My name, to me, is yellow. This is because the letter K is yellow in my brain, therefore it colors the rest of my name, Kelli, in yellow. The number one is blue, the number two is red, and three is green. The song “The Geese of Beverly Road” by my favorite band, The National, is a swirling mix of deep emerald greens and flecks of gold. These colors dance across my mind’s eye, throughout my sub-conscious and conscious, as they come to mind, or are read or seen by me.
When I was in college over a decade ago, taking a psychology and sociology class, I learned that I had synesthesia. I sat in a large lecture hall with hundreds of other students, everyone bent over the same survey packet that would evaluate our personalities, our emotional history, our lives and so on — this would help the professor and his assistants sort us out into different studies, which is how we earned credit. As I answered each question (Have you ever experienced depression? Do you remember your childhood fondly?) I glanced up and looked at each friend on either side of me — they were pages ahead of me in the survey. I looked back down at my own packet of survey questions: Do you associate colors with numbers and letters? If no, skip to page 6. “Well of course I do,” I thought. Didn’t everyone?
Actually, everyone does not.
Image above: The colors my synesthesia associates to the above letters and numbers (the yellow is actually a bit hotter than what I see in my brain, but my 4-year-old didn’t have a warm yellow option so highlighter yellow will have to do).
Scientists believe about 3-5% of the population have some form of synesthesia — “a perceptual phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.” I also call this a “marriage of senses” when I’m describing it to people who say to me, “you have syne-WHAT?”
I learned of this neurological phenomenon of mine when I was called up by my professor and his staff, who told me there was just one other person on campus who they knew to have synesthesia. Mind you, my school had about 43,000 students on campus studying in some capacity. I spent the next several months sitting in classrooms with my professor’s teaching aids who’d ask me various questions about my perception of color (Did it extend to calendar months and days? Did it occur through music?) and have me color on numbered transparency sheets to try to convey the way in which my brain saw these hues.
I quickly fulfilled my credit requirements for the class, and participated in a few more studies to earn monetary compensation (a great bonus for a college kid!). It still was completely mind-blowing to me that other people did not experience the world this way — a way I lived life for some 20 years without knowing was rare.
After college, while I was working my first job out of school as a journalist at a large newspaper, fellow reporters would look at me with wide eyes when my synesthesia came up in newsroom conversation. Ever the information-seekers and voracious researchers, my coworkers would grill me on how I saw the world, eager to hear a firsthand take. “I’ve never met anyone with synesthesia before,” one of them said, “hold on I have to call my friend and tell them!”
Come to think of it, I’ve never met a fellow synesthete either.
One of the questions I’m asked regularly is if my brain’s color coding trips me up when I see numbers that don’t match my own personal code (i.e. if I see a red #1, because #1 is blue to me). The short answer to that is yes, but I would have a very hard time getting through the day if I got stressed out by every number, letter, or so on that didn’t match my mind’s eye. Therefore, I try to push past the fact that they don’t match my brain’s color coding, and this basically involves me not dwelling on the colors of numbers, letters, and so on. Black numbers and letters are the easiest for me to experience.
The second question I get asked is, do I use synesthesia to help me remember things? Absolutely — but I do this involuntarily. If I can’t remember what floor my doctor’s appointment is on, but I see green in my brain, I realize it’s on the third floor. This isn’t something I actively focus on, it’s just the way my brain works.
Image above: This is as close as I can come to showing, in a tangible way, how my brain experiences the color it associates with a number.
Another question often asked of me involves music and how that interplays with color in my mind. The best way to describe this is: do you remember the Windows PC screen savers that would pair with your music player and make swirling, color-changing displays on a black backdrop? It looks something like that. This occurs both when I listen to music, or simply if there is a song stuck in my head. I am most comforted by the songs or chords that color my neurological landscape with deep greens, and blues and purples. Those are the songs that I return to again and again, but I am not sure why.
The last most frequently asked question pertains to my view of calendar months, and if each month has a distinct color, or if I view them in a progressing gradient of colors from month to month. My answer is the latter — I would have a hard time pinpointing an exact color swatch to you of my color for, say, October, but it changes and fades into November, which changes and fades into December, and so on, a different color family for each month. I recently took a by the University of Sussex, a 43-minute online survey of sorts that helps map and measure synesthesia. I was repeatedly given the same numbers, letters, calendar months, days of the week, musical instruments and musical chords and had to use a wide-range color spectrum to assign the exact hue I associated for each (over and over again). My numbers, letters and musical chords were right-on the same pinpointed color every time, but my calendar months were a bit more varied because I see a spectrum of shades for each month and have a hard time focusing on one exact color.
But color and number/letter/calendar/etc. association is just one of the many forms of synesthesia (called grapheme-color synesthesia). Some people taste certain words or sounds; others can feel sound on their skin.
If you have a hunch you might have synesthesia, you can take a test like the I took. I’m so curious since I’ve never interacted with another synesthete — do you have or think you have synesthesia? Do you know someone who does? I’d love to hear more in the comments! —