For me, the Beatles’ White Album is actually a canary yellow affair. Meanwhile, Jay Z’s Black Album is really a cobalt blue record, and Orbital’s Brown Album should really be known as the Bottle Green Album in my opinion. AC/DC’s anthem Back in Black is in fact Back in Crimson, Donovan’s Mellow Yellow is mellow pink, and Jimi Hendrix’s Red House is actually painted carrot orange. Mondays and the letter B are navy blue, the number 8 and G major chords are brilliant purple, and the word irresolute is largely silver. My mother is royal yellow, my father is dark purple, and my brother is forest green. Numbers, letters, words, geographic locations, dates, times, notes, chords, songs, and people all carry consistent colour associations - but I’m not mad.
Synesthesia (from the Ancient Greek syn “together”, and aisthēsis “sensation”) is a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. People with synesthesia are called synesthetes. Studies have conflictingly suggested that synesthesia may effect anywhere from .05% to 4% of the populous.
The condition comes in many forms, and subjects have variously reported experiencing the sound of a car door slamming or the pitch of a piano’s middle C evoking a certain colour, seeing mentally coloured letters and numbers, perceiving the number one as being “further away” than the number two, constructing abstract mental maps of number forms whenever they think of a number, feeling certain sensations as the result of hearing certain sounds, experiencing a sensation when they see someone else experience that same sensation, and tasting a particular taste when they hear a certain word spoken. Every one of these phenomenons, and more, belong to at least one of the various sub-forms of synesthesia.
My associations as I reported above represent something of a mixed bag, which isn’t an uncommon experience; many synesthetes report combinations of subtypes. I have fairly mild forms of both grapheme-colour synesthesia (in which numbers and letters - graphemes - are associated with particular colours) and chromesthesia (in which particular notes, keys, and sounds elicit unique colours). There are also indefinable things - I have no idea why Detroit is indigo blue or my brown and white Jack Russell terrier is in fact fire truck red - thrown into the mix; the musician Dev Hynes told The Fader that the Empire State Building clearly evokes a Gmaj9 chord for him. As with any synesthete, every association I have is always the same, and they occur completely automatically. I cannot re-program an association, prevent one from happening, or forget one once a trigger has been encountered and a link to a colour has been forged.
I clearly remember the first time I realised that these experiences were not usual. Reading a music magazine in my teens, I happened across an interview with the British rapper Roots Manuva. He was promoting his 2005 record Awfully Deep and talking about how he had composed that record so as to maintain a distinct silver tint throughout; I read on, not noticing anything out of the usual in this approach until he attributed this silver mindset to a condition I had never heard of with a weird name. After a little bit of research, it quickly became apparent that nobody in my immediate family shared in my colour associative experiences, and after much research and testing I came to identify and enjoy synesthesia as I experience it.
For almost all synesthetes, their associative experiences are something to enjoy. It is not listed in either the DSM-IV or the ICD because - like perfect pitch - synesthesia is really more of a neurological phenomenon than a condition. In fact, perfect pitch and synesthesia often occur hand-in-hand, and certainly people with strong chromesthesia may be able to easily identify notes, chords, and keys simply through mental colour coding. Only rarely does synesthesia negatively impact a person’s normal life, as in the case of sub-types such as misophonia, where negative emotions like hatred and fear are triggered by certain sounds.
Overall, very little research has been done into synesthesia, though a 2013 study found that sufferers of autism may be as much as three times more likely to experience synesthesia. Not much is known about the origins of synesthesia, though it is typically thought to be strongly influenced by genetics and/or early childhood development. Says Carol Steen, an artist and founder of the American Synesthesia Association:
“I came back from college on a semester break, and was sitting with my family around the dinner table, and – I don’t know why I said it – but I said, 'The number five is yellow.' There was a pause, and my father said, 'No, it’s yellow-ochre.' And my mother and my brother looked at us like, ‘this is a new game, would you share the rules with us?’”
The prevailing analysis of the mechanism of synesthesia posits that the phenomenon’s perceptual overlaps are due to so-called “crossed wires” between regions of the brain whose functions become entwined. Regions involved in the identification of graphemes lie adjacent to one of the main regions involved in color-processing, for instance. A normal developmental process called pruning usually partially eliminates the connections between certain parts of the brain, but many scientists believe that in a synesthete’s brain some pruning processes may have failed and led to cross-activation.
