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What Is Synesthesia? My Experience Living With Synesthesia
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!"
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.
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.
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.