Friday, September 12, 2014

Synesthesia - "Seeing Sound"

I take forever to buy binders and notebooks for school.  Not because I don’t know what I need, but because I have to get the exact right color for any given subject, or I will not be able to focus properly for the rest of the year...I wish I was kidding.

A lot of people color-code things, including their school subjects.  But most of them can use arbitrary colors.  However, I’ve never been able to do that, because for me, I literally “see” my classes as colors.

Let me explain.

I “see” certain sounds as colors.  Primarily, words and musical tones.  The word “science” is teal, a C# minor chord is a bright, warm magenta, and one of my cats “meows periwinkle”.  These color responses also have texture, opacity, and shape in three dimensions, and some of them become so abstract and complex that I literally cannot describe them to another person.

This sort of cross-sensory response is a form of something called synesthesia

Synesthesia is a coming together of the senses - instead of simply hearing sound, a person might also “see” the sound.  Essentially, it’s a neurological “cross-wiring” between the senses, that causes a stimuli for one sense to also trigger a response in another.

The most common form is called “grapheme to color synesthesia” and it involves associating colors to letters and/or numbers.  Someone with this type will look at a plain, black number 3, but instead of seeing it in black, they’ll see it in yellow, or purple, or whatever color their mind connects to it.  

Other types of synesthesia can involve “smelling a sound”, or “feeling a sight.”  I don’t have any of these types, mine is purely auditory, so I have a much harder time explaining it, but there’s good information out there for anyone who is interested.

The first time I heard about the idea of synesthesia was when I was watching a documentary on composers, and the narrator was explaining how the composer Jean Sibelius had sound -> color synesthesia (what I have), and supposedly had a room for every key, each of which was painted the color he saw for each key.  They listed off some of these colors, and it was decidedly unpleasant for me because his color associations were totally different from mine.

I don’t really consider myself “fully synesthetic” because my responses tend to be very “behind the scenes” in my head - I sometimes have to consciously pay attention to them, and they aren’t always totally consistent.  The “color” of a key may change slightly depending on the instrument it’s being played on, or sometimes even the style.  Words will change color when different people say them sometimes, as some peoples voices actually elicit a response for me.  

Still, I do experience these responses, and with enough strength and consistency that I can notice them in everyday life.  Whereas most people only take a passing interest in color, for me, if there is any sort of audio component, the color has to match that - and I think it’s fascinating that there is a neurological basis for this.

So, essentially, I have a scientific reason for taking an eternity to select the exact right color of notebook.

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