I am always excited, and a bit surprised, when I learn something new about myself. Especially as I’m nearing a half-century in age. And if I have the chance to learn something BIG about myself, I really sit up and pay attention.
So it was when I watched the TNT series The Librarians for the first time. (https://g.co/kgs/MFHF6m) One of the characters, Cassandra, is a synesthete. In the show, all five of her senses are “cross-wired” in her brain, meaning that she sees numbers as flavors, hears words as musical notes, and memories have texture.
I had never heard the word before, which is a rather noteworthy occurrence for me. I watched the first episode with some skepticism, and afterwords went directly to the Internet to determine if this word, and the episode’s description of the condition, were real. Because they had just described something I had experienced my whole life, without knowing that not everyone experienced it as well.
Synesthesia is a condition in which one sense (for example, hearing) is simultaneously perceived along with one or more additional senses, such as sight. Other forms of synesthesia join objects such as letters, shapes, numbers or people’s names with a sense such as smell, color or flavor. The word synesthesia comes from two Greek words, syn (together) and aisthesis (perception). So, synesthesia literally means “joined perception.” A great web site for more information on synesthesia is here: https://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/syne.html.
I was stunned after just a little bit of research. I had never thought that my ability to remember a phone number was particularly special. Useful, yes, and people had commented on it on occasion, but nothing significant. I would always just say, “I just remember the sound the number makes on the phone. Bee boop beep, beep beep beep beep (that’s 254-4444, if you’re wondering).
I had discovered I’m slightly colorblind just a few years before this (colorblind females are only 2-3% of the general gene pool). Which explained a lot about my childhood and my inclination to wear colors that others think are “weird” (I love blue and pink together, and green and yellow). But it also explains why I never thought much about why I’m always choosing differently than others, when I was made fun of for those choices pretty regularly in school. I’m definitely not as “cross-wired” as the fictional Cassandra, who basically used her synesthesia almost like a super-power in the show, but it gives me a way to examine my perceptions from an outsider’s perspective. I simply have a different relationship to my senses than most people do. What do you mean, you don’t think numbers have sound, that words have colors, and inanimate objects can tell you their true names if you listen right after talking to them? 🙂 Yes, all of my stuffed animals have names, and my cars. The feel of touching them “sounds” like a name….
This new understanding of what I experience has been an eye-opener for me to understanding myself and the world around me. I’m not “bad” at math, but word problems have always been frustrating, as they seem so “noisy” and filled with extraneous information. I would always say that they sound to me like “Two purple trains running on pancakes are about to crash into a McDonald’s. How many milkshakes will it take to build a new golf course?”
And yes, I’ve actually said this to students who complain about doing their math homework ;), because I then explain the way that I figured out to do these problems, which is to take the sentences apart and concentrate just on the information you need to solve the problem. I had never realized before that there actually wasn’t that much extraneous information, but my brain was connecting the train to the sound of driving through the drive-thru at McDonald’s for breakfast. Yikes. Maybe that’s why I really liked calculus, and still hate statistics. Too much information in stat problems, when clearly my brain is supplying even more.
Two of the main characteristics synesthetes experience really stuck out to me. One of them is that the experiences are involuntary – I don’t have to think about “what I see/perceive”, I just do, which is specifically why it hadn’t occurred to me before hearing the condition described that I was “seeing” anything different than anyone else.
The second characteristic is that the “crossed sense” is projected – I don’t see a color of the name in my “mind’s-eye” or hear the sound of numbers inside my head, but experience them outside, just like a normal physical sense. I see different colors of the written word on the page, I hear the sound of the numbers as if someone were playing the keys on a piano, and feel the shape of the numbers when I say them out loud. Though not all synesthetes perceive the same things, and not all synesthetes even have their senses linked to the same other senses. I seem to have more cross-wiring than most, but it makes me wonder if there isn’t more cross-perception out there than is widely accepted, with almost everyone having maybe at least one sense crossed with another. How would you know, if you had always experienced the world in a certain way, that it was not how everyone else experiences it?
I honestly find it even hard to describe to others today when they ask what I see or feel, such as what the number six sounds like (I’ve been asked this recently, and the answer that popped out of my mouth was that “six sounds round” which even I know sounds ridiculous, but there you are), or what color their name is. I have to see the letters of their name to tell them this, and that’s a different experience from hearing their name, which has a sound associated with it for me.
Artist Melissa McCracken has spoken about what she perceives when she hears music. It’s pretty amazing.
Vincent Van Gogh and Wassily Kandinsky are some other famous artists who painted the sounds that they heard.
Dr. David Eagleman of Baylor College of Medicine explains the science behind the experiences here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6vs-ez62DVc
I really like Dr. Eagleman’s explanation. It tells me something about why I prefer a keyboard that makes the tradition “clickety-clack” sounds when I type to a flat keyboard with no real keys. And that’s something that I just learned about myself in the last 5 minutes.