Well, one doesn’t necessarily disprove the other, but at least there’s a fancy name to go along with it.
Synesthesia is a neurological condition where the stimulation of one sense is accompanied by the involuntary stimulation of other senses.
Hmm, that sounds suspiciously like a lot of abstract technical jargon.
Maybe an example will help this make more sense: I am a synesthete. I see colors when I hear sounds, but not with my eyes. It happens with smells sometimes, too. The best way I can put it is that the colors exist on a different plane than what we see with our eyes. The colors normally appear in front of me, sometimes flowing in different directions, and when I see them I’m able to say exactly where they would fall in the physical world. Motion is a huge part of the colors because they go along with the sounds, although smell-colors tend to be static.
Usually the sounds/smells/colors come along with a texture (I don’t feel the textures with my skin, either). I have a friend whose voice feels like a zip tie, so whenever he talks I feel like I’m trailing my fingers along its plastic teeth. I also see blue whenever I smell this friend (as in, if we hug or are standing close to each other. I don’t randomly sniff my friends). I told him this and he and pointed out that he wears blue a lot, so it’s probably a connection that I’ve made in my head. I have no idea if that’s what causes it. All I can say for certain is that he both wears and smells blue.
Smelling colors is also partly why I don’t like to hug people, especially if they’re wearing cologne or perfume. Getting that close forces me to smell them and the smell stays with me for a while, so I have to deal with their damn colors even after the person is gone (I usually don’t mind if I like the person, but this isn’t something I’ll put up with for everyone).
My roommate has an extremely smooth, white voice that looks similar to the plastic casing on the robots from I, Robot.
I feel like if her voice were a physical material, it would be on a Apple product. Her voice always appears floating over my head, for some reason, especially when she laughs.
I once had a classmate with whom it was really hard to talk because his voice felt sticky. I got along with him just fine, but hearing him talk was…unpleasant, because it felt like warm syrup being smeared onto my skin. His voice was also a molasses brown sort of color, and if it were something that could have been smelled it would have had a sickly sweet scent.
I once met a girl whose voice I could not stand because it felt like an oily, rough piece of wood. Hearing her talk made me feel like I was about to get splinters in my ears and fingertips.
I can tell you that Daft Punk’s songs tend to be rough with lots of blue, especially this one:
At 0:42 I start to feel like I’ve fallen into a bouncy blue cheese grater. At 0:56 it feels like the cheese grater has tipped over and is now rolling down a lumpy hill.
When I was younger I didn’t realize that it’s not normal to see colors that aren’t there. I had always assumed that the colors were just what happened when people hear sounds. At one point my brother told me about an article he’d read on something called synesthesia, but I think I was busy at the time so I was only half listening. I remember him going on and on about how cool it is that there are people who see colors when they hear things and I remember thinking, “Well, duh. That’s what sound looks like.”
It wasn’t until a few years ago that it dawned on me that synesthesia isn’t all that common. I was driving with someone and a song came on the radio. I turned up the volume as I said, “I like this song. It’s colorful.” The other person (sadly, I don’t remember who it was) looked at me and said, “Colorful? What does that mean?” After that, I remembered the conversation I’d had with my brother and what he told me made more sense.
Since then I’ve only met a handful of people who have the condition. One is a friend of mine who actually used to see the colors with her eyes until she started taking a certain medication. Listening to music with her is interesting because we can usually agree on what color(s) a song is. She, like me, didn’t even realize that it wasn’t normal until I asked our group of friends if anyone else saw the colors. Another is a woman who told me that she used to see the colors, but lost the ability after she was in a car accident. Hearing that story made me sad. The colors and textures are part of why I love music so much. I can’t imagine what it would be like without them.
Sometimes it seems like the sounds/colors/textures are somehow connected, like with my blue smelling friend, but they’re usually completely arbitrary. For example, Follow the Trail of Blood by Combichrist has a ton of colors and shapes throughout the whole song, but overall the song is a deep green and the motion of the colors makes me feel like I’m walking through a carnival at night (1:52 is where the green gets really intense).
