Synesthesia

Synesthesia is an involuntary, neurological phenomena where any of your five senses work in collaboration, for instance, tasting words or seeing letters and numbers as colors. The former, lexical to gustatory synesthesia, is very rare, while the latter is the most common kind of synesthesia known as grapheme to color. It’s typically genetically inherited, or at least it runs strongly in families like left-handedness; my sister has grapheme to color synesthesia.

I see music as colors, movement and patterns. I have narrow band sound to visual synesthesia–also called music to visual synesthesia of chromesthesia–meaning that I only see colors and movement with music. Broadband means that you can see any or all noises. The most common type of auditory synesthesia is seeing music as color–music to color synesthesia. I have that, but I also see patterns and movement.

Trying to describe your particular brand of synesthesia to another synesthete is difficult since none of us have the same experience, but trying to describe synesthesia to those who don’t have it at all is nearly impossible. It’s kind of like trying to describe the color blue to someone who is color blind. It just really can’t be effectively done, but I’ll try.

I see music in my mind’s eye. For example, picture what you had for lunch today. You can see a plate with the sandwich on it, right? But the plate isn’t in front of you anymore. It’s merely a concept that you can visualize in your mind without actually seeing it. That’s how I see music. It’s not like wearing virtual reality goggles that block out everything else. On the contrary, I can usually move it to the background when I choose, like a file copying on a computer. It’s still there, working away, but it’s not in the foreground. If I choose to let it take center stage, it can, but most of the time it’s just something going on in the background.

Some music moves forward like a road as you drive on it, some moves towards me, some moves in spirals and some moves horizontally across my field of vision.  Some of it bounces around like a ball inside a box, and some has seemingly no movement at all like a big ship moving across a vast ocean. Sometimes, it’s movement without color or vice versa. Sometimes, I see musical notes scrolling across my mind even though I can’t read music. Sometimes, all I see is one color in various shades, from bright to dark blue; other music is a whole rainbow. Sometimes, it’s like looking through a three-dimensional kaleidoscope or being inside a lava lamp. Sometimes, I get little cartoon characters dancing around or tugboats with faces puffing their way up river. Sometimes, it’s like watching a pan of water put on top of a big bass speaker where the water jumps in time to the beat. Sometimes, it’s birds flying or dogs barking. Sometimes, it’s like moving through a forest.

Occasionally, the only way I can describe it is to mix in other abstract concepts. For instance, “this sounds like metal.”  When I say metal, I don’t mean the genre of music, but the physical substance with electrical and thermal conductivity, e.g., iron or aluminum. Metal isn’t exactly known for having a sound, except to me. I can tell you this much, it sounds nothing like the genre. Heavy metal music is misnamed.

I’ve often wondered if my synesthesia is responsible for me liking the music that I do or if it’s just a bi-product. Do I dislike a song because it’s burnt umber or is it burnt umber because I don’t like the song?  It’s an interesting thing to ponder.

I wake up with a song stuck in my head every morning. Every single morning, as I’m brushing my teeth, I’m humming something. They are usually songs in my own collection, so they’re rarely anything I wouldn’t want to hear.  Sometimes, I haven’t heard a song in years and years, and I’ll wake up singing it. It’s as if my brain is running a soundtrack while I sleep. I have no idea whether or not that’s even related to synesthesia, but no one else I’ve talked to has their own soundtrack.

The most amazing music to watch is classical. There are so many instruments all working together with different highs and lows that it’s a full landscape of visuals. I just sit back, close my eyes and watch the show. It’s like going to see a symphony orchestra perform with a complimentary laser light show, except my light show is better than anything any lighting tech could ever design. It’s full of color, shapes and movement in three-dimensional space.

I told you it would be impossible to describe and now you probably think I’m crazy. That’s fine with me. It’s all I’ve ever known, even though, like most synesthetes, I didn’t know I had it for the longest time. I didn’t figure it out until the band Pearl Jam hit it big in the 1990s. I said that I didn’t like them because they are too orange. When I realized that nobody else saw Pearl Jam as too orange, I did a little research.

Synesthetes tend to think that you people out there see the same things that we do. The sky is blue, the sun is yellow, grass is green, the letter S is purple and Beethoven is a rainbow. That’s not so strange, is it? I suppose it is if you’ve never seen the world that way, but we’ve never seen the world your way either. How strange it must be for you to simply hear music. I don’t think I’d like that much at all.

When synesthetes find out that most people don’t see the world the way we do, it tends to make us a little self-conscious. We tend not to talk about it, which is a shame. Synesthesia is nothing to hide. I can’t imagine seeing the world any other way.

I have a relatively uncommon type of synesthesia–approximately .05% of the population has auditory to visual synesthesia–and I’ve never met anyone else who sees music the way that I do. Whenever I read about other people with synesthesia, theirs is usually very different from mine. They say that up to 4% of the world’s population experiences some kind of synesthesia, whether they even realize it or not. I just wasted an hour online trying to find others like me and came up empty. So, if you see music or you have another kind of synesthesia, leave a comment. I’d love to hear from other people out there who experience a slightly different world than most.

This post is part of the On Being Series.