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On Being a Synaesthete

I was reading a post by jtotheizzoe about synaesthesia, particularly an article that details some people who experience the phenomenon, and their unique interactions with color. I first knew I had some kind of color association with certain data types when I was very young. My parents would ask me about events on certain days, and I noticed that when I would recall the days with which the events were associated, my memory would automatically generate a color association with the time period. For example (and this still stands today), when asked about something that I would recall happened on Wednesday, I would arrive at the information by knowing that the warm feeling of a soft yellow (with complimentary hues of blue) was associated with that date.

As I learned more and more about the world as a I got older, I began to notice patterns with color. My friends would comment on my unusual ability to memorize phone numbers, addresses and birthdays, but it was all done because each of these entities had their own distinct color that I associated with their identity. As I became more self-reflective on the phenomenon, I found that there were distinct patterns of color association - for example, rounder numbers and letters, such as “g” or “3” were more likely to be associated with warmer colors such as orange, red or yellow. Conversely, sharper and more angular characters, such as “4” or “N”, were more likely to be associated with darker, colder colors like deeper blues and greens (not much unlike the colors of tumblr!).

The whole idea was somewhat exacerbated by my OCD, where I found emotional resentment for groups of shapes or characters that did not work well with one another’s synaesthetic color scheme.

Perhaps the oddest notion about all of this is that I had no idea what synaesthesia was until a few years ago (I am now 22) when I stumbled upon the definition after discussing my color association with a friend. The friend had not heard of the behavior before, despite being a psychology student, which inspired me to google something along the lines of “color and shape association with letters numbers and memory”. After perusing some of the results, I found the definition. It had never occurred to me before that moment that it was something unusual. If you think about it, one’s internal thought process is something that rarely gets brought up. It would be a little like trying to explain Chinese to someone who spoke only English, in Chinese. The way we think of things is just a way of how we see the world - there is nothing perceptibly interesting or explicable about it, it’s just what we automatically do.

But since learning of it, some of my behavioral patterns make a little more sense. For example, there are certain word combinations that elicit a type of clarity that I only know exists based on the color combination/association of those words. When one of these phrases is uttered, the feeling to me is so specific, so radically intrinsic to the meaning and shape of the words, I get a sense of satisfaction having used them with such accuracy. The same goes for combinations of physical/artistic shapes and colors - when I draw or design a set of shapes together, I know that I have done them in the way that feels right based on the mental synaesthetic feedback I get from their aesthetic.

I was happy to see the post in my feed today because it’s a topic that does not often get discussed, but is something that is very personal to me and my experience as a human being perceiving the world around me. A special thanks to jtotheizzoe for providing that interesting post.

  • #beauty
  • #clarity
  • #color
  • #sciencey stuff
  • #synaethesia
  • #long read
  • #long form
  • V is a kind of pale, transparent pink: I think it’s called, technically, quartz pink: this is one of the closest colors that I can connect with the V. And the N, on the other hand, is a greyish-yellowish oatmeal color. But a funny thing happens: my wife has this gift of seeing letters in color, too, but her colors are completely different. There are, perhaps, two or three letters where we coincide, but otherwise the colors are quite different.

    It turned out, we discovered one day, that my son, who was a little boy at the time — I think he was 10 or 11 — sees letters in colors, too. Quite naturally he would say, “Oh, this isn’t that color, this is this color,” and so on. Then we asked him to list his colors and we discovered that in one case, one letter which he sees as purple, or perhaps mauve, is pink to me and blue to my wife. This is the letter M. So the combination of pink and blue makes lilac in his case. Which is as if genes were painting in aquarelle.

    I love being a synaesthete. It makes life so much more colorful. literally.

    Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita, on being a synaesthete.

    Steve Silberman profiles synaesthesia in Inside the Mind of a Synaesthete. Read it. You won’t be sorry.

    (via jtotheizzoe)

    (via jtotheizzoe)

  • #synaethesia