Due to its inherently expressive and unusual nature, synesthesia has long been a source of inspiration for creative minds. The writer Vladimir Nabokov, the painters Vincent van Gogh and David Hockney, the inventor Nikola Tesla, and musicians including Duke Ellington, Billy Joel, Aphex Twin, and Pharrell Williams have all identified as synesthetes, and the list of creative names linked to the phenomenon stretches on. Isaac Newton and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe theorised that colour tones and musical tones shared frequencies, while Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Liszt were said to have lent credibility to their mad-genius reputations by respectively referring to B minor as being black and D major as being orange, and instructing an orchestra “a little bluer, if you please!”, and “That is a deep violet, please, depend on it! Not so rose!”
For my part, I believe that most every person has the ability to visualise and connect sensory experience. It is the same as imagining our home when we are on vacation, or the face of a loved one who is no longer with us; our mind is abundant with memory and perceptual links. Certain images which we conjure up will elicit certain emotional responses, and certain emotional responses will elicit certain images - all occurring within our mind’s powerful eye.
For instance, if we picture a sheet of plain craft paper, entirely painted bright yellow, we are able to see it in our mind’s eye. Try this experiment, with eyes closed, and let the yellow colour shine for a moment in your inner mind. Somewhere deep behind your eyes you can see yellow, without the perception of that colour actually interfering with your thoughts in any particular way. We all have this ability; the only difference in the mind of a synesthete - or at least, in the mind of this synesthete - is that such mental images are inalienable to certain triggers in our environment. For instance, I see yellow within my mind much as you just have, but automatically; whenever I see the letter S, hear Dayvan Cowboy, or think about Tuesdays, and so on. Every colour in every shade has such associations.
Have you ever closed your eyes in the sunlight, and let the slowly shifting outside rays create changeable colours and subtle patterns on the inside of your lids? As I listen to Frédéric Chopin’s second Nocturne in E-flat major, I experience something similar: waves of gorgeous cerulean that is alternately pale and dark wash over me, like a blue-hued kaleidoscope that moves in perfect harmony to the song’s plaintive pace. In the 30th bar, when the pianist is urged to play con forza, and harsh chords rapidly begin to descend before reaching a resolve, the palette of the piece darkens and finishes at a tone of gorgeous midnight blue. The sensory bliss that such a piece evokes is awe-inspiring, beautiful, and breath-taking.
When everything has an association with a colour, everything takes on another dimension; a private, personal dimension that feels unique to your experience. Every one of my favourite pieces of music - songs that mean the world to me, like LCD Soundsystem’s All My Friends, Elliott Smith’s Angeles, Beethoven’s Sonata 14 in C-sharp minor, Songs: Ohia’s Blue Chicago Moon, and the Beatle’s Yesterday - carry me into worlds purely their own, totally inaccessible by other means. They are emotional weights that cannot help but pull me in the direction of the music, down roads by which I relish the journey. But the synesthetic associations make up merely one layer of this complex experience; the myriad unique memories I associate with each track comprise yet another, still more potent element of their personal meaning.
There comes a point at which any phenomenon, condition, or disorder is considered separate from what most people experience at one time or another and becomes worthy of diagnosis. Synesthesia is no different; we are sensory and visual creatures by nature, and using imagination it is possible for anybody to use outside information to enrich the experience of life. After all, how many artists have drawn on the sounds and sights of a youthful summer, or on the cold palette of a winter’s day? Such inspirations and experiential connections are natural ways of interpreting and expressing the world and indeed ourselves.
That for some these connections are made automatically is not the point. Our minds are endlessly complex; as the human race explores deep space and the secrets of existence, much of what lies inside each of our bodies remains a mystery. Synesthetic experience is but one sensory firework display amidst the brilliant carnival of our human forms.
The associations and emotional currents that run through my mind as a result of synesthesia are very precious to me and form a part of my unique perspective on the world, for which I will always be thankful. Yet when I think of the power of any mind turned to imagination and inspiration I am humbled. After all, there is no suggestion Claude Monet ever employed something like synesthesia to paint his masterpieces, yet few have ever interpreted their world to such staggering effect. Each of us has a unique perspective, along with the power to weave light, form sound, craft function, and seek meaning; I am reminded that this world is only ever what we make it, what we interpret it to be. Picture that.
If you enjoyed this article, please support Innocuist by subscribing to our email newsletter. We are a small independent blog, and we would love to have you as a reader. Our emails are only sent out when new articles are published, so you'll never miss the latest posts.
Thank you for reading!