Monday, December 12, 2011

True Story: I Have Synaesthesia



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?

33 comments

  1. Thank you for this! the second test website link was great - I've always thought I had synasthesia because I just KNOW that 5 is red, as is November and Monday, and that D is blue etc etc. Now thanks to that site, I have a table of which colour I identify with each letter/number/day/month - I score as a synasthete on all 4 colour/ word ones. It also explained I'm an associative synasthete rather than a perceptive one. Thank you!

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  2. I have synaestesia, too. Never did know what it was, just that I had this thing with colours (and some other things relating to it). I was beyond 30 when I realised that there was a reason behind me not needing highlight markers in university. I already saw stuff in colour, adding a highlight marker just messed with my reading. And that not everyone has it, um ok. It's a fun "feature". Everyone seemed to know what it was but me.

    My Monday is red, as is july, august and part of september. Thursday is blue. wovels vary in colour and then it goes on. It probably sound truly and utterly weird but it's kinda interesting.

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  3. learned about this in psych and loved it!
    very cool post.
    not to mention, we both live in Atlanta.

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  4. Thanks for this - it is so interesting. Thought you might like to see this recent article from the guardian (uk newspaper) on the same subject:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/dec/05/synaesthesia-hearing-colours-mixing-senses

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  5. This was so fascinating! I have never heard anything like this but through half way of reading I was thinking about how amazing it would be to be a working artist with this capacity...and then I read the question about that. I shared this on facebook because I thought it was so interesting. Very neat.

    Sarah M

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  6. Wow, thanks for posting this! After looking at some of these links, I think I have spatial/number form synastesia... I never realized that visualizing days and months spatially (like in the picture) was unusual, but I guess it is and I do it. Very interesting article.

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  7. This is a really fascinating interview! I read a fair amount about musical synaesthesia in the book Musicophilia, but it's always interesting to learn more.

    I'm curious about what specifically Elle's musical synaesthesia is related to - is it pitches, key signatures, or just the mood of the music?

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  8. I have it too :) I've had grapheme - colour synaesthesia as long as I can remember and my graphemes alsp have personalities. Sometimes, I see colour in music, but it's not usually very strong (there are certain songs which set it off) butI do have perfect pitch as a result. I wrote a whole post about it here:
    http://daviniahamilton.com/category/synaesthesia/

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  9. Emily, it is usually related to the pitches of the music or cadence of one's voice. However, there can be a background color, that is related to the mood of a song. Like if there's a sad song, the background color would reflect that.hope that helped!

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  10. Thanks for sharing your story Elle. What a super awesome ability!!

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  11. Thanks for the insightful interview! I had never heard of this before and it's always great to learn more about others.

    A question for Elle, can you or have you been to music festivals/concerts before? If you have, was the experience heightened or was it all a bit "sensory overload"?

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  12. Olivia, yes I have. I see colors anytime I hear any sound, not just music. I am more likely to experience sensory overload on a city street hearing the loud sounds of cars, sirens, people talking, etc. At least with music, the colors are in a pattern, are predictable, and are nicer colors than the sounds if a big city. it all depends on the type of music. I take my younger sister to metal core concerts, and the dark sounds of the music coupled with the brightness of someone screaming can be too much to take! Screamo hurts my ears and eyes!
    As long as I concentrate, and am aware of my surroundings, I won't get lost in the colors.

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  13. I was so happy to see this! I, my mother, and my husband all have synaesthesia (incidentally we are all writers/artists). My mom and I didn't know what it was or that it was a "thing" until I was in my early 20's. We just thought it was a game we play in the car on road trips. A is a girl, B is a girl, C is a boy (and we'd argue about it). I see gender (all variants) or colours in everything even from letters & numbers to furniture and utensils. Like right now, as I read this, the word "gender" is red. The word "smell" is orange. The word "gender" is hermaphroditic, whereas "smell" is female. I smell the images I see (I collect November issues of magazines for this very reason...mmm turkey). I see words in type as they are spoken. I feel colours and sounds. It is a lovely condition in that I am surrounded by living breathing personality in all things. But it does keep we three from crowded places like malls...we all get highly overstimulated and exhausted in such places.
    ~lu
    www.acomfortablecreature.blogspot.com

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  14. Loved this post. Nabokov had synesthesia, so it has fascinated me for a long time.

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  15. I'm not sure if this is the same thing or not, but numbers have always had personalities to me. When I'd be doing math when I was a child, I'd always think "Seven is the impressionable number, eight is a kind number, nine is a mean number, and ten is the motherly number" etc, etc. I still get the same vibes, but I don't pay a lot of attention to it.

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  16. This might sound weird but I've always wished I had synesthesia. Why? I don't know. It seems like it would be kind of cool to experience the world so differently from everybody else.

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  17. Dear anon,
    Yes, that is synesthesia!

