I’ve always known that the letter B is bright purple.
Not only that, but a sore throat feels like a green circle, and violin music reminds me of indigo waves near my ankles. Ask me what time a class ends, and I might look back over my shoulder to determine the spatial location of 11 o’clock.
I have synesthesia: a unique perceptual phenomenon in which abstract concepts - letters or sounds or units of time - are intuitively connected to my senses. In other words, the stimulation of my mind leads to an automatic, involuntary association with something completely unrelated: a shape, a color, a location.
Just like with any neurological phenomenon, synesthesia is hard to explain to someone who doesn’t experience it. In simple terms, it’s like if someone shouts the word “cake” at you: the space in your mind where you visualize a cake is where I visualize my shapes and colors. It’s so natural and intuitive that for the longest time, I didn’t realize that nobody else saw the colors that I did.
Just like anyone who is considered “different” in society, synesthetes are often subject to stigmatization. There’s also the issue that little to no awareness or information exists about the condition, leaving many synesthetes struggling for answers. I’m infinitely grateful to author Wendy Maas for her children’s novel A Mango-Shaped Space for depicting a girl who discovers that she has synesthesia. For me, that novel was my validating moment. It was the first time I realized that synesthesia was a thing— a thing that I shared in. All of a sudden, I had a name and identity for something that had always been a part of me.
That’s why representation, and more importantly, understanding, are so critical to building an inclusive, colored world.
And because a critical first step is education, here’s a list of 5 things that every synesthete wants you to know.
Synesthesia is not weird. Despite certain media portrayal, there’s nothing mentally wrong with synesthetes. On the contrary, many of us consider it to be a gift that comes in handy when trying to memorize spellings or do mental math. It’s like a sixth sense that I’ve grown accustomed to, and I wouldn’t want to give it up.
Just because we’re open about our synesthesia doesn’t mean that we like being quizzed about it. Stop asking us what color your name is!
It’s not something that we taught ourselves to do. Once, I even dug out my alphabet refrigerator magnets from childhood to ensure that I hadn’t somehow memorized their colors when I was young. (I hadn’t.)
Just like no two people are alike, no two synesthetes experience the same sensory reactions. While I personally experience chromesthesia (colored numbers and letters) and spatial spatio-temporal synesthesia (perception of time as occupying space), experiences can vary widely from person to person.
It’s not as uncommon as you may think. Although there’s not enough conclusive research as to what percentage of the population experiences synesthesia, noted synesthetes from across history include artists Wassily Kandinsky, Billy Joel and even singer Pharrell Williams.
Malavika Kannan is a sixteen-year-old Indian American, metaphor enthusiast, and history junkie. She plans to major in International Politics in order to help make the world a better place. Malavika believes in female empowerment, Kurt Vonnegut novels, and, occasionally, herself.