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What Is Synesthesia? My Experience Living With Synesthesia

Updated on March 5, 2012

Playing The Blues -- Literally

For as long as I can remember, I've associated musical notes with colors: C is red, G is blue, F is green, A is red-brown, B-flat is gold, etc. I also associate the accompanying musical keys with colors - for instance, any piece that's in G is "blue" in my mind.

Over the years, I've used this to my advantage; having this "color-coding" system in my head gives me a point of reference for notes and allows me to play pretty much anything by ear. Last year, for example, I played over an hour of popular music on my flute for my friend's cocktail hour at her wedding. I performed about 50 songs from the Beatles to Billy Joel ... and never once picked up a piece of music (even though I'm trained classically and am skilled at reading music). Using my little system, I was automatically able to put all of the notes together.

Until about two years ago, I had no idea how odd my condition is. My dad plays piano by ear and so did many of the musicians in my college jazz band. But when I told a musician friend that the piece she and I just played was "blue" to me, her eyes lit up with excitement.

"Oh my God, that's so cool ... you have synesthesia!"

Say WHAT?

Being A Synesthete

As it turns out, I have a neurological condition that's fairly rare, affecting about 1 out of 25,000 people. That makes me pretty unique! It's often genetic (though I don't know any relatives who have it) and involves the brain mixing up senses. In my case, my hearing and visual cues get crossed when it comes to music. Other people taste words, hear colors or smell sounds. Some believe that the condition is more common than thought, but for now, it seems to only affect a small number of people.

Compared to others, my synesthesia is fairly mild. The only time I really experience it is with music. Others have it to the point where it can be crippling. I recently watched a documentary on the Discovery Channel where a man could taste every word that he heard or spoke. The program also featured a woman who could "see" each individual note in a piece, as if a rainbow were there. I don't -- I see individual notes when only one note is played at a time, but if a full piece is being played, I see the color more in terms of the key.

People have asked how I "see" the notes. To better clarifty, I don't actually see them -- there's no big blue note floating in front of me like a hallucination. Instead, the color is in my mind; it's more like a perception of blue or green than anything. What's interesting is that they've done studies on blind people with synesthesia and even they can see colors in their heads; in doing brain scans of these synesthetes, they've found that the portion of the mind that allows us to view colors is active when they're experiencing synesthesia.

Extraordinary Synaesthetes

What Causes Synesthesia?

Well ... the truth is, scientists aren't 100 percent sure. Some believe that the region of the brain which receives information from the ears gets some from the eyes, or vice versa. In short, the wirings in a synesthete's brain are crossed.

Other researchers theorize that people with synesthesia are more in tune with their limbic systems (the emotional center of the brain which is involved in creating memories). Because synesthetes are more conscious of the process of memories being put together, they have more of an association between the senses. In other words, a note may be associated with a certain color due to something experienced in early childhood.

In regards to that man who could taste words, this seemed to be indeed true. When he put together a comprehensive list of which tastes corresponded to which words, there were definite patterns, i.e. all words with the sound "ike" in them tended to taste the same -- bike, like, Mike. There was a certain series of words that tasted like a candy from his childhood that's no longer sold ... indicating that memory did play into this.

Honestly, I'm not sure what role memory plays in my synesthesia. I suppose that B-flat is gold to me because back in high school we'd always warm up on a B-flat scale in band and I associate band with brass instruments, as well as our marching band whose uniforms were gold and black (our school's colors). However, B-flat was gold to me even before I entered high school, so this doesn't exactly fit.

Many synesthetes have a terrific memory, so I definitely fit the bill there. In addition to being able to put together music by ear, I remember all sorts of details about everything that most people don't. I can name what people wore on certain days from years ago. When I was about 3, I freaked the hell out of my mother because I started describing in vivid detail what the neighbor's Christmas tree looked like. I'd seen it, all right ... a few years ago when I was a baby. I have no idea whether my memory is indeed connected to my musical abilities, but I find all of the research being done in regards to synesthesia fascinating.

