Sep 2, 2019

3 min read

Synesthesia — The Science of Mixed Signals

The image you see above won’t look familiar to you, but I’ve been seeing something like it for my entire life. For as long as I can remember, the number three has always been orange; the number eight always green. I did not choose the colors (because really, I wouldn’t have chosen orange, red, brown, and wine in this grouping of my own volition), but they have not changed in my mind’s eye in 50 years.

Somewhere in my brain, likely in early childhood, some wires got crossed. For others with this condition, called synesthesia, letters or numbers may be associated with a flavor or smell. Those of us who see numbers in color are called “grapheme-color synesthetes.”

Like finding out I have ASMR, I didn’t realize this was an unusual condition until early childhood, when I told a friend she had drawn a series of numbers in the wrong colors, and she looked at me like I was insane. I have had people “test” me at random, but the colors are always the same to me. I test at 100% accuracy, because I see this connection in my mind.

The earliest known and recorded case of synesthesia is attributed to the Oxford University academic and philosopher John Locke, who, in 1690, made a report about a blind man who said he experienced the color scarlet when he heard the sound of a trumpet. Apparently, it’s not as rare as I thought. In a 2018 book on the subject by Richard E. Cytowic, it’s explained that one in 23 people carry the synesthesia genes. Far more people, about 4% of the population, experience this neurological condition than I’d have guessed, because I’ve never personally met another person who does. However, the author Vladimir Nabokov experienced it, and called it “color hearing.”

Synesthesia is thought to run in families, yet no one in mine has come forward with a similar experience. Whether this is due to a belief that it isn’t unusual (as I felt as a child), or a fear that coming forward with such a strange disclosure would make them look crazy, I can’t say. Possibly I’m the only one in my genetic pool who has it.

I remember reading years ago that it was thought synesthetes used a different part of the brain that is less active in non-synesthetes, but I haven’t seen that mentioned in recent research.

What I do know is that the condition helps me remember number combinations, although not always in the correct order. My own telephone number is a pleasing combination of colors to me. Once, years ago, I had a phone number that included every color/number from 1 to 7, and it drove me crazy because it had too many colors in it.

I do think that perhaps there’s something a little different about my brain, being that I experience both synesthesia and ASMR. Whatever it is, it’s pretty darn fun being me.