- What would you say if I asked you what color your January is? Or your June? And where is it?
- What about: is 17 on a horizontal or vertical straight line?
- Do you have any idea what I’m talking about? Or how to respond?
Spring has sprung and I’ve been sitting on my balcony overlooking a large swath of greenery extending to downtown Austin, where I can see the University of Texas Tower and the Capitol Building. It has brought up thoughts of new beginnings and of examining ways to experience things through all the senses. Which, of course, segues into writing well, using sight, taste, touch, smell, sound.
It made me think of my rather unique way of seeing numbers, colors, calendars, and words, which, I think, significantly impacts my writing. I’ve come to learn that I have what is called synesthesia. No, it’s not a disease. Nor a mental disorder. But it is simply a way of perceiving things differently than most. My brain organizes information differently. It’s more common for women to have it than men, and it’s relatively rare. Only one person in two thousand are supposed to experience synesthesia.
Are you one also?
Synesthesia is a fancy name for when you experience one of your senses through another. It comes from the Greek words:
Things that are true of synesthesia are:
- You can’t control it
- It stays the same over time
- It often starts in childhood
- Many people don’t realize they have it
Creatives (and often people with autism, or savants) are most likely to experience synesthesia. Some famous people who claim to have it are:
- Duke Ellington
- Vladimir Nabokov
- Mary S. Blige
- Kanye West
- Van Gogh
- Joni Mitchell
- Tori Amos
There are over eighty different types of synesthesia which blend the five senses, including: ordinal linguistic personification (letters and numbers having personality traits and gender), chromesthesia (sound-to-color synesthesia), auditory-tactile (the rarest… and is when a certain sound produces a tactile sensation on certain areas inside and outside of the body). Some people hear music as colors, often people with perfect pitch. Often when one experiences one type of synesthesia, they have another one or two also.
I have special sequence synesthesia (SSS) in that I visualize numerical sequences in physical space. I also have color-grapheme synesthesia (the association of colors with letters, numerical digits, etc.) and time-space synesthesia (calendars, clocks).
It’s not something that can be switched off or on. A synesthete can’t choose when they perceive the numbers or music or calendar the way they do. It’s just the way it is. I didn’t realize that others didn’t see numbers the way I did until I was forty. One doesn’t ask, “Where is your number 22?” Right?!
So, when someone says “March,” what do you see? Most likely, you envision the letters that form the word, March. But, if you asked me the same question, my answer would be, “lime green and in the left-hand curve of the oval.” I see the calendar months as distinct colors in unique spots on an oval. For me, January = white, February = a light gray, March = lime green, April = a Kelly green, May = a forest green, June = a light yellow, etc. all the way to December, which is a charcoal gray. The months follow each other on an oval, with September at the top.
All those who experience synesthesia have individual experiences, and unique perceptions. For others, January could be red, for instance, but not appear on an oval.
My numbers are not simply numbers. They are on a continuum, or ladders that go up and down, or sideways on a diagonal. The specific number is always in the same place, with the preceding number before it, and the following number after it. Say out loud the number: 17.
I don’t see digits. I see it on a horizontal line, a continuum, smack dab after 16 and before 18.
I always see the continuum and seventeen is always in the very same spot. Number 8 is on a vertical ladder, with seven preceding it and nine following it. As you might imagine, it works when digits are called out or read. It doesn’t work for mathematical functions of addition, subtraction, etc.
My alphabet letters are free floating as well, but with no colors.
I’ve always seen numbers that way. I thought everyone did.
You should see what happens when I play Bingo!
Another peculiarity: I use agendas that begin on Monday. Agendas that begin with Sunday simply don’t work for me. I suspect it may be that for years, my week was separated into school and later, work (M-F); then, the weekend (Sat. and Sun.). Perhaps, it’s simply that I got used to organizing my week thusly and has nothing to do with synesthesia at all. I don’t know. But do know that my mind organizes my week that way, in colors, and I can’t switch it.
My days of the week do possess their own colors, as well, like the calendar: Monday= light blue, Tuesday=Delft blue, Wednesday=turquoise, Thursday=green, Friday=Daffodil yellow, Saturday=Mango, Sunday=red.
So, how does synesthesia link with writing?
As I do experience colors, the alphabet, and numbers differently, I am often affected with sensations as I write. At times, I think it helps. At others, I think I can be blinded by one sense, and forget the others. I’m profoundly aware of how colors and shapes affect my writing and my world. For a great part of my life, I never realized that my ways of perceiving things were different from anyone’s. As I said, it’s not something one discusses. But I did find it fascinating, and think it does “color” (pun) my writing and writing habits. I’d be interested in hearing if any of you experience the same!
If you’d like to learn more about synesthesia, here are a few links: