Do letters or music have colors for you? Do words have scents or flavors? Do numbers have personalities and elaborate relationships in your head? Congratulations, you have synesthesia, and your brain is extra-special!
Instead of trying to paraphrase some smart talk about synesthesia, I'll just quickly cut and paste a description from this helpful article:
In people with synesthesia—from the ancient Greek words for “union” and “sensation”—stimulation in one sensory pathway [in the brain] triggers an experience in another. “In typical individuals, each of our senses—sight, touch, hearing—all operate in relative isolation,” explained David Brang of the University of California, San Diego, who wrote the paper along with neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran. “But in synesthesia, there are excessive connections between the senses, resulting in people who can hear colors, taste shapes or—in one of the most common forms—see specific colors with numbers and letters, regardless of the color on the page.”
My synesthesia experience
The first time I read a description of synesthesia, I felt a shocking sense of revelation. Music has always formed very distinct colors in my head. Oingo Boingo is black, with dancing orange and red geometric shapes. Sparklehorse is dusty gold. I often choose what music to listen to based on its color. I like dark blue music, gray music, and pondy green music a lot. I had no idea that this wasn't the case for everyone, until I stumbled across a great article in Interview magazine about Pharrell Williams and his own synesthesia.
When I sat down to do a little research on synesthesia this weekend, I had another moment of revelation, and it was much more shocking and powerful than my first encounter with the subject.
Synesthesia comes in many flavors, one of which is known as ordinal-linguistic personification, or OLP. OLP synesthetes automatically associate ordered sequences (letters, numbers, months, etc.) with personalities.
The numbers 0 - 12 have always had very vivid personalities and relationships with one another in my head, as well as genders and ages. Growing up, I assumed that this was the case for everyone. In fact, I figured that numbers must have been taught that way to me at a time when I was so young that I could no longer remember the teaching of it.
One day, when I was in high school, I casually mentioned the numbers and their personalities to my best friend and his family during a conversation about math. You could almost hear the record scratch sound in the room as they all stopped mid-conversation to look at me askance and then explode into laughter.
They made me describe the numbers' personalities at length, practically falling down with the force of their guffaws. Fortunately, I have always gotten a kick out of being laughed at when I'm goofy or weird—which I am with great frequency—so this didn't hurt my feelings. But it was a very jarring and strange experience, to realize other people's brains didn't work the same way at all.
I was absolutely floored this weekend when I discovered that this is a real phenomenon for other people as well, and that I have a second type of synesthesia.
The personalities of my numbers:
- Zero is male, and the wisest number, although this is tinged with enormous arrogance, because of his power to reduce any other number into himself. He is aloof and stands back from the other numbers, smirking at their antics.
- One is female, young, and as good-natured as she is dippy. She's the most accommodating number, and just wants to make everyone she interacts with happy.
- Two is male, wise, and playful. Like Zero, he's a bit aloof and enjoys laughing at the drama that many of the other numbers can't seem to resist generating, but his laughter is full of pure pleasure, without the mean quality of Zero's. He's a sly joker, but he lacks Zero's arrogance. Zero is ancient, but Two is young, and impressively mature for his age.
- Three is a bratty, defiant 15 year old girl who's constantly trying to prove herself. She often gets particularly cranky with Five, who really manages to get on her tits.
- Four is Three's best friend. She's a little older, in her late teens, and a lot calmer. She loves Three, but often finds herself rolling her eyes behind her friend's back when Three gets wrapped up in some snit or another, which happens frequently. Four also often gets annoyed with Five, who just cannot seem to get over himself or ever behave seriously.
- Five is a bit of a dick. He's not nearly as smart as he thinks he is, is extremely full of himself, and loves to taunt and tweak the noses of the other numbers. He may be Four's older brother or cousin. He loves annoying Three, but his favorite thing in the world is to piss off Seven.
- Six is Seven's teenage son. He's best friends with Five, which is problematic, because Seven is a raging bitch who hates Five with an obsessive, foaming-at-the-mouth passion. Six and Four get along very well, and have a bit of a crush on one another.
- Seven, oh, Seven. Seven is a domineering, permanently angry mega-bitch. She's Eight's girlfriend, and she spends a ton of her time berating him and her son, Six. When she isn't being mean to them, she's ranting to them about that damn Five. It drives Seven crazy that Seven plus Eight equals 15, because there Five is at the end of it, laughing at her and sticking out his tongue.
- Eight is a good-natured galumph who might be a little simple-minded. I'm not sure why he stays with Seven. It's like he's developed the ability to let her anger just roll right off of his rounded back. He likes Nine a lot, and doesn't realize that Nine thinks he's a nincompoop.
- Nine looks down on everyone. He thinks they're a pack of idiots, and treats them all with barely disguised contempt.
- Ten is male, Eleven is female, and Twelve is male. Eleven has a crush on Twelve, but Twelve is totally oblivious. Ten may be their father, which makes that whole crush thing kind of squicky. Eleven is always begging Ten for the keys to the car, or for a little more freedom, but she'll always be a baby in his eyes. Ten is pretty sexist, and has very firm opinions about the subservient role of women in society.
For a really fun example of someone with OLP synesthesia, check out this awesome type face a blogger made to capture his girlfriend's OLP alphabet synesthesia.
I have no idea why E looks exactly like Steve from the Bloom County comics.
Some synesthesia facts
- Synesthesia is involuntary. It does not involve deliberately creating associations. It either happens naturally in your brain, or it doesn't. Some people experience head injuries that result in synesthesia, which is known as acquired synesthesia. (Please don't go bashing your head against things just so you can experience all the pretty colors of the new Janelle Monae album.)
- Synesthesia is thought to affect .5 - 1% of the population
- In the US, women are three times more likely to have synesthesia than men, and in the UK, they are eight times more likely to have it than men
- Synesthetes are often left-handed
- Synesthesia appears to be an inherited trait in some instances
- Synesthesia appears to often be possessed by artistic types, and it's generally believed to make certain people better at their art. Writers with synesthesia, for example, are thought to often have a particularly strong gift for shaping metaphors and similes.
- Synesthesia is not a disorder; rather, it is an added or enhanced functioning of the brain. If you've got synesthesia, your brain is making more (and in my opinion, more interesting) connections than a normal brain.
Tell me about your synesthesia!
So, do any of you have synesthesia? What's your synesthesia like? Are you artistic, and if so, how has synesthesia shaped that for you? Are you left-handed? Do other people in your family have synesthesia?