Personal Health

I See Things You Don't: I Have Syn

My brain gives colors to numbers, visual textures to words.

A few years ago, I made a private LiveJournal post to two friends with the following announcements:  

1. I was falling out of love with our common fandom

2. My appendectomy scar still hurt, and

3. I had synaesthesia.  

I'm not sure why I included the third point. I'd kept that information to myself for my entire life, but I suddenly felt like I needed to tell someone. I was expecting flak, comfort, and blank stares. I certainly wasn't expecting the stunned response I got from Paula Lori. "Oh my god," she wrote. "Me, too."

Neuroscientists believe that everyone begins life with a touch of synaesthesia: the human mind starts out with multiple sensations traveling along the same pathways in the brain. In most people, these routes get pruned down as people grow up -- different sensory pathways start to specialize in a single type of sensation. But for those of us with synaesthesia (which literally means "the joining of the senses"), a certain amount of crossover remains.

Some of this is genetic -- syn definitely runs in families, although I don't know anyone else in my family who has it. But the particularities of each synaesthete's experience are unique. Who knows why our brains decide to keep certain connections?

Essentially, synaesthesia is what happens when your thought processes come wrapped in sensation. Some people with syn can tell you what colour your name is, sense the flavor of someone's personality or feel the shape of a sound. For me, there are two main "modes": numbers have colors, and words and ideas are things I can feel.

Seeing and feeling

Of the two types I have, the numbers are easier to explain. If I see a written number -- let's say a "2" -- I also see that symbol as having the color blue. I know perfectly well that the "2" is written on this page in black ink, but I also know that -- in some inexplicable way -- it's a blue number. Every digit from 0 to 9 has a color in my mind. They've been that way as long as I can remember, and the colors have never changed.

My second type of syn -- being able to "feel" words and ideas -- was more subtle. If I look at a list of words on a page, I don't feel a thing. But if I'm reading or speaking or listening to a flow of words, the sensations just fly by. I don't focus much on individual words -- the flashes of texture, size, shape, and weight rushing by; it's more about the patterns and rhythms they form. I was even more entranced by words than by numbers. I'd literally feel words forming in my mouth and hold ideas in my hands as I decided whether or not to use them.

For me as a child, synaesthesia was a completely good part of my life: having visual and physical cues for abstract ideas gave me concrete ways of thinking about everything -- even theories. The only problem was my sense that all of this needed to be kept covered up.

When I was little, I didn't know exactly what it was that I was keeping secret. Saying certain things would get me strange looks and nasty comments; I eventually learned to translate what I thought or felt into phrases that other people could accept. Similes were my best friends: you can get away with some crazy descriptions if you make a funny face and say, "It's sort of like..."

I just thought that I was different, and maybe a bit crazy. It never occurred to me that there were other people like me. Being a bookworm has its advantages, though. One night, as I was looking for cool words in the dictionary, my eyes landed on synaesthesia. I suddenly knew that I was not crazy or making things up, and that I definitely wasn't alone.

But who could I tell? I was an 11-year-old farm girl in central Alberta, with family and schoolmates who teased mercilessly if I slipped up and said anything about colors in math class or the feel of a story. I kept the definition to myself, but took comfort in knowing that it wasn't just my imagination. I spent 30 years keeping my little secret from my friends, family, and the whole of Rocky Mountain House, convinced that I'd be beaten up or ostracized.

Hollywood synaesthesia

Many years later I saw the trailer for Bee Season, a film adaptation of Myla Goldberg's novel. Images of a young girl competing in spelling bees played across the screen, showing how the character's mind conjured up her spelling words: they simply appeared in front of her, growing out of the environment. I didn't think that the filmmakers were portraying synaesthesia per se, but I felt like this was the closest I was ever going to get to seeing myself on screen.

I also decided to stop hiding. Coming out is always hard. It's even harder when you have to explain what you're coming out about.

When we had to choose seminar topics for my "Psychology of Creativity" class, I signed up for synaesthesia. We were supposed to "be creative" in our presentations; in the toss-up between honesty and showmanship -- I didn't feel able to do both -- I went for honesty. In practice, that meant that I stood in front of the class, shaking so hard that I had to lean against a table to keep from falling. I explained what synaesthesia was, gave some historical background, and then started to use myself as an example.

I barely made it through the half-hour, and was too nervous to make it fun for the audience. But after I finished the presentation and made it back to my seat, someone slid over next to me. "Does that explain why my numbers have personalities?" she asked. It did. I handed over some of my research notes for her to read, and sat there, shocked. There weren't even 20 of us in the classroom, and two of us had syn?

It wasn't just the fear of being a freak that had kept me quiet for all those years. I honestly never thought I'd meet another synaesthete. The best estimates when I was growing up were that one person in 200,000 had synaesthesia. Rocky only had 6,000 people; I figured I was the only synaesthete in a long country mile.

Coming out

Despite increased research there are no solid statistics as to how many synaesthetes there are in the population (current estimates run from 1 in 2000 to 1 in 23). One problem is that syn is highly individualistic. Certain kinds, like colored numbers or letters, are easy to screen for. Other kinds, like that of an early test subject who felt geometric shapes for everything he tasted, are much more difficult to search out. But the larger problem is that identification relies on self-disclosure. If we don't talk about our experiences, nobody knows that we're having them.

So I started to discuss synaesthesia in my writing classes. I would talk about different ideas I had for pieces about syn, and nearly every time someone would recognize something about my descriptions. One teacher had a sister who had become an accountant because she had so much fun with how the numbers looked. One student went home and heard her daughter talking about the colors of words. Another time, several students immediately thought of someone in another class they knew.

Then I ended up in a class that broke all the odds. After reading my first essay of the term, one person realized she had synaesthesia. Three others had family members with syn. Including me, that's five out of 15 students. I'm beginning to think that synaesthesia is pretty common and that those of us with it have just found ways to deal with things in our own ways.

But for those of us who grew up scared or ashamed of not just who we were, but how we were, finding out that you're not alone can shake you to the core. For myself, opening up about synaesthesia has gone hand in hand with opening up as a writer. I've learned how to interview and have written a ton of stories in the last two years. It's all about connecting to other people: to other synaesthetes, by talking about my own experiences; and to other people in general, through writing stories that help the different parts of the college community to get to know each other.

But for all this openness and honesty, there's one big gap: I still haven't told my family. I've, you know, mentioned some of the topics that I'm writing about to see if any of my family twig to it. So that's my next big step. After all, this is kind of a coming out story. Shouldn't it end with a call to my mom?

<small>2008 (c) T.L. Reid</small>

T.L. Reid is the sports editor for Intercamp, the student newspaper at Grant MacEwan College in Edmonton, Canada.