“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.
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.
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. )
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)
*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:
- David Eagleman's Synesthesia Battery
Richard Cytowic on Synesthesia: