May 26, 2009



Blended Senses

December 2000

“I have a headache,” I tell her. She is walking
away now and I’m trying to open my eyes. Why are we outside? The sun is in my eyes, damn it... drenching everything in red-orange blur. All I can make out are the silhouettes of people standing around me. Oh, here she comes. “No. Now. Something now” I say. I can’t wait for pills to work. The silhouettes start getting jittery. Some have their arms folded across their chests, others are gesturing wildly. One is coming closer.
“Do you know me?”
Of course I know him… the doctor with the red-orange hair. Wow, his sweater matches his hair. Nice, I try to say, makes you look heavenly...


I am told I spent the next few days in ICU in a coma-like state. I finally woke up, still in pain. I had been transferred to the Red Room. The walls were a deep burgundy and the nurses wore head-to-toe maroon complete with matching face masks. I was confused. In Star Trek, they only don the reds for surgery. Had I been in surgery?

Actually, I was in quarantine until they figured out what sort of meningitis I had. All I remember is that everything was so red.

Months later, I was telling someone what I remembered from the Red Room.
“What red room?” he asked.
It was only after lots of arguing and phone calls that I finally conceded that room may not have been red after all. As it turned out, neither the first sunshiny room nor the doctor had been red-orange and the Red Room was actually white. So why did I see them in these colors? Had I gone crazy?


I wasn’t really surprised. This was not the first time I’ve seen things differently than some people. Actually, one researcher says that as many as 1 in 23 people may have some form of synesthesia. Like me, these people may experience any variety of combined sensory perceptions. The most common form is colored letters and numbers in which a person involuntarily perceives letters and numbers (and other graphemes) to have color. For instance, where you see this letter "A" as being black, a color synesthete will see it overlaid with a different color. One synesthete might see it as orange, another might see it as blue. For synesthetes, this perception is very real to them, just as the black letters you are reading now are very real to you.

Other forms of synesthesia include having the perceptions of color (and/or shapes or texture) through hearing, touching or tasting. For example, when Sean Day, a colored-hearing synesthete, hears music he will perceive various colors in his visual field.

Another interesting form is lexical-gustatory*, a type of synesthesia in which words evoke taste in the mouth. Just like with most forms of synesthesia, people with this condition have in the past been dismissed as attention-seeking or hallucinating. As one of synesthesia's ambassadors to the world, James Wannerton has subjected himself to countless hours of research and brain scans (and film crews) to educate both academia and the general public. People don't "suffer" from synesthesia and it isn't a disorder. It is simply the way some people perceive the world.

There are about 5 common types but in all there have been reported about 61 subtypes of synesthesia. Here are a few examples from a list compiled by Sean Day:

  • General Sounds --> Colors
  • Phenomes --> Colors
  • Tastes --> Colors
  • Personalities --> Colors
  • Grapheme Personification
  • Object Personification
  • Emotion --> Flavor
  • Smells --> Sound
  • Pain --> Sound
  • Sound --> Flavor

When I was in pain and percieving everything around me to be drenched in color, I was experiencing "Pain --> Color" synesthesia. But it is not the only type I have.


I first realized there was something different when I was about six years old. From the backseat of the family car, I was complaining about how it was difficult to keep up with days sometimes because once you got to Wednesday everything flipped around the other way. In my mind, Monday starts out with Tuesday to its right, and with Wednesday to its right. But once we're in Wednesday, the whole line flips around and now Wednesday presents with Thursday to its left, and Friday to its left, and so on. It's actually more complicated than that, but that's the easiest way to describe it.
(Above: Monday, dissipating, Tuesday and Wednesday follow)
My dad thought this was intriguing and asked me questions about how I thought of clock time. I remember him saying something like "wow, she has such a fascinating concept of time and space abstracts" which I remember to this day because it sounded so Carl Sagan-ey. (One of my favorite memories was sitting with Dad watching Cosmos on PBS)

My mom's response was equally memorable: "I think she may be retarded."

(Yes, that's the word she used. I mention that because, like so many others who have had their perceptions questioned, it embarrassed me -- I immediately shut up and never mentioned it to her again. )

But the difficulties I was describing were not limited to days of the week. I have this same trouble with numbers. 1 starts out with the rest of the line going off to its right, but occasionally when I get to a certain number, the view flips, turns, tilts, and so on. Many times, positive numbers continue off to the left, or straight up, or back to the right. As you might imagine, this complicates learning mathematics just a bit.

