Sunday, April 05, 2009

Hello. My name is Tony, and I am a Synesthete.

I have been reading a good amount of Oliver Sacks lately. Having finished the fascinating An Anthropologist on Mars, I am well into his Musicophilia.

This afternoon, I got sunburned having lost track of the time poolside, entirely lost in the fourteenth chapter entitled The Key of Clear Green: Synesthesia and Music.

I have always assumed that everyone “sees” what I see when thinking of numbers, the letters of the alphabet, musical notes and keys, days of the week, and months. In my mind, and I have always assumed, in yours, all these things are assigned specific colors, and whenever they “appear” in our minds, they always appear in their naturally assigned colors.

I had always assumed that my assignment of color to abstracts was based on my rather common poetic disposition. For instance, it is easy to think that Monday is blue because of all the songs that tell us so. I have also always assumed that July is the particularly appealing and highly saturated bleu de travail of Moroccan or Mexican tiles because I associate it with the ocean and the summer sky.

It has always been more difficult for me to explain why I see numbers or letters in color. Three and C are always Kelly green. Four and D are always a flat red. I chalked it up to early childhood exposure to these symbols on the sides of painted wooden blocks kept in a cylindrical tin among my toys, to be spilled out onto the floor for the stacking.

Several years ago, when I read that Laura Nyro had, in a recording studio, demanded many repetitions of a particular piece, perplexing her musicians by screaming “No! No! Do it again. Play it in lavendar!”, her meaning seemed perfectly clear to me.

It seems I may have been wrong all along in my assumptions about this business.

Oliver Sacks says that synesthesia is not something that brings patients to neurologists…Most people who have it do not consider it to be a “condition”…Some estimate the incidence of synesthesia to be about one in two thousand….

He speaks about a painter who became colorblind (He describes this case in An Anthropologist on Mars) as persuasion …that synesthesia was a physiological phenomenon, dependent on the integrity of certain areas of the cortex and the connections between them –in his case, between specific areas of the visual cortex needed to construct the perception or imagery of color. The destruction of these areas in this man had left him unable to experience any color, including “colored” music.

I want all of you regular visitors to tell me whether or not you are synesthetes.

And don’t nobody try to tell me that when you think “Stravinsky” you don’t see it in red, or Mahler in mauve, cuz I can’t imagine them otherwise.

PS: An earlier and equally delicious chapter is called Brainworms, Sticky Music and Catchy Tunes.

And, I learned heaps about autism and epilepsy in An Anthropologist on Mars. Seizures and brain trauma can cause extreme personality changes. This raises a question. Has anyone ever become gay after a seizure or a lightning strike? Could it happen? If so, will doctors eventually change sexual orientation by zapping just the right area of the brain with just the right stimulus? I owe Oliver Sacks a phone call to report on my reading some books he recommended that were supposed to make me an atheist. They didn’t. I’ll try to get immediately into the gay question.

Meanwhile, I am turning away from the screen to gaze at something periwinkle/cornflower blue because that color, in and of itself, seems to induce health in me.


TED said...

I see red when people misuse "begs a question." But it's a very specific synesthesia. Otherwise I don't think visually at all.

Tony Adams said...

There, TED, orange you glad I fixed it?

DrRuss said...

This is an intriguing question for me. I love color and I deal with color on a daily basis because I am a book/paper artist. I usually can detect slight variations in color and have names for a large spectrum of color. Yet, I am not synesthete. When I think of a blue Monday, I think of it in terms of a psychological condition as opposed to a color.

Duke Ellington was a synesthete. He composed in shades of hue and pictograms. His Mood Indigo is a classic example. He saw the composition before he transcribed it to paper.

Gavin said...

Interesting premise. I think we all tend to think our interpretations of what is happening is seen by everyone in the same way. That goes to that overused saying, "Perception is reality."

I do not associate any colors with thoughts. However, just about everything I think is associated to people I know. When I tell people I'm always thinking about them, it's true because everything reminds me of someone. Including you!

Tony Adams said...

And yet, YOY, you are an orchid aficianado, so it's not like you are color-insensitive. It's in the wiring, isn't it?

Birdie said...

Well of course, just about everything has a color.

But Monday isn't blue; it's a light yellow. Tuesday is sky blue, Thursday is dark green, Friday is red, Saturday is white, and Sunday is a bright sunny yellow. I don't know why Wednesday is so hard to pin down, but maybe it's light green. Numbers have colors and shapes. But music? Individual tones have colors, but I can't name them unless I hear them.

The raised eyebrow I get when I opine on the color of concepts usually keeps me quiet on the subject.

TED said...

Indeed. I am also glad you didn't say banana.

