Sight, Sound and Beyond

What is Synesthesia?

Broadway Boogie Woogie by Piet Mondrian

I have talked about Synesthesia in many of my posts, but I thought I would take the time to discuss the term in further detail.  Derived from the Greek syn meaning together and aesthesia meaning sensation, synesthesia can simply be defined as senses coming together.  The stimulation in one sense will trigger perception in another.  For example, a person may see colors in response to hearing speach, music and other sounds.  This is one of the most common forms of synesthesia known as Color Hearing Synesthesia or just simply as Color Hearing.

Synesthesia is a completely normal neurological condition.  It is considered to be abnormal because it is statistically rare.  One of the leading authorities on the study of synesthesia is Richard Cytowic.  When I began my research on synesthesia in college, I read many of his articles and even a book of his called The Man Who Tasted Shapes.

Synesthetic experiences usually begin during childhood and consist of what Cytowic refers to as “a parallel arrangement of two gradient series.”  These series may be emotions, tastes, odors, temperature or colors, which are paired with letters, words, numbers, pitches and tonalities.  Imagine what it would be like to taste words.  It may sound bizarre to you, but for someone who has this form of synesthesia, it would be strange for words not to have particular tastes.

Synesthetic perceptions must have certain characteristics in or order to qualify as true synesthetic experiences.  Synesthetic perception is projected rather than experiences in the “mind’s eye”  For example, a person with synesthesia based on tonalities literally perceives the individual tonalities in color in response to hearing them.  These experiences are not imagined and not created at will.  I don’t tell myself to have them, they just happen simultaneously with the sounds.  Synesthetic experiences are also durable.  This means that the cross-sensory perceptions remain the same and never changes over time.  To me, the tonality of A was red, it still is red, and it will continue to be red.  I can’t imagine it being anything else but red.

In addition, synesthetic perceptions are generic meaning they are not elaborate or pictorial.  Let me use Beethoven’s 6th Symphony as an example.  Most people may imagine themselves out in the country when listening to this.  If I tell myself to do so, I can imagine myself walking in a wide open field or something of that sort.  However, whenever I listen to Beethoven’s sixth, the work produces an abstract image to my eyes.  It is a a mixture of different colored blobs and lines that move to the music.   These blobs and lines are based on the instrumental sonorities as well as the underlining harmonies.

Bassoons are yellow ocher and flutes are a shimmering, light blue.  Even individual tones have colors.  The c major scale played one octave would look like this: pink, green blue, lavender, violet, red, yellow, and  pink.  Notes in high registers are shiny and bright while notes in lower registers are more faint and dull.

Besides Color Hearing Synesthesia, I also experience Grapheme Color Synesthesia in which individual letters and numbers are perceived in color.  This is how I learned my alphabet and how to count. The letter A is red and M is pink, for example.  Many of my friends have pink names because many of them have names that begin with the letter M.  As for numbers, if you count from 0 through 9, the numbers would look like this: gray, white, pink, yellow, dark blue, tan, purple, red, light blue, and light green.

Even days of the week and the twelve months of the year have colors.  This is known as Lexeme Color Synesthesia..  I don’t know how or why.  It’s just always been like that.  Tuesdays are red and Fridays are green.  June is a blue month while August is pink.

I could go on and on but perhaps we will save that for another post.  Until then, stay tuned!

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Comments on: "What is Synesthesia?" (2)

  1. Synethesia is an interesting condition…it means that a person with hearing synethesia will have a visual experience of music and sounds. Music creates a vivid landscape in that person’s mind. To a person with hearing synesthesia, listening to music is a rich and rewarding experience something he/she cares deeply about and wants to engage with. I do not have synesthesia but first read about it in Arthur Rimbaud’s poem: Vowels. The first line evokes synesthesia: Black A, White E, Red I, Green U, Blue O-Vowels. Here is a link to the poem in English http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/vowels/. Synesthesia is one of those conditions I wish I had because a merging of sensations will make for a richer listening and reading experience. It is a cool talent to have. To a non-synestheste, it is almost like a superpower!
    By the way, I also have biaural, moderate hearing loss. I used to use an FM system in public schools and found your description of how it works to be accurate. I think I will look into T-coils as I sometimes get feedback/interference and squealing sounds when I use a headset over my hearing aids.
    Thanks for the entertaining and educational posts,
    from Izzy

    • Hi Izzy,
      Thank you so much for your wonderful comment. I am glad you liked my description of the FM system. Yes, look into t-coil technology. It is great. There is so much out there that we don’t know about. Thank goodness for the internet. That is where I get most of my information! That you for sharing that poem with me. I have never come across it so I very much enjoyed reading it.

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