I first heard about synesthesia when I was a kid, and it sounded amazing. People can hear colours! See music! What a fantastical, psychedelic world they must see. It was another 20 years before I realised that I had synesthesia too. I just didn’t realise because it wasn’t all that exciting.
Photo: John ‘K’
I keep finding synesthetes with similar backstories. Earlier this week, author Caroline Moss tweeted about how she thinks of days of the week as having a shape, with associated colours for each day. “I don’t think I have synesthesia,” she said in her next tweet. Honey, that is synesthesia.
GIRL YOU HAVE SPATIAL SEQUENCE SYNTHESIA!
I didn't even know it had a name for 34 years. I thought every one saw time like this! Google that or "time space synasthesia": its not as well known as colour/grapheme but it's AMAZING!
— Philippa Scott (@philippascott) May 10, 2018
Synesthesia is not vivid hallucination. I experience it more like an association. If you don’t have synesthesia, imagine it like this: say there was a kid named Mark in your grade school who was kind of a jerk and you didn’t like his face. Now, you’re about to add a baby to your family and your partner suggests naming the kid Mark. “No way,” you might say. “I can’t think of the name ‘Mark’ without picturing that jerk from my childhood.”
It’s the same way for me with my synesthesia. When I see the letter ‘A’, it’s not literally red, but I can’t help thinking of the colour red. If I’m scheduling a meeting for Tuesday, my brain automatically pictures the week as a circle, with a blue sector around 5 o’clock, and that’s where our meeting will be.
Synesthesia May Not Even Be Rare
Associations between ideas — colours, time units, letters, numbers, sounds, flavours, personalities — are pretty common. They count as synesthesia if they’re fixed in your mind over time, for apparently no reason.
If you meet a nice person named Mark, you’ll break your prior association and start building a new one. That’s not synesthesia. But if you asked me ten years ago to say what colour each letter of the alphabet is, and then you tested me again today, my results would be pretty consistent.
We often assume synesthesia is rare, but some studies, like this one from 2006, suggest it’s fairly common: about 4 per cent of people had one of the types they tested for, and the most common was associating colour with days of the week. Another common type, associating colours with numbers or letters, occurred in 1 per cent of people.
Synesthesia seems to develop sometime in childhood; you’re not born with it. I asked my son around age six: what colour is the letter ‘A’? “Red,” he said, no hesitation. We then talked about the rest of the alphabet; he felt strongly that some letters had colours, and some didn’t. (Same here: I don’t really know what colour the letter ‘X’ is — something dark and shadowy, I guess — but its neighbour ‘W’ stands out in royal blue.)
My son’s mental alphabet has different colours than mine, but his brain works the same way.
By contrast, his brother treated the same question like a game, assigning colours to the letters and then changing his mind or making up stories about why this letter would be that colour. He either doesn’t have this form of synesthesia, or he’s young enough that he hasn’t nailed down his mental models yet.
It’s Not (Just) Your Childhood Memories
In my experience, people who have synesthesia but don’t know it tend to assume that they’re envisioning a childhood calendar or toy. There’s some truth to this: one popular set of magnetic toy letters matches up with some of synesthetes’ most common letter/colour associations.
I played with that same set growing up, so when I heard about this finding, I clicked to see the picture, expecting that it would be all familiar colours, but it wasn’t. Its ‘A’ was red, just like mine (Have you noticed the letter ‘A’ is almost always red in books and toys?) but many of the other colours were all wrong. ‘B’ and ‘D’ should be blue. ‘P’ should be purple.
I suspect our brains imprint on things like this during the time we’re learning our colours and letters, but then we distort these images to match other patterns that our brains notice or infer.
My vision of months of the year comes directly from a wall calendar with kittens that we had as a kid — I’m sure of it — but only my first and last few months match up to their position on that calendar. All of the spring and summer months have been stretched out into a curving, sliding ramp. I guess that just made more sense to me somehow.
So, I’m curious. Readers, how many of you associate colours or spatial sequences with numbers, letters, days of the week, months of the year, or anything else that doesn’t have an inherent colour or shape? What about other synesthetic associations, like those that link concepts or music or sensations with colours or flavours or personalities? (Wikipedia lists some of the known types of synesthesia here, if that helps.)
And if you do have some of these links in your brain, tell us — how long did it take you to realise this counted as synesthesia?