Cross-Wired Senses

Synesthesia -- A Natural Gift?

I personally love having synesthesia. It's helped me so much with my music career and I credit it for sparking some of my creativity. I mean, there could be worse things wrong with me than seeing colors when I hear music. I think it takes me to a different level with it and allows me to enjoy sounds in a way that many people don't get to experience.

So am I a little weird? Well, I guess so. But being unique in this world is what living's all about ... and I'm all for appreciating the gifts we're given.

Comments

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    • profile image

      Bruce 

      4 years ago

      link to my film about synesthesia

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

    • Slarty O'Brian profile image

      Ron Hooft 

      7 years ago from Ottawa

      I can perceive numbers as different colors. It was more marked when I was in grade one and two. But if I think about it it still happens and the colors are the same as when I was small.

      It is a very interesting topic and hub. Thanks to Spirit whisperer for telling me about it.

    • Spirit Whisperer profile image

      Xavier Nathan 

      7 years ago from Isle of Man

      I have never heard of this before and I don't see why colour has to be perceived visually. The mind is quite amazing and when I hear things like this it makes me realise so many other things about the mind. Thank you for sharing this truly great hub and making me aware of this wonderful way of perceiving colour. I have voted you up here and also your answer on Quora. I have also edited your answer to include a back link to this hub.If there was more I could do for you I would but I will certainly be visiting your hubs more regularly.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      7 years ago from England

      Hi, I have just been commenting to someone about my synesthesia and decided to see if anybody else had written about it. I always thought it was normal! it wasn't until I saw a tv programme about it that I realised that it was rather rare. I don't associate colours with music, I just see letters and words. for example I chose the name Nell because it is bright blue, my real name is Melanie which is red and black. it is funny because, all depending on the word or persons name, the whole context of the colour and pattern can change according to the letters around it, for example the letter J is beige, but if it is in the name Jess then it is red because an s is bright red! very complicated, but I totally agree with you on the memory and remembering things, I can remember so much from years ago, even conversations. I belong to mensa, which I passed about 20 years ago, probably couldn't do it now though! but a lot of it is purely memory. the one thing that my brother and I did find strange was that when I asked him, 'if you imagine writing down the days of the week on a piece of paper, which way would you write it?' instead of it being left to right, ie, monday, tuesday etc, in both of our minds we 'see' it as right to left! monday is on the far right, colmunating with saturday far left! maybe another twist in the synapses! cheers nell

    • 'Lisha Danae profile image

      'Lisha Danae 

      8 years ago

      Thanks. I've published two hubs about it now (I had to divide it because it would have been too big). They probably aren't as good as yours, but oh well. It is what it is. ^_~

    • NaomiR profile imageAUTHOR

      NaomiR 

      8 years ago from New York

      Thanks! It'll be interesting to hear about your experiences, as well. It's a fascinating topic and more is always coming out on it in the science community.

    • 'Lisha Danae profile image

      'Lisha Danae 

      8 years ago

      Wow! I loved your article. Interesting, clear, and to the point. I also have synesthesia and was actually about to start (and will still write) my own hub on the subject when I came across this one by chance. I've seen all of those videos before and they sure are interesting. Thanks for posting!

    • rmcrayne profile image

      rmcrayne 

      8 years ago from San Antonio Texas

      I have heard of synesthesia before and find it fascinating. It sounds like for you, there is no down side. Thanks for sharing your personal story. Happy Holidays.

    • Mezo profile image

      Motaz 

      8 years ago from Egypt

      wow! that's amazing, interesting and is a gift of course... :)

      keep it up :)

    • Sybil Marie profile image

      Sybil Marie 

      8 years ago

      Wow Naomi, that was so interesting! I have read just a bit about this but hearing from you about your experience was fabulous. What a great hub! I look forward to hearing more about this!

    • keira7 profile image

      keira7 

      9 years ago

      Hi NaomiR, lovely hub my dear. I really wish I had synesthesia too. :) Thanks for sharing my dear. See you soon:)

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