© 2006 All Rights Reserved. Do not distribute or repurpose this work without written permission from the copyright holder(s).
Printed from https://www.damninteresting.com/curio/do-you-see-what-i-hear/
Human beings are very metaphoric creatures. We love to juxtapose the experience of one sense with another. Whether it’s taste with touch – a sharp cheese, a smooth finish to a beer, or sight with sound – “I see what you’re saying,” or smell with sight – a putrid color.
For some people though, this kind of joining isn’t metaphoric, it’s how they experience the world. The phenomenon is called synesthesia, and while rare it’s very real. Synesthetics have one sense, or more, that responds to sensations from an unrelated sense. The most common form of synesthesia is called colored hearing. The people who have it get impressions of color, and sometimes of shape from the sounds that they hear. The responses may be for only a few specific kinds of sound – loud, sudden noises, for instance, or they may color every sound the synesthetic hears. Other sense pairings have also been found: taste with touch, sight with smell, and in one instance, sound with kinesthesia (body positioning). Synesthetics tend to have strong emotional responses to their experience, often pleasurable, though not always, and are distressed if their synesthesia is blocked in some way. They also tend to have extremely good memories, particularly in regard to their affected sense.
For many decades when neurology was first blooming as a modern science, synesthesia was not a recognized condition. It left no signs in the brain structures, so it couldn’t be seen on a CAT scan or an MRI. It produced no signs of disease or abnormality in neurological tests. The only evidence for synesthesia was the reports of the people who had it, and they were mostly dismissed as hallucinating or insane. Most synesthetics quickly learned not to report their odd way of seeing the world, lest they be considered crazy.
Then in 1980 a neurologist named Richard Cytowic began exploring synesthesia, starting with a neighbor who experienced flavors as shapes. Over the next several years he was able to establish that synesthesia had nothing to do with the imagination. Instead synesthetic experience seems to arise from the limbic system, well before conscious thought enters the picture. The limbic system is heavily involved in emotion and memory, which makes sense of the synesthetic’s typical emotional response and vivid memory. The limbic system and its connections to the cerebrum tend to act as a filter for the consciousness, sorting information from the senses, deciding what deserves to be brought to the attention of the conscious mind. That filtering function seems to provide the barriers that keep our senses discrete. In the synesthetic, the conscious mind seems to be accessing the sensory data at an earlier stage in the game, so that it arrives with all the additional impressions that would normally be filtered out.
At least one neurologist has opined that everyone is, or rather has been a synesthetic. Her belief is that babies may experience the world in this way until their developing cortex allows them to segregate sensory inputs. Some evidence for this comes from adults with newly acquired disabilities. Damage to a sensory system can lead to temporary synesthesia as another sense stimulates a response in the newly unused one. The newly blind, for instance, may suddenly experience colored hearing, with bolts or blots of color arising in response to sounds. The effect fades over time. If the source of synesthesia is indeed the filtering of data from the limbic system, then the synesthesia would be a result of the attempt to fill in the sudden blanks, and resultant confusion over what is important in the remaining sensory input. The fading would occur as the brain adjusts to its new state.
If this last hypothesis is true, then down deep in all of our memories is a repository of synesthetic experience. Could this be what gives us our inherent love of metaphor?
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As a recording engineer I’ve worked with more than one producer who described sound as colors. It was up to me to figure out what I had to do to make is sound “more green.”
BarryW said: “As a recording engineer I’ve worked with more than one producer who described sound as colors. It was up to me to figure out what I had to do to make is sound “more green.””
It is pretty common in music to describe music with colors. Colors have many meanings, and many people use them do describe feelings or things they percive. For example, I could say I have the blues. That doesn’t nessarily mean I have synesthesia, though.
You should check out this guy…. Daniel Tammet
in an interview he claims when calculating a number he sees a specific shape and color for each number and then merges thim together into one new shape and color… this is the answer so he actually calculates the numbers without actually doing any math.
I’ve also read an article about someone who could taste everything he touched. The particular example they wrote about was how he rolled hamburger meat between his hands and he could taste it in his mouth. I’ve always wondered how that worked – was it neurological? Was the brain somehow getting the nerves in his hands confused with his tastebuds? Anyone care to elaborate?
That’s funny. I’ve seen that too.
