Back when I was an intern at Ice Cube Press, I sometimes attended events and classes with my boss. A few years ago, Steve was teaching a writing course every Monday night in another city an hour away. I came along for one class. During the drive back home, I revealed to him that I was a synesthete.
“I have a condition called synesthesia,” I said. “It causes me to see colors in words and numbers.”
“What?” Steve said.
“I see colors in words and numbers. Okay, I guess I don’t really see colors. More like I perceive them. A text could be in black, and I know it’s in black, but I’ll still see the words in different colors.”
We were on the interstate. He drove past a green exit sign, the letters printed in white. He gestured to it.
“What color do you see?” he asked.
“Yellow,” I replied. Yes, I knew the word “exit” was in white, but it was still yellow to me.
His eyes widened. “Really?”
We soon drove past by another exit sign.
“What color is that?” he asked.
“It’s still yellow,” I said.
During the rest of the car ride home, he asked me what colors were on every sign we passed . He even asked me what colors were in an upcoming book title (pink, pink, more pink, and yellow). Despite being completely baffled, he believed me when I told him synesthesia is a real thing. Or at least he told me he believed me. He probably thought I was nuts.
What is Synesthesia?
Synesthesia is a condition in which stimulation of one sense triggers an automatic, involuntary experience in another sense. Basically, my brain is cross-wired.
There are several types of synesthesia. Some people see colors when they hear music. For others, they experience certain tastes when they hear certain words. I have the most common form called grapheme-color synesthesia. I perceive letters and numbers in certain colors. The text can be printed in black, green, gold, whatever, but my brain will change the colors. This is what I see:
How I perceive letters and numbers. (For I, O, and 0 I don’t perceive them with outlines. They’re supposed to be white. I just outlined them so you can see them.)
When it comes to words, I associate them with the color of the first letter, though the other colors from the other letters are still there, just faded. The first letter is very strong, completely dominate. The word “book” is a yellow word, though the O’s white and the K’s purple are still there, just lightly. Pencil is a green word. So is the word dog.
Subconsciously, I’ve always known I had synesthesia. When I was in elementary school I was always afraid to color in words because I knew my colors would be “weird” and I was worried my classmates would tease me.
College was when I discovered synesthesia is an actual condition. It started on the last day of my HR class. My professor was discussing underdogs. His underdog example: Taylor Swift.
“What do you think when you hear the name Taylor Swift?” he asked the class.
My instant thought: RED! Her first name is red. Her last name is red. And her latest album (at the time) is called Red.
Then I thought, “Her name is red? Don’t say that out loud! People will think you’re crazy!”
Later in the week I typed, “I see colors in letters” in the Google search bar. The results: Synesthesia. I remember thinking, “There’s an actual condition for this? This is… real?” Relief washed over me. I never thought I was crazy, but finding that this condition existed gave me a sense of peace.
Isn’t Synesthesia a Disorder?
No! It’s not a disorder!
It’s as much of a disorder as being left-handed.
Sure, there are some cons to this condition, but all the pros outweigh them. Every synesthete is different, and I could just be lucky that my synesthesia has been a gift. The only time it becomes an annoyance is when I’m spelling words that are too similar (read, reed, emphasize, emphasis) or when I’m trying to recall a particular word and all I can see is a blob of color. Some people claim that grapheme-color synesthetes struggle with math, though this had never been the case for me. Perceiving colors has never been a distraction when I’m reading. At this point of my life, it’s just a normal occurrence. It has helped me in so many ways, like:
-Helps me catch grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors
Words too similar I’ll miss. For example, read and reed. They both have two yellow letters in the center. For the most part though, errors stand out because the colors aren’t correct. If you write “no” when you meant “not” I’m going to notice that little bit of red from the T is missing. Accidentally used a plural instead of a singular? I’m going to notice that splash of red from that accidental S.
-Helps me catch repeated words
Repetition in text really stands out to me. If you use the word “see” too many times, my brain is going to notice that little red word. I’ve also edited manuscripts that contained too many characters with similar names. (Do you know how much yellow is in Harry Potter? Harry, Hermione, Hagrid, Hogwarts, Hedwig, Hufflepuff, etc. Greek mythology also has a lot of people whose names are yellow and green.)
-Helps me remember names
Taylor Swift’s name is red. My first name is red. Steve’s name is even red! Researchers have found that synesthetes have better memories than non-synesthetes, especially when it comes to remembering names. I normally remember people’s names based on the color of the first letter in their name. So even if I forget your name, I’ll at least remember your color.
-Helps me keep track of time
Time is made up of numbers. When it’s 6 o’clock, I feel the world is green. When it’s 7, the world feels like purple. Sometimes when I’m not watching the clock I still have an idea what hour it is based on the hour’s color.
-Makes the world a colorful place
Words are everywhere. They’re on books, signs, menus, advertisements, etc. With so many words and numbers out there, my world has so much color. It truly is beautiful. My synesthesia is a gift, and I’m grateful that my condition makes my world a colorful place.
Are you a synesthete? If you are I’d love to hear about your gift in the comments!