I became interested in Synaesthesia when … I was writing my first novel, Breathing in Colour. I was completely stuck on the voice of Mia, an 18 year old who goes missing while backpacking in India. I knew she needed to be different, but how? Then I had a lucid dream where I was relaxing on a beach. I scooped some sand up and without looking at it somehow I felt that it had a luminous orange texture and taste. When I looked at the sand, it really was orange. How had I felt and tasted a colour? Later, out of curiosity I looked on the internet to find out about this union of the senses, and discovered Synaesthesia. Inspiration struck and I knew that Mia would be a synaesthete!
You know you have it because … numbers or musical notes have different colours or flavours for you; number 27 might be mauve, while Middle C might taste like lemon sherbet. Time may seem to have a particular shape, so that Mondays might be stretchy oblongs, and a year is seen as a wriggly loop. Any one sensation involuntarily conjures up another, and every synaesthete has their own particular associations. Many synaesthetes have a better memory for things they associate with a specific colour, and one of the most famous synaesthetes, Solomon Shereshevsky, even made a living out of being a memory expert.
The impact on daily life is … variable. Some synaesthesia is very mild and people often don’t even realise they have it until someone else expresses surprise at the idea of a coloured alphabet or seeing the calendar year as having a special shape. Some people contacted me after reading Breathing in Colour to say they hadn’t realised until they read it that their particular way of experiencing the world had a name! For others, synaesthesia is much stronger and can make the world a veritable sensory explosion.
The biggest obstacles are … getting distracted by sensory overload. A friend of mine has sound-movement synaesthesia so she can’t go and watch plays as the movements of the audience are so noisy for her; it’s distracting! In nightclubs, the strobe lighting goes ‘Trrrrrrrrrr!’ in her head very annoyingly, so she avoids clubbing too. In my novel, Mia has very strong synaesthesia; for her, everything from having sex to listening to her parents argue to holding her breath triggers an assault of tastes, colours and sounds.
The best thing about it is … Synaesthesia is considered a highly creative state, and most synaesthetes wouldn’t wish to be without it. It creates a very vivid experience of the world and one theory says that every one of us had synaesthesia when we were born, but while the senses then separate in most people, in synaesthetes they remain intermingled. Some synaesthetic associations are pure poetry: Emily Florian says that for her, the letter ‘E’ is ‘between the yellow of sunflower petals and ripe lemons and it’s so strong, it makes my whole name shine yellow’.
My advice to anyone who has it is … check out your country’s Synaesthesia Association if you want to connect with other synaesthetes.
The most wonderful thing I have learned about it so far is … there’s a strong link between synaesthesia and art, and some famous artists and composers are synaesthetes. Many people with synaesthesia have beautifully artistic experiences connected with music: one woman sees emerald green circular shapes on her fingertips when she plays the piano, while some artists report seeing a vibrant flow of colours if they paint to music.
I am looking forward to … meeting ever more synaesthetes, as I find it fascinating to hear about the different multi-sensory ways they have of experiencing the world.
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