This song is at the beginning of the album (Making Monsters, one of my favorites), so for the longest time when I thought of the album, I would picture the album cover in that same shade of deep green. Look at the album cover. There is some green in it, but it’s nothing close to the vivid color that I see in my head. Until I went back and looked at it, I had assumed the song was green because of the album cover. Now I have no idea why it’s so green.
Sometimes I’ll get random flashes of color, too. If I’m ever woken by a sudden noise, I’ll always see a bright flash of white before I open my eyes. I have no idea how this fits into everything else, because it’s always a white flash no matter what the sound was.
I hardly ever get colors with taste, but one of the strongest flashes I’ve ever experienced came from drinking Fernet, which is a rather awful type of liquor that’s popular in Argentina (but awful in the best kind of way. More on Fernet later, I promise). Fernet has an extremely strong, bitter taste, and every single time I drank it I got an overwhelming flash of purple.
When I say overwhelming, I mean it was like having my face smashed into a giant purple wall. It wasn’t painful; I actually enjoyed it. I didn’t care for the taste, but I still drank a lot of Fernet because I really liked the purple wall.
Does it sound like I was on drugs? Technically, yes, alcohol is a drug, but no one else I met saw the purple wall while drinking Fernet.
Again, for a while I assumed that Fernet tasted purple because the bottle was purple until I actually looked at the bottle. Here’s the bottle, partly full:
Synesthesia has actually helped me with languages. Usually if I can remember the texture or position of a word, it’ll help me remember it (although not all words get a color/texture/position). For example, the word schmeichelhaft (German for ‘flattering’) is usually in front of me to the left and near the ground. I don’t know what it looks or feels like, but I know exactly where it would be if it were a physical object. If I’m trying to remember this word and I’m thinking out loud, I might say, “I know this one. It’s the one that’s always near the ground,” while gesturing with my left hand. Talking to myself and gesturing helps me retrieve the word faster than just thinking quietly to myself. Another example would be cerebro (Spanish for ‘brain’), which is usually above my head and to the right. Chinese is especially interesting because it’s a tone language. The tones actually influence where and how the words happen. If I can remember how the words move, it’s easier to remember the tone. Gestures help a lot with tones as well, even as I’m speaking the words.
Sometimes meaning will affect what I get from words across languages. For example, the words ferrocarril and Eisenbahn are nothing alike (they both mean ‘railroad’), but they have similar positions and textures (a very high horizontal bar of metal, but Eisenbahn is farther away from the ground and ferrocarril is a much darker shade of gray). The sensations that I get are so similar that I treat the words almost like cognates.
Sometimes the sensations will fade if there’s a lot going on around me. That’s probably a good thing; I think I’d go nuts if every sound I heard gave me a vivid sensation all the time. For example, it was easier to be around the sticky voice guy if we were someplace with a lot of noise in the background.
They also fade if I’ve been exposed to the stimulus for a long time. After talking to the sticky voice guy for more than a few minutes, it seemed like I would get used to the sensation and stop noticing it. Also, the sensations I get from songs tend to be the most intense at the beginning and will gradually fade as the song progresses. If it’s a long song, like over six minutes, I’ll barely be able to feel the colors by the end unless the rhythm drastically changes. I’ve also found that if the colors are fading and I try to make them come back, they’ll fade even faster. If I want them to come back I have to relax and let it happen on its own.
I’m not really sure what reading this post will be like for someone who’s never experienced it. I feel like I should point out that it’s not the same as having hallucinations, so far that I know. In fact, I’m so used to it that I usually don’t even notice unless the sensation is particularly vivid. Alcohol and caffeine make the effects a lot more intense. The more intense the sensation, the more euphoric I feel.
So that’s synesthesia, or at least what I experience. Apparently every person experiences it differently. Ever since I found out about it I’ve been looking for other people with the condition, because I find it fascinating to hear what sensations other people get. Feel free to comment if you might be this people.
And now, ladies and gents, I will leave you with what I’ve been calling The Purple Song. Chau chau!