Friday, February 04, 2005

Synaesthesia Explained

I don’t think I’ll have a chance to post tomorrow as we are going for a Matrix Marathon; our friend H, [...] and I are going to watch all three Matrix films back to back... I shall reserve judgement and review this experience at the weekend. Anyway, in between my numerous and various preparatory jobs I thought I ought to explain synaesthesia since I made a reference.

Synaesthesia is where people experience one sensations or abstract concept as a different sort of sensation or abstract concept. People may ‘taste’ sounds, they may ‘see’ numbers as colours and so on. Everybody experiences something of this to some extent. An excellent illustrative example was given in one of the Reith Lectures 2003 about the evolutionary development of language. Apparently the experiment usually uses pictures and I am doing this from a two year old memory but here we go.

There are two aliens from far across the galaxy. One is a very spikey, angular shape with several legs and the other is a soft very round globular thing that just bounces along when it travels. One is called a boolub and one is called a kiki. Which is the boolub and which is the kiki?

Exactly, that’s what everyone says. Of course it is. The way a word sounds shouldn’t logically bare any relation to what shape a thing is, what it might look and feel like. But we automatically make these associations. We say that cheese, which we taste is sharp (sensation) or mellow (sound), that an item of clothing is loud, that Johnny Depp is tasty when very few of us have had the opportunity to test this assertion and so on. Wherever you are in the world, your first word was most likely "mamma", whether it later turned into mom, mummy, maman, mutter, madre etc. Mamma is a lovely, soft and warm word. Which is probably why we call mammaries mammaries.

Like I said, the same applies to abstract concepts like numbers – apparently people who see numbers as colours can be totally flummuxed when numbers are coloured in ways which don’t correspond to their colour scheme, as it were. So if a 3 is usually coloured red in their mind and they see it coloured yellow, which is the colour that belongs to a 4, they may well square it to make 16 as opposed to 9. Do you follow? Good. I find this a fascinating idea. I am fascinated the way different individuals process abstract information. Neuropsychology is my back-up plan if the book doesn’t work out.

Personally, I always think about time as a shape, a three dimensional shape around me with curves and dips and bends which are difficult to describe, a path more than a passage, but one that necessarily follows the rules of gravity. I see this path both ahead and behind me, but the units of time aren’t regular distances; some hours and days pass significantly quicker and less notably than others. And I think like a lot of people, I colour people. Not so much people I know well who change colour with my feelings towards them, but for example my doctor is green, my neighbour is orange, the taxi driver I used most often is grey (not a bad grey, a kind of dove grey) and so on.

And I feel music. I thought everybody did, but I have recently realised that some people may only hear it in their heads. When I listen to it loudly and concentrate on the music I have real physical sensations all over my body, mostly in my chest and abdomen. These sensations relate to instruments or voices. For example, in my All Time Top Twenty Personal Pick of the Pops, I sited Neil Finn as having a voice which I feel in my kidneys. Tenor voices and sounds tend to be in this area, round my sides, towards my back (which I guess is an erogenous zone and these are the voices I like best). Bass voices and sounds and most drums are in my spine, from in the middle of my back down to my pelvic floor. Soprano and alta voices and sounds tend to be round the front, flutes and violins being high in my chest. Kate Bush flitters around my shoulders and the highest note in The Lark Ascending comes about half way up my throat. These sensations are usually neutral, but rhythms and patterns make them pleasant and I go in another room when [...] puts on his Alien Sex Fiend records.

This is not a particularly useful gift and it hasn’t made me particularly good at music. But it is very good for me because I haven’t got a lot to thank my physical make-up for and my body spends most of its time complaining at me, restricting my freedom and generally malfunctioning. And it means I really really enjoy music. I mean
really which is what I was talking about in reference to the first 16 bars of Voodoo Child. So now you understand.


Anonymous said...

It's good to read about other peoples experiences with synthaesesia. Every time I get confused over things and mix them up because they are the same colour when I hear them, I generally get the funny looks and the 'What?!'. The music thing sounds groovy though!

Anonymous said...

It's good to read about other peoples experiences with synthaesesia. Every time I get confused over things and mix them up because they are the same colour when I hear them, I generally get the funny looks and the 'What?!'. The music thing sounds groovy though!

gabriela said...

I'm 17 and my sister is 15...and all these we thought it was normal to see numbers, letters days of the week, peopel etc in would be nie if you could tell me a little more about it.

The Goldfish said...

Check out this Wikipedia entry.
Also, The UK Synastheisa Association
and The American Synathesia Association. Hope that's helpful. :-)

Anonymous said...

im 16..but i dont know whether im a synesthete or not..bcause when i think of days, months,years or any other units, it will be in a calendar form or like a timetable and it will be in different green and red..and it helps me alot to memorise thinks that i need to do..
my question i a synesthete?

Anonymous said...

Hi! I am a least I think I am. About half (maybe a little more, maybe less) of the letters in the alphabet have colors to them (e.g. A is red, H is brown,T is black, K is pink, etc.). However all of my numbers have colors, and even personalities (e.g. 1 is quiet, 5 is a leader, 6 is bored, and 3 is just obnoxious). Crazy stuff!

Anonymous said...

I am wondering if i am an synesthete because i see some numbers as colors but i never get them mixed up but i have a gender and personality for every number. Am i a synesthete?