– by Cecily Knobler, who is every color of the rainbow and then some –
Please share. It’s good karma 🙂
When I was in high school, someone asked me what day our French comprehension oral exam was. I meant to say Wednesday, but instead answered: “Pink.” Obviously this was met with an intense stare, followed by the questions: “What are you on? Who is your dealer and how do I get some?” At the time I didn’t so much as even drink, let alone drop mind-bending drugs. I chalked it up to misspeaking and quickly remedied my answer.
The truth is, Wednesdays have always been a pale bubblegum pink for as long as I can remember. Tuesdays are emerald green, as is London. Fridays are purple. New York is blue. Dallas and Saturdays are white and so on. This is just the way it is. If specific days of the week or cities are mentioned or even thought about, it’s as if my mind gets dipped into a certain color like an Easter egg. I think of Thursday and my brain swims in turquoise.
I’d never given this a second thought until I saw a documentary a few years ago about the brain and its many quirks. One of the phenomena it discussed was “synesthesia,” which in ancient Greek means “together sensation.” This is when a person experiences a “crossing of the senses,” and it can happen in a variety of ways. Some people associate letters or numbers with colors. Others associate them with the taste of chocolate or the sensation of silk on their skin. Still others might hear a D minor chord and taste pastrami. An especially lucky and rare individual can experience all of the above! For me, it’s only days of the week and a few cities that are painted in specific colors every time they consciously enter my sphere.
Let’s break down some of the different types of synesthesia (and there are many) and look at some theories as to why this happens.
Can You Turn Down the Brightness of Your Six?
Grapheme-color synesthesia is the most commonly reported type of synesthesia, and it refers to the sensation of assigning a color to alphabet letters and/or numbers. But here’s where it gets really interesting. While quite a few people claim to experience this, their “M” or their “4” might be blue, while another person’s is yellow. However after many studies, researchers have seen some patterns and commonalities for some letter/number-color combos. For example, the letter A is often associated with the color red for synesthetes. Lolita author Vladimir Nabokov has discussed his experience with this in great, beautiful detail: “The long ‘a’ of the English alphabet has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French “a” evokes polished ebony. This black group also includes hard ‘g’ (vulcanized rubber) and ‘r (a sooty rag being ripped). Oatmeal ‘n’, noodle-limp ‘l’, and the ivory-backed hand mirror of an ‘o’ take care of the whites. I am puzzled by my French ‘on’ which I see as the brimming tension-surface of alcohol in a small glass.”
What Color is Your Sonata?
Color-sound synesthesia, which is known as chromesthesia, sounds like it might be fun! This is when sounds are associated with a color. These audio triggers might be everyday sounds such as a dog barking or an alarm beeping to specific musical notes.
Many famous musicians and composers ranging from classical to jazz to pop and more have reported this phenomenon. Included on this list are Duke Ellington, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, and Itzhak Perlman, who stated in an interview by Maureen Seaberg, “If I play a B-flat on the G string, I would say that the color for me is probably deep forest green. And if I play an A on the E string, that would be red. If I play the next B, if I look at it right now, I would say that it’s yellow.”
When Music Literally Can Give You The Chills
Another form of senses crossing is auditory-tactile synesthesia. This is when a specific sound or the uttering of a word or syllable can induce what feels like a physical tactile sensation somewhere on the body. For example, every time someone hears the word “photo,” they could feel a cold sensation in their knee. Or a certain musical note might feel like a warm, cashmere blanket around the shoulders.
Your Goodbye Tastes Like Chicken
This one is reportedly much less common, but some people experience certain tastes when hearing specific words, which of course have nothing to do with that taste. I mean, if someone says shrimp and you have the sensation of tasting shrimp, that’s understandable. But if every time someone utters the word iPhone you have the experience of tasting butterscotch, this is known as lexical-gustatory synesthesia.
Can You Bring your 2 Closer?
As someone who’s not especially spatially coordinated, this one was a little tough for me to comprehend. The idea is that some people see numbers or orders of numbers as actual entities in space. So if they’re looking at the sequence 1 2 3 4 5, they may see the 3 as super close and the 1 as far away. This is known as spatial sequence synesthesia. It has been theorized that certain people (particularly autistic savants) who can remember the correct order of hundreds if not thousands of digits in Pi have the number splayed out for them in physical form. This connection in the brain, however it has happened, allows them to see the number-orders as though they were playing out in a movie. (Hey, don’t ask me, I’m just over here in my salmon-colored Monday.)
There are many other connections, although less common, such as smelling colors, tasting weeks, etc. I’m sure it’s not unlike what can happen to your senses when say, dropping acid. Which brings us to why these crossed senses may occur.
One theory it that because the specific part of the brain in the temporal lobe that processes color perception is in the same section able to conceptualize physical numbers, this information might get crossed into the wrong processing center. (“Wrong” is a judgment. I personally think it’s awesome.)
Interestingly, this “cross-wiring” is also what happens when someone takes hallucinogenic drugs. Furthermore, some people with schizophrenia and other mental disorders also often experience a misfire of neural connections, but this often results in hearing voices rather than assigning colors to letters or tastes to words. The point is that our brain is a big mass of synapses and neurotransmitters, all sharing a relatively small space. It’s not a huge stretch to think how easy it might be for those wires to cross!
How We Learn
While many researchers claim that synesthesia is genetically determined to a great degree (and we’ll get to more of that in our Fun Facts,) some theorize that how someone learns at an early age is what creates neural pathways in the mind. For example, if A is often red, perhaps there were popular magnets or flashcards sold to certain schools as educational devices in which the letter A was red.
This could be why Friday is purple to me. It’s possible that when I learned the concept of a “Friday,” it was on a piece of purple construction paper and this connection was forever cemented in my brain. I’d like to think that’s not the case, and I’m just a “Friday is Purple” kind of gal. But I’ll probably never really know.
A Few Fun Facts!
– Although neuroscientists have argued over the statistics, some say synesthesia is as common in 1 in 23 people (or 4.4 percent of the population).
– The most common type of this experience is color-day association. I guess I’m not as rare as I’d hoped.
– Often synesthesia is genetic, passed down to child from a parent. I asked my mother if she had any of these sensations and at first she said, “No, that’s weird.” I said, “So you don’t see days of the week in color?” Again, she denied it. But then said, “Well I do see words in comic book form above me, as if I’m reading them in panels.” “Yep, Mom.” I replied. “You have it too!”
Cecily Knobler is a writer, stand-up comedian and film reviewer for over 15 FM radio markets in the U.S. and Canada. Her new book Five Thousand Three Hundred Miles is available now on Amazon.
For more info, go to: www.cecilyknobler.com