I was watching, of all things, an episode of Wonder Woman back, well, whenever it was in its original run, the first time I heard someone mention thinking in words rather than thinking in images. It had never occurred to me before then that some people think in ways other than words. Nowadays, I occasionally think in phrases of music, or tastes or aromas, but visual thinking is still a bizarre idea to me. I associate certain colors with moods, but only very generally.

I think I read on the Internet that most synesthetes are people who did very interesting drugs in the early 70s, but there's an off chance I just made that up.

Tony Adams said...

And how about this, Birdie: in Musicophilia, Sacks goes on to talk about a man for whom number sequences turn directions! After 100, the numbers turn right. After 200, they turn left, as he sees their progression. Mine are straight - if you can believe that!

Birdie said...

Prime numbers are extremely pointy and prickly. I don't like them. On the other hand, the more factors a number contains, the rounder it is. They're also softer and therefore much friendlier. But they all go in a straight line into infinity. I think this is why I think Flatland is brilliant.

David Phillips said...

Your must check out the new book from Richard Cytowic (connect with him on FB) "Indigo Blue." Excellent treatment of synesthesia.

Tony Adams said...

Yes. He is referenced in Musicophilia.

Gavin said...

Ha! I'm a graphic designer and deal with color all the time. I've been tweaking a client ad over the past week to get just the right shade of red.

BTW, I think of you whenever I think of orchids (and the Pope). :)

dpaste said...

Nope, no colors in music whatsoever for me. I feel music viscerally as emotion only. Combinations of notes can make me weep, even in happy songs.

And I have never associated colors with numbers or letters, and certainly not days of the week.

Guess I'm just a synephobe.

cb said...

I certainly wish I could lie and say I was-- but I don't think I am. At least not in the strict sense spoken of here.

When I hear music or see art I get moods and emotions. And perceptions of movement. Like chord structures in music I get rain or sun bursting through clouds or introversion etc.

Not the same I know.

headbang8 said...

I don't see colours. But I see stories in objects. Show me something, and I'll tell you a clear, definite, vivid story, replete with characters, in an instant.

Vladimir Nabokov was a synaesthete. And when I read his account of it in "Speak, Memory", I was a little disappointed. Rather than fire-engine reds, sky blues and kelly greens, his colours were quite specific shades of cream, highly distinguished light blues, or blacks. Odd.

BTW, I will use he struck-by-lightning excuse the next time someone gives me a hard time about being gay.

Tate said...

I experienced synesthesia a few times in my life while under the influence of LSD. They came in the form of scent and color in relation to music I was hearing at the time. Quite a remarkable happening, and one I shall never forget. I still get snapshots of color with music from time to time, but I do not consider myself a Synesthete. Perhaps residual chemistry stored in fatty deposits.

M. Knoester said...

I'm not quite a synaesthete, but there are overlaps in my senses. One very common occurrence is that I must have the sound turned down when I smell something and am trying to determine what it is. Tasting of course is mostly smell, so if I want to concentrate on the ingredients I'll turn the sound down, but the part that happens in your mouth - sweet, bitter etc - works better with my eyes closed.

YvesPaul said...

I've just seen a program on the Science Channel two weeks ago about "Superheroes". People with extraordinary skills like math, a blind man who can draw 3D figures and one of the special skills is synesthetia. After going to a gay bar and talking to one of my friends, it turns out he's synesthtic as well. He's a musician and told me that each music note has a different color as well and it does affect his music writing. And it also turns out that different synesthetes see letters in different colors as well. It's interesting.

Tony Adams said...

Dear YvesPaul,
Each synesthete sees his own set of color matches, different from those of others. Also, and I can vouch for this, Sacks notes that synesthetes, when asked to focus on the colored image of numbers or letters report that the focusing on it makes the color weaken or fade or disappear or vary. Don't know why.

Birdie said...

Ken Lemons, CEO of Musical DNA Software, has invented a way of looking at music using color. It even has applications in science and medicine. Synesthete? Check out this YouTube video.

Just for fun, I asked family members "What color is Monday?"

My daughter said, "I've thought about that. I'm pretty sure it's yellow." Yep.

My husband said, "Well, I guess if I have to give it a color, I suppose it's blue." Nope.

Daughter went on to explain that numbers not only have colors, they have personalities. Her favorite number is 19 because it's most like her.

I'm going to ask that question of all of my friends and see what kind of responses I get. I mean besides frowns.

Michele said...

I'm green with envy. Does that count? Sigh. Perhaps in my next turn around the planet I can be a synesthete.

Tincture said...

