Synaesthesia


When I first started taking piano lessons, I memorized my pieces by remembering the "color" of each note and chord.

Fast forward...about fifteen years later. I was working with a piano student who had a hard time playing Chopin's Prelude in E Minor. He had to memorize it for a piano audition, and he kept messing up the chords. I remember saying to him "Hit the green chord! Hit the yellow chord!". He looked very confused, but he was too shy to say anything.

Fast forward...about six years later. I was playing the piano, and a friend asked me how I could play so many songs by memory. I said "I just remember the order of the colors". She looked very confused, but she wasn't too shy to ask. I explained: "When I have to play a D minor chord, I just remember yellow because D minor is yellow. And then I see the order of all the different colors and It's like a picture right in front of me". "Why is D minor yellow?" she asked. I didn't quite understand why she was asking that, but I explained anyway: "Don't you see yellow when you play a D minor chord? D minor is always yellow!". I was getting a bit frustrated... Why did I have to explain something so obvious that was right in front of our eyes and it never changed. Because D minor was always yellow just as A minor was always purple, and C major was always blue! What's there to talk about?

She let it go, but not for long. She talked to her brother about it who immediately had a "diagnosis" for me: I was a synaesthete. More specifically, a chromatic synaesthete.

From Wikipedia:

"Synesthesia (also spelled synæsthesia or synaesthesia, plural synesthesiae orsynaesthesiae), from the ancient Greek σύν (syn), "together," and αἴσθησις (aisthēsis), "sensation," is a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. People who report such experiences are known as synaesthetes. In one common form of synesthesia, known as grapheme → color synesthesia or color-graphemic synesthesia, letters or numbers are perceived as inherently colored, while in ordinal linguistic personification, numbers, days of the week and months of the year evoke personalities. In spatial-sequence, or number form synesthesia, numbers, months of the year, and/or days of the week elicit precise locations in space (for example, 1980 may be "farther away" than 1990), or may have a (three-dimensional) view of a year as a map (clockwise or counterclockwise). Yet another recently identified type, visual motion → sound synaesthesia, involves hearing sounds in response to visual motion and flicker. Over 60 types of synaesthesia have been reported, but only a fraction have been evaluated by scientific research. Even within one type, synaesthetic perceptions vary in intensity andpeople vary in awareness of their synaesthetic perceptions."

Ok...so I'm a synaesthete. I associate letters, notes, chords, sounds, names, and more with colors. When I read a book, every letter appears in a different color, but each letter has a specific color assigned to it. When I hear that D minor chord, I see yellow "waves" right in front of my eyes. I don't have to think about it. It's a natural reaction. However, all these years before I learned about the scientific term, I was under the impression that everyone saw those things the same way I did. I never thought it was a special quality, I never questioned it, I never asked anyone about it, and I never researched it. To me it was a common way of associating things with our senses.

As a child, Pat Duffy told her father, "I realized that to make an R all I had to do was first write a P and draw a line down from its loop. And I was so surprised that I could turn a yellow letter into an orange letter just by adding a line." Another grapheme synaesthete says, "When I read, about five words around the exact one I'm reading are in color. It's also the only way I can spell. In elementary school I remember knowing how to spell the word 'priority' [with an "i" rather than an "e"] because ... an 'e' was out of place in that word because 'e's were yellow and didn't fit. Yes, exactly my way of thinking!

Being a synaesthete is fascinating, but occasionally it can lead to sensory overload. For example, when people play different chords for me and want to know what colors I come up with, after a while, I feel exhausted and all the colors begin to blend together. I have to step away for a while and clear my mind because all I end up seeing is gray or black.

The fun part is when I associate names with colors. Every name has its color. Would you like to know what color your name is? Ask away!

Do you see colors? Do you associate scents with past experiences? When you read a book, does each word flash in a different color kind of like a neon sign? You could be a synaesthete too! :)