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Sixth Senses

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About ten years ago I met someone who had synesthesia, and have been idly fascinated about it ever since. Synesthesia is a quirk of sensory processing – for whatever reason, in synesthetes, one kind of sensory input also triggers a second sensory response as a sort of back-up. Sound or taste may have a “color” for them, for instance, or touch may also trigger a sound. I’ve heard of people who’ve had taste/color connections, where they would get flashes of orange blobs in the periphery of their vision whenever they had shrimp scampi, or people who had sound/touch connections, where going to concerts would make them feel like they were getting Shiatsu massage.

Synesthetes don’t always know that it’s a “thing” – it’s not a disability and doesn’t impact how they function in the world, usually, it’s just how vision or touch or sound “work”. Usually the only way they find out that something’s different about them is if they say something in passing to someone else, who asks them what on earth they’re talking about.  One of my favorite stories was of a woman who had applied for a nebulous-sounding office manager job at a psychology lab, and it wasn’t until the interview when they told her they were doing synesthesia research. She asked what that was, and the interviewer gave her a brief explanation, concluding with “so, it’s about those people who see the number seven as green all the time or something.”

The woman frowned. “But…the number seven is ochre.”

“….You’re hired,” said the interviewer.

No one really knows what causes this, but one theory – which makes a bit of sense to me – is that it’s a holdover from very early infancy.  The theory goes that when we’re newborns, any sensory input triggers every sensory reaction – sound, taste, smell, touch, everything.  During the first few months of life, the brain gradually learns to differentiate between sound and taste and such, severing the connections between each of those neural pathways.  But in synesthetes, one or two of those pathways might still be connected a bit.

In fact, this can explain why we all may have a very faint touch of synesthesia ourselves. One experiment psychologists have done involves showing people a pair of random shapes – one that’s curvy and blobby, and one that’s pointy and spiky. They told test subjects that the shapes were named “kiki” and “boubo”, and asked subjects to pick which one they thought was “kiki”.  Overwhelmingly, people picked the spiky shape as “kiki”.  The experiment was done to explore theories on the evolution of language and how random speech sounds could get assigned meanings; but people investigating synethesia have also theorized that people think the sound “kiki” just sort of…feels sharp and spiky.

The synesthete I met had an unusual manifestation – it was color/person synesthesia. If he met you, as he gradually got to know you he started to see a faint color glow around you, kind of like an aura.  In fact, for a long time he thought maybe that’s what was going on, that he was seeing people’s auras; except that every New Age book he read generalized the colors way too much. They only spoke about “blue” or “purple” auras – and he wasn’t just seeing a given person as “blue”, he was seeing “Panetone 2181 C”.  “Synesthesia is really, really specific,” he said.  “Whatever color a given thing is, it is exactly that color, it never changes.  And nothing else is that same color.”

We met through a theater project, and he shared this during a break from rehearsal; so of course immediately everyone in the room pestered him with “what color am I?” types of questions (I am a very deep slate gray-blue, apparently), and then we had a good laugh when he said the most boisterous member of the cast was a firey red.  We all pumped him with questions – but kept running into the kind of problems anyone runs into when discussing perception.  It’s hard to describe any sense to someone that has no concept of it – how would you describe sight to someone who’s been blind since birth? For that matter, how would someone who is sighted conceptualize what it would be like to not have sight?  It’s fascinating to think about, but thinking too long leads you towards having the kinds of conversations you had at 2 am in college – “when I see something blue and you see something blue, how do we really know whether my blue and your blue are, like, the same thing?”

He took our questions in stride, though.  He also said it came in handy in theater – when reading a script, he would start to see each characters’ lines in the script show up in “their” color, which made finding his place in a script that much easier for him.

There was also an interesting moment a week later, which I think may have been a synesthesia thing – I was running late to rehearsal and was stuck in a hideous traffic jam, and called ahead to tell him I was late, then called again a few times as I got later and later.  He took it in stride, but I was getting more and more frustrated. Then when I got to the rehearsal hall, I forgot what room we were in; I called him to ask, and he cracked up and said he’d meet me in the lobby.  I was furious with myself, though, and when I got into the lobby I started digging in a bag, looking for my notes.

I heard him laughing as he came down the hallway towards me.  But the second he saw me, he immediately stopped laughing and said “Whoa. Are you okay?”  The thing was, my back was still to him – so he was not reacting to the look on my face.  The only thing I can think was that my “color” had shifted in some way, which only he was able to detect.

It’s probably not surprising that there are synesthetes in the arts – Nabokov is supposed to have been a synesthete, and even wrote about it. Kandinsky also was supposed to have been a synesthete, as was Nicolai Tesla and (apparently) Billy Joel.  Pharrell Williams is a synesthete as well, and it came up in an interview on NPR –

Now, to some people, it’s like, “Oh, that’s crazy.” But let me explain something to you. You have no idea what you’re seeing in your mind if you don’t really take the time to talk about it.

If I tell everyone right now to picture a red truck, you’re gonna see one. But is there one in real life right there in front of you? No. That’s the power of the mind.

In another interview, someone asks him what color his song Happy is. I’m not a synesthete myself, but I was still completely unsurprised when he said that it is all sunny yellows and reds.


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