Musicians very often attribute colors to sounds, and more specifically, to notes and keys. Many of them agree on what colors to give certain notes. Doing so is a proven trick to lead oneself to perfect pitch. But, of course, this is not synesthesia at all, as it is just a clever trick of describing and creating mental pictures.
(I meant to quote BarryW)
karphi said: “That’s funny. I’ve seen that too.
Musicians very often attribute colors to sounds, and more specifically, to notes and keys. Many of them agree on what colors to give certain notes. Doing so is a proven trick to lead oneself to perfect pitch. But, of course, this is not synesthesia at all, as it is just a clever trick of describing and creating mental pictures.”
Exactly what I meant. I’ve spent a lot of time rehearsing music, and this is something we do to get better. I would never think for a moment, however, that I have synthesia.
LSD can create temporary synthesia as well.
spinflip said: “LSD can create temporary synthesia as well.”
That’s what I was about to say. Maybe these people are all on acid.
It sounds really cool. Listening to music would put you in your very own 60’s music video.
MaddMan said: “That’s what I was about to say. Maybe these people are all on acid.”
More like acid screws up your limbic system. :-)
Don’t do drugs, kids – your life will become a 60s music video!
Synesthesia is so cool, I wish I had it.
Oliver Sacks wrote an excellent book called The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, which is all about neurological things like this. It’s absolutely fascinating, well worth the read if you find this kind of stuff interesting.
ballaerina said: “I’ve always wondered how that worked – was it neurological? Was the brain somehow getting the nerves in his hands confused with his tastebuds? Anyone care to elaborate?”
It’s most probably the brain “remembering” the taste when he touched something he’d eaten before. I wonder if it worked with his eyes shut?
I saw a program on this also. I remember it being a woman who “saw” language and speaking in colors. She did not know she was different for some time; I believe she was an adult and saw another program on it when she realized she had synesthesia.
I remember having very strong associations as a child – for example one TV program had a very strong association with the small and taste of cheesy puffs. I don’t actually remember eating them while watching it, but it must’ve happened once.
And I’m sure we all have really strong memories attached to smells – the two-stroke fuel smell from small motorbikes and scooters always reminds me of going skiing (because of the ski-doos I guess), and diesel is a very strong reminder of summers on my dad’s boat. Also cold winter days have a certain smell which always takes me back to childhood winters.
I doubt this qualifies as full-fledged synesthesia, but whenever I’m startled by a loud sound, I experience a flash across my visual field. I’m not often startled like that, just enough to make note of it.
I do remember having a strong association as a child between colors and certain subjects in school. Math was red, science was blue, history was definitely green. My folders for each subject had to be those colors or it seemed wrong. This was probably not synesthesia either – just a strong association I picked up early and stuck with.
I had a synesthetic girlfriend. She never wanted to talk about it though. She said hearing my name was orange.
For me the letter “A” is red. I suspect that is because of how the teacher in first grade taught us to read, however I’m not sure I could actually relate it now. It isn’t how anything else stuck though.
I read about this in Discover Magazine years ago, when I was in Middle School. I was, and still am incredibly jealous of these people. I guess because I’m an artist I think that would be incredible inspiration.
ever since i was a baby i associated letters, words, numbers and musical notes with colours. that is, when i see or hear something, i ‘feel’ a certain colour. for example, 1 ‘feels’ white, 2 red, 3 yellow etc… i didn’t realise it was something abnormal until a high school friend pointed it out for me. i found out about synesthesia in the last year of high school… i think my condition is specifically called psychochromesthesia. i quite like it… it makes my life a bit more interesting :D
To lois84, obviously you have no intention of discussing the topic at hand, so please stop inundating this forum with useless blather.
blademonki said: “I had a synesthetic girlfriend. She never wanted to talk about it though. She said hearing my name was orange.”
I first read that as “synthetic girlfriend” and about shot sprite through my nose.
I work as a gondolier, singing Italian songs and giving Gondola rides. After a ride, a young girl made
the comment that while I was singing, she smelled spaghetti sauce.
to cocoabongo, whoa dude take it easy. i just thought some people might want to hear what it is like actually having synaesthesia.
I’ve got that for words and numbers… Oddly enough, words tend to be a solid color, while numbers are multicolored… Often I can remember a number by remembering its colors rather than what it was. I also for some reason find names more attractive when they are red-orange (usually from the letters a, k, or p) or olive-green (from the letters d or g). Go figure.