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  18. growing up, i used to talk about how the alphabet had personalities. A was the maternal, dominant letter and looked after B. B and C were best friends. M worried about N's closeness to Q because Q was a troublemaker and was grateful that O and P were between them. W was breaking up squabbles between U and V, who were often fighting over which letter was better (they were also a family, U, V, and W. U and V are brother and sister, W is female, but not their mother). i often got blank looks from my preschool teachers as i rambled on about the letters and their individual stories.

    i have less-specific stories for numbers, but they do have personality traits. i've always seen 3 as a very laid-back number that doesn't care who comes after it. perhaps not surprisingly, pi is my favorite number. 9 is a bit grumpy at times, but still a chilled out number. 2, 5, and 8 are all male.

    there are times i have flashes of images while listening to music, usually during vocal-free music, since there are no words to jumble up the experience. one of the reasons i took up art was because i was so struck by the pictures that i was driven by a need to recreate them.

    i believe my mom has some form of the color-word synesthesia, but i could be wrong. it isn't something that we've spent a lot of time talking about. she's fully aware of my alphabet personification, though.

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  19. I never knew it was unusual- i can't imagine what it must be like not to have synaesthesia. i am left-handed, terrible at maths and have a rubbish sense of direction but i have a good memory and am good at languages, art and creative writing. i have always associated letters and numbers with colours, and personalities for some of them. I associate days and months with colours.
    Nobody I know knows i have this- i gave up trying to explain my experiences to adults when i was a small child- they just looked at me strangely. I'm very excited because i always assumed everyone felt the same, and i'm only just beginning to think that maybe this is why i'm so good at art and languages and music and write a lot of stories for fun, but really struggle with maths. I was amazed about the left-handed thing too. Thanks so much for posting this!

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  20. oh yeah, and another thing- i am a really good speller. one of the best spellers i know. i never understood that before, but now i am certain that it's something to do with seeing all the letter-colours put together to make a word. for example, the word 'understood'- orange-yellow for the U, orange for the N, black D, green E, reddish-brown R, white S, yellow T, two white Os and another black D. if the colours don't look right to me then i know it's not spelt correctly

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  21. This is amazing! Amazing to hear about this type of synaesthesia and amazing to find out such talented artists (aka billy joel and john mayer) ahve the same thing I do! Wowww. I have it with numbers, colours, certain words days of the week, months and music notes. Go our super brains

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  22. I love My synesthesia! I have colored hearing and really couldn't imagine my life with out it. I mean when I was little (maybe about 7) I asked my older cousin (who was maybe 12 at the time) if she saw them too. She said it was just my imagination. That's when I figured out I was the only one. I actually just recently told my doctor about it. Then I went to the neaurologist and he said I have synesthesia! It's so great to know that I'm not the only one. That other people see it too! So I have officialy found "my people."

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  23. You know what's SO weird??
    I have the same 2 types!!!!!
    COINCEDENTAL MUCH???

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  26. Interesting stuff, thank you!

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  27. I have been diagnosed with synaethesia too, on a website on the Internet called the synaesthesia battery, but I have only percieve in my minds eye the colors, I don't actually see it on the paper. I also have linguistic personification.

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  28. I have synesthesia too! i see days and months as color, and i hear sounds when i touch things! i see colors in my mind but i think that my synesthesia would be cooler if i saw it on the paper.

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  29. It is really awsome..i dont know weather I have synesthesia or not but i always personify letters,words numbers.. into male and female.
    and also i used to get relationships b/w numbers and letters,and also sum stories b/w them...
    I thought every one has same feeling , but when i got to know about this,i asked my brother and sum others about how do they feel,they said noo,..
    its really awesome...i enjoy it now..

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  30. I think I might have mild synesthesia but I'm not sure. I took two tests and one said I have it and the other said no. I completely understand why everyone with synesthesia sees the world the way they do.
    I'm really good at math and I'm right-handed. I've always liked sequences and patterns. They are very comforting to me. When I was younger I used to think numbers had personalities and gender but not really anymore. I think I might have number form synesthesia. I see the year in a column going downward. June and July are the biggest months. I also see the week in a row and decades and years in a row. Some years are bigger and bolder than others. Its hard to see it when I think about it though. I associate certain months with colors and I always have to write them that way on my calendar and when I buy a calendar that is the wrong color it upsets me. I don't know if the color thing is really synesthesia because the colors I see are usually because of holidays. Like February is reddish-pink and July is a dark blue and December is a very pretty bright, dark red.
    I'm not sure if this is even in the synesthesia category but sometimes when certain people talk a certain way it makes me feel really good, like relaxed. Every time my younger step-sister would talk I would feel automatically relaxed. Is that weird? Do you think I have synesthesia?
    On another note, has any ever thought deja vu and synesthesia could be linked in some way?

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  31. link to my film about synesthesia



    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2cmRcnlL1kA

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