This is very interesting. I have to ask: did you honestly, at this stage of the game, not have any clue that your way of perceiving and processing certain info was not the way the average person experienced it? I used to work with a woman who saw numbers and letters as colors (like you, very specific colors). I think also days of the week and months. Probably other things too - but because she always talked about it in such a precious way, I usually tuned it out. It actually is a fascinating phenomenon, MAINLY because I can't even imagine what it would be like to be like this. Forgive me for focusing on a very unimportant point, but it was somewhat jarring to read that you always figured everyone was like this. Did you really?

Tony Adams said...

Yes, Tincture, it honestly never crossed my mind that not everyone had this experience. I did assume that others saw colors that were different from the ones I saw. Today, reading further into that same chapter of Musicophilia, I learned that Nabokov, as a child, was irritated by a series of letters or numbers that were colored in a way that he felt was just not right. I had that exact same experience as a child. I just figured that some people had bad taste or were insensitive to what they surely would know were the right color assignments. I equated it to knowing that the right color for a 1964 Buick Riviera was stardust blue. I knew the car was available in other colors and I knew that some people bought the car in other colors but I just assumed that I knew best, and that I should be polite and not ridicule the bad choices of others. If you had given me crayons and the alphabet in black and white for the coloring, I would always make the choices that I saw in my head. I think it went beyond chromesthesia and into some kind of anthropomorphism in which numbers and letters actually have personalities as well as colors. They say Wagner feared the number 13. Well the number nine, for instance, seems deliberately sinister and aubergine to me. Oliver Sacks talks about a test devised to separate real synesthesia from pseudosynesthesia. I'd love to take it to know for sure that my hunch about this "condition" is real and not simply a poetic "sensitivity" which is what I had always chalked it up to.

Java said...

My daughter (age 19, bi-sexual) is a synesthete. She describes her colors to me. Days and months have color, numbers and letters have color. She's very sensitive to numbers. 17 is good. 18 is not. She, unlike Birdie, is very fond of primes.

While not exactly a synesthete myself, I do see flashes of color and sometimes geometric patterns during sex, especially when close to orgasm. Light blue and brown combinations have been showing up recently. I have seen some fabulous rich mauve colors in past sexual interludes.

word verification: joy pit Any significance?

Paris said...

A kid I went to high school with was a synesthete too. I am not and still find the concept hard to grasp, but far be it for me to dismiss the diversity of ways we experience the world!

Anthony Menendez said...

who said blue hyacinthe is the flower/color of homosexulity? i knew it was my brand all along and nobody told me

tornwordo said...

Wow, I am definitely not a synesthete. I identify most strongly with David's comment. I was brought to profound sadness the other day hearing a keith jarrett solo. It's very emotional and not at all visual for me.

Patrick said...

Considering how much I love color, and see its effects in a variety of ways, I don't really see numbers or letters as having color. Music, yes, but not all the time. I was an adult before fully realizing that numbers and letters have gender, and at least nascent personalities. With numbers, the personalities are distinct up to about 11, after that it's dictated by the last digit in the figure (the personality for 493 is largely shaped by the number 3). To some extent I think I taught myself mathematics, at least addition and subtraction, through a barely-conscious system of interpersonal relationships. To this day I think of 3,5,8, and 13 as having special connections. Incidentally, all those numbers are clearly female in my head.

Patrick said...

Oh, and does An Anthropologist on Mars have his interview with Temple Grandin? I can't remember, but you might enjoy her book Seeing In Pictures if you haven't already read it. She believes her high achieving autism has meant that she sees the world more like an animal (in pictures) than a human, and that has given her some interesting advantages. I'm over-simplifying, but in the context of this discussion you might find the book pretty interesting. She has at least one other one out that I have not yet read.

Tony Adams said...

His time with Temple Grandin is included as a chapter of its own. Reading it made me feel incredibly sorry for her. It's one thing not to feel something, but to have to live in a world where eeryone else feels it and you must learn a dialect that is meaningless for you...and that squeezing machine. Powerful stuff.

Regarding the numbers-with-genders feeling. Me too. When i grew up, I tried to explain it to myself by looking at the group of numbers I considered masculine and trying to see what elements they had in common. I looked first for phallic elements, thinking that could explain it away, but it didn't apply.

OMO said...

I'm finding this topic utterly fascinating, mainly because I'm not a synesthete, and because I've always wondered from early childhood whether people see things the same way as I do.

Similarly to others on here music often triggers quite extreme emotional responses in me, and in the same way I'm often moved to tears by a cloud scudding across the sky or leaves falling from a tree. There's beauty everywhere, but colours in my head - no, I'm afraid not.

I was having a conversation with a friend a few weeks ago about my internal monologue, and he didn't seem to be understanding me when I said about the voice in my head when I'm thinking. Afer some discussion it arose that he only thought in pictures and colours, and really didn't understand when I said I could hear my voice in my head.

How wonderful and amazing that we experience things so differently from each other, and often with no clue.