To lois84 and Dementia: These experiences are fascinating. Thank you for sharing them. I am an “artistic soul” (that is someone with no talent, but a lot of desire!) and I really envy synesthetics. Compared to your experiences, my senses seem very uni-dimensional. Enjoy your gifts.
Cocoabongo, what is your problem? Lois 84’s comment was totally relevant!
Geezer said: “I work as a gondolier, singing Italian songs and giving Gondola rides. After a ride, a young girl made
the comment that while I was singing, she smelled spaghetti sauce.”
OT: hey geezer, what songs do you sing on the gondola? really interested in those songs. email@example.com
I would say from my experience that synesthesia is a mixed blessing. My girlfriend has it and she is a painter. Obviously a Colourist. she also sees peoples aura’s and can tell their mood. But in a crowded shopping arcade sometimes i have to lead her out because it is too much. She also mixes numbers together to come out with the right coloured answer. we are now waiting to see if our 18 month old daughter has it.
I’m synesthetic, the ‘touch->color’ kind. I had no idea something was “wrong” with me untill I first found out about it. I thought everyone saw things in this way.
It’s hard to describe though, when I hug or touch my pillow softly. I feel purple in my head and when I close my eyes I can see the purple inside my head. An when the pillow case wrinkles in my hand the purple moves, red and pink comes softly like in waves, like at the beach (odd but that’s the best description I can come up with).
And wood has always been in shades of green, wether it’s a freshly sandpapered and dusty surface, which feels dark green. Or bark (is that the word?) from a tree in the woods, which feels close to limegreen.
But synesthesia doesn’t conflict with anything for me. It’s always there but I can focus on something else. I still feel the colors in the back of my head but they don’t disturb me.
Just like when you’re sitting at the computer, playing with a pen in your hand while you come across something interesting. You forget about the pen for a second but it’s still there, in your hand.
Well I hope you understood all that… It’s difficult to describe.
I’m not angry at everyone who says it’s something bad and that I’m mentally disturbed, in fact, I pity them.
Their world will always be one dimensional and bland.
lois84 said: “ever since i was a baby i associated letters, words, numbers and musical notes with colours. that is, when i see or hear something, i ‘feel’ a certain colour. for example, 1 ‘feels’ white, 2 red, 3 yellow etc… i didn’t realise it was something abnormal until a high school friend pointed it out for me. i found out about synesthesia in the last year of high school… i think my condition is specifically called psychochromesthesia. i quite like it… it makes my life a bit more interesting :D”
I have had almost the exact same experience!
I am year 11 (that’s in Australia. I think I am currently in American 10th grade becaue our school year starts in January) and I only just found out (only just being about three weeks ago) that not everyone does this. For me, letters, numbers and words are colours. I don’t specifically “see” the colours, but, as lois84 said, i “feel” them in my mind. they are just “there”. However, I don’t get colours when i hear words, and i don’t get them for music either.
I also learn japanese, and french is my equal first language with english – ie i speak french at home to my parents and siblings, but at school i speak english – and i find that i get synesthetic experiences in just the same way with all languages. Japanese characters, kanji, are very complex colours, as they are very complex to look at, and often have several syllables to a letter.
I have a friend with synesthesia, as well, but she sees personalities as colours. interestingly, she also has mild asperger’s syndrome. Apparently she sees me as a translucent blue, but i always see my name (Genevieve) as light purple-y gray.
I was under the impression that color-grapheme synesthesia (seeing letters in color) was the most common, not color-sound. I’ve got color-grapheme… I read an article when I was pretty young about color-sound and really, really wished I could have an experience like that. I had no idea that seeing letters in color was unusual or synesthetic in any way.
I got into writing when I was about 12, and always tried to get the names of my characters to have the proper balance of colors in them. I asked my mom for ways to “get this name more green” and she just gave me a bewildered look. (Getting things green is rather difficult, as only A and 2 are green for me.)
It’s hard to make people understand I don’t see the colors on the paper, but in my head. It’s not distracting while reading… I can’t really explain it. The colors are there, but they sort of fade into the background of my consciousness. Numbers tend not to do this and always jump out at me; I was really great at memorizing chemical formulas and charges on ions when I took chemistry. But this does have a bad side; when in math classes I sometimes find it hard to look at the board, especially if there’s a slew of ugly numbers. I particularly hate the combination of 1, 2, 7, and 5 (white, green, hot pink, and red) because those are the most obnoxious numbers. 27, however, is familiar and reassuring to me, as is 29 (green and brownish gold.)