But the biggest problem I have with doing figures is that not all my numbers get along with each other. Almost all the numbers detest 2's bitchy disposition, while 9's Spock-like steadiness can mediate any situation. Certain numbers just don't like having to stand next to others, and will fidget just like first graders being asked to stand in line and wait -- eventually, they wander off.

This assignment of personality and gender to letters and numbers is called Ordinal Linguistic Personification, in which ordered sequences, such as
ordinal numbers, days, months and letters are associated with personalities. Similarly, with object personification, everything that can be perceived gets involuntarily attached to it some sort of personification. It may be a gender and personality or it may get attached to it a color that represents that. Numbers, letters, months, grass, trees, furniture, clothes, books, even people. Even my own body parts have this sort of personification -- I recall as a small kid acting out "plays" in the bathtub with my fingers and toes, as each was (and still is) a different character.

My synesthesia actually isn't as pervasive as it might sound. I've always had it, so I don't know any other way. It does sometimes dictate my emotions and decisions however. I develop almost obsessive fondness for some people because I like their color -- I just want to be around them all the time! Conversely, I regret to say I may not like some individuals based purely on the same thing. Recently, I entered a room that had all orange (yuck!) desk chairs and I desperately wished I could turn around and run!

Most synesthetes have remarkable memories, as this gift functions as a natural mnemonic. Unfortunately in some cases this isn't so for me, especially when having to learn new concepts. If the thing or concept has no existing "relative" it takes me while to figure it all out. But typically, because of these strong emotional/personification and in particular the color associations, synesthetes have remarkable memory. I don't know why I don't -- maybe all those drugs I did in the 60s? (Relax, I wasn't actually alive in the 60's)

Which brings me to another point: synesthesia is not the result of psychedelic drug use. It is constant, involuntary, and has been a part of the individual since they can remember.
It also tends to run in families, so researchers across the globe are trying to tease out the gene responsible. Hopefully, through this type of research we will learn what gives some individuals these unique perceptions and, as with any research, learn more about the mysteries of the human brain as well.


*Gustation involves activation of cranial nerves to process sensory input from the tongue in the form of sweet, salty, bitter, etc. But this only plays a small part in the perception of flavor. Flavor is the integration of gustation and olfaction and somatosensation.

Flavor synesthesia does not involve the same neural pathways. In other words, when James Wannerton hears the word "London," the mashed potato taste he experiences occurs in the absence of molecules that trigger olfaction, and without the activation of the sensory portions of the cranial nerves typically associated with gustation.


More about synesthesia:

Sean Day and David Eagleman:

Richard Cytowic on Synesthesia:


  1. A fascin8ting art1cle ind33d! I see now how you noticed my cell phone number being all nice and evenly divisible by bitchy old #2; I had never even noticed that. I caught the several Star Trek references-NERDERIFIC! Although, I would have refered to "time and space abstracts" as sounding Carl Sagan-ish (as opposed to Sagan-ey). Something about the phonetic flow Sagan-ey........ Other than that, I would not 'prune' anything from the art1cle. So,....what color am I?

  2. I try to mix up the use of -ish versus -ey so I don't appear to favor one over the other -- wouldn't want any hurt feelings.

    Not everyone has very vivid color and I don't know why that is. I would speculate that it's because some people are rather reserved when it comes to revealing their personality.

    Yours has always been very evident: a very deep dark black/brown with crimson "timbre." It appears very punk-rocker-like but if I had to put theme music to you, it would be Nick Drake-ish. ish ish ish.
    It's very nice, by the way, and one of many reasons I adore you so, dear! =)

  3. I'm finally coming back to post a comment. I think this is an incredibly fascinating post with beautiful imagery.

    I KNEW I liked you from the moment I started reading your blog!

    So...I've always wondered about something. I don't *think* it's the same thing as synethesia, but do you know what it is called when a piece of music evokes certain memories. Or certain memories pull up certain pieces of music in your mind? I know there is a strong connection between music and memory, but I don't know if there is a specific term to be used for it.

    At any rate, thanks for the education on Synesthesia.

    You should publish this post somewhere in a magazine, you know. It's that good!

    kc (casey)

  4. Jennaviere -

    I just saw the Charlotte's Heart Slideshow, and didn't know where to comment on it.

    No words, sweet friend, just tears watching it. I'm glad she's got a happy heart now.

    Peace and many blessing, my friend

    kc (casey)

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.