthesia (noun): the subjective sensation of a sense other than the one being stimulated. For example, a sound may evoke sensations of colour.

That’s spot on; I can see music, too. I’ve tried to figure out the best way to describe or draw what I see when I hear a piece of music, but it’s harder than telling you about my alphabet friends because I don’t think about it. Seeing the music is simultaneous with listening to it. Have you ever played a song on Windows Media Player with the visualisation on? That’s most likely the closest thing to what I see. I can’t just listen to music and enjoy it passively like most people seem to do – all the layers of a piece of music are played out in front of me and watching music is almost as customary as listening to it. But how to describe it? Like the music, the images move, too. Melodies undulate, loop or zig-zag, basses pulsate and chords glow and fade and of course, the entire song is tinged with the colours of each chord, which is in turn dictated by the key it’s in: songs in a minor key have a darker tint and songs in major slightly brighter. Get Lucky by Daft Punk is mainly a black song, with a strong presence of white and yellow-ish stripes running through it. Je Ne Regrette Rien by Edith Piaf is predominantly navy, and the melody is a white dot that marches along and the final two chords are bright green and orange respectively. Spectrum by Florence + The Machine is consistently blue, alternating between marine, turquoise and sky during the chorus. The best examples I can think of at the time of writing!

Some other little facets of my synaesthesia are that certain places or words have tastes – the word ‘oyster’ tastes of really soft vanilla ice cream and the word ‘French’ of ready salted crisps. A town near to where I live tastes of horseradish, a nearby village tastes of honey. On an international scale, Sweden has a slightly vinegary radish taste to it, Malta of cooking oil and Russia feels and tastes like chlorine in your eyes and mouth, for example.

Another is that the days of the week have colours, too. Monday is a dusty shade of red, Tuesday is bright teal, Wednesday is uncategorically yellow (as is the number 14 for some reason), Thursday is orange, Friday is the colour of very, very strong tea with milk, Saturday fuchsia to violet and Sunday is brown.

My synaesthesia is completely unique to me, however, and if you meet another synaesthete (we’re a race, you know), you’ll find their experiences of the world are different to mine. For example, a lot of synaesthetes see colours when they see letters or numbers, not unlike how I see personalities. I’d never even heard of this condition (although I like to call it a psychological enhancement), and I went about my life thinking everyone saw music and felt the same way about the letter G. Interestingly, it’s now estimated that 1 in 24 people have some form of synaesthesia, which means you might have it too, or probably know someone who has it. But there isn’t a clean-cut way of diagnosing synaesthesia, such is its subjectivity, but there are criteria for what constitutes it.

So that’s what it is. It’s just a crap X-Man power, really. Although it’s involuntary, it doesn’t cause me any pain, I can’t claim disability benefits for it, and it doesn’t hamper my quality of life. In fact, it probably improves it a little bit. I see and appreciate things on a different level to most people, which I like. I wonder if my musical and linguistic abilities have been propelled by synaesthesia, since to me, they’re much more than just letters or sounds. Food for thought.

And if you’re wondering why ‘A’ and ‘R’ would get on, ‘R’ is a sporty, athletic male, so I imagine they’d play sport together and discuss training techniques at length. Obviously.


14 thoughts on “A, meet R; you two would get along: Life with synaesthesia

  1. This is absolutely fascinating to me as a fellow synesthete. You don’t happen to also have bipolar disorder, do you? Synthesia is rare in the general population but isn’t unusual at all in the BP community. You don’t have to answer that if you don’t choose to, I’m just curious. 🙂

    • Thank you for reading! Not that I know of, but I’m not surprised to hear there’s a link between the two – I imagine it’s something to do with the chemical imbalances?

  2. This is so cool! I’ve never met anyone with this kind of synesthesia. Some definitely have a gender association but never this intricate description. Must make life pretty interesting 🙂

    • Yeah, it is quite intricate when I think about it, but just like trying to describe what I see when I hear music, I have to give it some thought because I’ve had it for so long that the finer details don’t really cross my mind! Thank you for reading 🙂

  3. I LOVED this post…I know we spoke a couple of months ago when you read my post on synaesthesia http://scatteringthelight.com/2013/07/11/walking-a-spiral-feeling-in-colour-my-life-with-synaesthesia/…(yes, we are a race). Funny thing was, I tend to focus on the colour-language link rather than music (although that does happen for me…i just dont pay attention as much) and I know the experiences tend to be unique for each person yet as soon as you described the navy blue~little dot~final burst of colour of Je ne regrette rien I found myself mentally exclaiming a ‘yes’ of recognition and a couple of others…oyster and French~crisps – really resonated. Great post, one of my favourites on the subject and I will bookmark it to share with others interested in the subject.

    • Thank you Helen; very kind of you! It’s interesting that I don’t experience a colour-language correspondence so much even though I’m very linguistically-inclined. Even more interesting is the fact that you shared some of the same “facets”(what I call them!) as me. Fascinating 🙂

      • Just out of interest, I tripped upon a recording artist who was quite clearly a synaesthete today (in fact, I was attracted to her music months ago…but only had it confirmed that she saw music in terms of colours and shapes in an article I read today). Her name: Linda Perhacs, her classic (forgotten) album from 1970 – ‘Parallelagrams’ and Ive added a footnote and videolink to my post just now if that interests you at all.

  4. I’ve never heard of synaesthesia. It’s fascinating, as it’s something that I can’t relate to at all (nor do I have any synaesthete friends… well, that I know of!). Thanks for sharing some of these insights with us. I feel like I’ve just learnt something quite significant.

    • Thanks for reading! I’ve talked about it to some friends before and they’re the same as you – can’t imagine it. Likewise, I can’t imagine listening to music and not seeing ribbons of light or whatever in my head… 🙂

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