This is one of many True Story interviews, in which we talk to people who have experienced interesting/amazing/challenging things. This is the story of Elle and her Synaesthesia.
Tell us a bit about yourself!
My name is Elle Sees, and I live in Atlanta, GA. I have a beauty and style blog (with a little bit of everything else for good measure). I love to travel (50 states, 19 countries—I’ve got to catch up with Ms. Von!), have recently become a pet owner to the adorable Charlie Brown, use parentheses excessively, and sometimes I pretend that I am a karaoke star.
For those of us who don't know, can you tell us what Synaesthesia is?
Synaesthesia is a rare neurological condition where the senses are crossed. It can happen genetically (me!), from brain injury, or rarely, from hallucinogenic drugs. There are supposedly 60 types of synaesthesia, and I have at least two. Synaesthesia occurs 1 in every 25,000 people.
The most common type is grapheme—color, where no matter what color letters are written/printed in, the synesthete will see them a certain color. For example, this sentence appears as all black to us, but to someone with this type of synaesthesia, it looks like a rainbow of colors. Rare types of synaesthesia include those who smell or taste when reading/hearing words.
I have two types: color—sound and linguistic personification. Many synesthetes have more than one type. Color—sound means when I hear music or sounds, I “see” a color that corresponds with it at the same time. It’s an involuntary reaction. It looks kind of like a spectrogram. If there are many sounds at once, it’s similar to seeing fireworks. High pitches have bright colors and low sounds have dark colors.
How old were you when you realized that you saw things differently than other people?
I’ve had synaesthesia as long as I can remember. Many don’t realize they have it, since they assume (like I did), that everyone sees the world this way. I recall telling teachers the gender of letters/numbers and getting curious looks. I remember telling family or friends that a certain song sounds like winter or this one sounds like purple. I didn’t realize what it was called until I looked up my “symptoms” years later. I just knew there had to be a name for it.
Have you ever been officially diagnosed?
Synaesthesia is very hard to fake. I’ve been diagnosed via this site and here, where there are several tests to help diagnose. Additionally, I’ve participated in studies to help further research. As far as I know, you either have synaesthesia or you don’t—there are no in-betweens. Characteristics of synesthetes are that they are usually women, intelligent, creative, usually left-handed (I’m not), have excellent photographic memories, are bad at math, spatial orientation, and directions.
Are there particular types of music that trigger your synesthesia?
Almost every sound, noise, or piece of music triggers it. Rap music sounds dark and black to me. Rock sounds brown, almost muddy. Pop music is usually bright colors—for example, U2’s “Beautiful Day” sounds so white and bright that it almost hurts my eyes to hear it. Lily Allen’s “The Fear” sounds ethereal and soft pastel colors.
Can you tell us what color and gender certain numbers are? Is there any 'reason' that these numbers are that specific color or gender? Or that's just how they feel to you?
I don’t have the common type of synaesthesia where I see colors when looking at letters/numbers, but many artists (Kandinsky), composers (Beethoven), and musicians (Billy Joel, John Mayer) do. The other type I have is linguistic personification. It’s when I see letters/numbers, my mind sees them as a gender. For example, the letter A is a girl letter and E looks like a boy. The number 2 is a boy letter and 4 is a girl. As far as what gender letters/numbers are, it’s just the way it “feels” to me based on the way they look.
Does anyone else in your life have synesthesia? How do people react when you tell them about it?
Not that I know of, but I don’t really tell many people I have it, and out of those, I’ve only encountered one person who probably had linguistic personification. The reactions I get are inquisitive and positive and I try very hard to explain to them what I “see.” You know how you “see” a memory in your mind’s eye? As in maybe a song or a smell will remind you of something/someone? In addition to the memory, I see color(s) as well.
Are there any benefits to having synesthesia? Any drawbacks?
I don’t see any drawbacks to having it, but I sometimes I can experience sensory overload. For example, if I hear a loud siren while talking to someone, it will be hard to concentrate because I’ll see flashes of white light that pulse to the sound of the siren. The same thing happens if I’m on a busy city street—just think how overwhelming all the sounds can be!
As far as benefits go, I think it’s a great way to go through life. Some music is just so beautiful with all the colors that I get goose bumps or tear up. Synesthetes have excellent memories, so that’s another benefit (my earliest memory is 21 months old!). I consider having Synaesthesia a gift.
What advice would you give to someone who thinks they might have Synaesthesia?
It should be noted that having synaesthesia does not mean that something is “wrong” with you. It doesn’t need to be treated in any way. If you think you might have Synaesthesia, go online. You’ll find plenty of resources and can identify what type(s) you have.
Do any of you have Synaesthesia? Any questions for Elle?