That seems to be a great gift you have! Just curious, when you got a box of 64 crayons, did you arrange them by color and or by number? Are higher numbers mixes and shades of colors? Such a fanstinating way to see the world! Probally scary at times, but what an attribute!
I have had a great visual perseption and when listening to music, I can visualize, much like forming a picture an author illustrates while writing. The benefits of higher thought! Big fan of visualization! Had that process diminish for a few years, not a fun time… I find reading and browsing helps keep visualization alive and well!
Just read a related article today on CNN.com.
They discovered that auditory-visual (sound-color) synesthesia was linked to regions on four different chromosomes, meaning that the cause is more complex than originally supposed. They don’t really say much more than that about the genetic origins of synesthesia. The article mostly describes the condition and how it manifests itself. One fascinating tidbit is the speculation over a possible link between synesthesia and Asperger’s syndrome, citing a man with both conditions who has memorized 22,000 digits of pi.
Here’s the link:
Just some additional info on a great DI article!
Yeah, that’s not synesthesia, that’s the third- or fourth-grade teacher’s assignments for which subject goes with which divider in the binder. I have similar associations. The dividers came in a pack of five: red (math), clear/white (English), blue (history), orange (science), and yellow (blank paper). These associations stuck with me throughout my education: my Calculus binder was red because the math divider tab had been red since well before long division, et cetera. Things got confusing around middle school when there were suddenly electives and languages and more than four classes and I had to add green (Latin) and other, less constant, colors.
I had a synesthetic classmate. She was the only one who did better than I did on every test, probably directly because of her grapheme-color synesthesia.
Since this here was the last comment i just use this article to respond to Alan and his bro.
Some of you here probably don’t like it that i am mentioning this again, but I don’t care.
You guys are saying that you feel so bad that Alan can’t write anymore or is not feeling well okay that can happen, but what i don’t get then is why he and his brother are feeling so good on twitter and are using other sites / links to put down stories on there twit site .
Again they are totally in there right to do what ever they want to do but i don’t feel bad for them,
my opinion is that they just don’t care anymore about DI, and that’s a shame,
since they got so many followers.
This site is actually the site that DI is following now so I’ll just put it on here now.
All DI readers just enjoy this site http://www.randomhistory.com/
And Alan and Jason your not the only ones who make D I stories.
Just a short follow up about my comment down here,
Alan and Jason don’t get me wrong, I bought your book and it’s great, one of the better books i ever read.
And it is way to low priced it should be priced around $ 20.00 because of the good stories.
I recommended it to all my friends and clients, and give it away as a gift, you should bring out a follow up.
I know you both can write good articles again, just wanted to let you know i am still a fan despite the lack of news or communication.
Frank G ;-))
I’ve written an article, and another was mostly done, but hard to finish them when I have no idea if/when will be used.
Thank you Jason for the fast reply,
I am (and probably a lot of other fans here) are looking forward to read your articles.
And hoping also that the site keeps going after Juli 2010.
Enter your comment here.
This got me thinking about the Brown Noise
I have what I’ll term partial color-sound synesthesia. Like the poster Stephen Gordon above, I see flashes when I hear loud sounds, but only when my eyes are closed.
When my eyes are open, I will physically startle at loud sounds, especially if I cannot see the source directly. When my eyes are closed and someone slams a door, I will see a flash of red or white, and often my body will jerk enough to rouse me. I think the colors are associated with any anger I might perceive in the noise. If I hear loud voices, pounding footsteps, etc. I think it tends to be red. Loud noises without any accompanying sounds seem to be white. That’s the extent of it, though.
However, there are times when I have my glasses off and I have the strangest sensation that I can see individual molecules of air move. I have never done hallucinogens in my life and do not drink or smoke. I do, however, suffer from mental illness that is unrelated to but can have schizotypal symptoms (which includes hallucinations). I have experienced auditory hallucinations during times of extreme stress and it is like hearing a radio playing music a few rooms away with the door shut. You can hear vague music or perhaps people talking, but nothing is distinguishable. I wonder if there is a correlation with mental illness and synesthesia.
So if you have sound to colour, do you always see colour? What if you look away or close your eyes?