Synesthesia 101

Over the last couple of years, I’ve volunteered as a “guinea pig” for a variety of studies related to Asperger’s Syndrome. I don’t mind doing this at all; it’s interesting to me to find out more about how my brain works (or doesn’t work!), and I think it’s important to do my bit to help further the understanding of Asperger’s Syndrome.

As well, AS is unusual in women (or at least harder to detect) so I think (as do the researchers!) that it’s doubly important for me to participate.

At the moment I’m taking part in a really interesting study on synesthesia, throughCambridge’s Autism Research Centre, which is run by Dr Simon Baron-Cohen, who is an expert in the field of autism/Asperger’s and synesthesia (also spelled Synaesthesia).

Most people who know me also know that I have synesthesia, but most people still don’t really have much of an idea of what it is. (I get a lot of “Wow! Cool!” or “Um, is that a skin disease?”) So without further ado, here is a brief FAQ on one of the more interesting brain conditions!

Q. What exactly is synesthesia?

It is “a neurological condition in which a sensation in one modality (e.g., hearing) triggers a perception in another modality (e.g., colour).” In other words, when someone with synesthesia hears music, they may see colours. Or they may see numbers, letters, or the days of the week in colour, or as shapes. Some people even “taste” shapes.

Q. Is it a disease?

No. Even though it’s listed in some medical dictionaries, it doesn’t interfere with a person’s normal daily functioning, and doesn’t cause any harm that we know of. It’s just another one of the many ways people (and their brains) are unique, like being left-handed or having a talent for singing or drawing.

Q. How rare is it?

Researchers think about one person in 23 has some form of the condition. It also tends to run in families.

Q. Name some famous people who have it.

Well, let’s see. Painters David Hockney and Wassily Kandinsky; composers Duke Ellington, Franz Liszt, and Oliver Messaien; and physicist Richard Feynman (a favourite of mine) are just a few examples.

Daniel Tammet, who also has Asperger’s and who holds the world record for reciting Pi from memory (22,514 digits!), has synesthesia. Amazingly, he sees each number up to 10,000 as having its own colour, texture, shape, and feel.

Oddly, he and I see the number 37 in the same way: the 3 is red and the 7 is a brownish purple.

I’ve got the blues. Ha ha.

Q. So what does yours look like?

I see numbers, letters, music, and the days of the week in colour. When I listen to music, certain instruments give a certain colour & shape (violin is usually red or yellow, and quite sharp, like a needle or a sliver). People’s voices often have a colour, too. And when I listen to the hypnotic sort of music they play at the end of the yoga classes I take, it’s like being inside a giant snow globe when I shut my eyes. It’s quite nice, usually.

Q. Isn’t that dangerous and distracting?

No, not really. I see it in my “mind’s eye,” the same way you’d use your mind’s eye if I told you to imagine a tree, or a giraffe, or the Mona Lisa. It doesn’t interfere with your vision, but you can “see” it. I do have to be careful not to get carried away with “listening and watching” (like when I’m listening to a CD in the car!) but so far it hasn’t been an issue.

Q. Are there any benefits to having synesthesia?

Yes. The composers and artists I listed above have definitely used it in their work. When I was studying music at the Royal Conservatory, I worked with one composer who had it, and we would talk after class about how we each “saw” different notes; she would be working on a piece and realize she needed some more turquoise to fill out the notes, for example.

And of course, Daniel Tammet put his synesthesia to excellent use to help him visualize all those digits of Pi.

Q. So what do you have to do for your test?

Most research centres use online questionnaires, so the first part of my test consisted of one of those: about 40 questions or so concerning whether I saw colours or shapes when I heard music, whether days of the week have a colour or shape, whether I see numbers in colour etc..

Next, I will be sent a CD of sounds and tones, and asked to fill in a questionnaire about each one as I listen.

Open your mouth and say “chartreuse squares.”

And since there is a genetic component to synesthesia (and autism/Asperger’s), they’ve asked for a DNA sample, in this case a cheek swab. This is of course not mandatory, but I’m fine with it, so I’ll do that too. I’m adopted and have no idea whether anyone in my family of origin has either AS or synesthesia, but the DNA may provide some markers or clues that show up in all of us.

I haven’t received the mailed package yet, but I’m eagerly watching my mailbox.

As always, I will keep you posted!

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