Ordinary Synesthesia

For the last fourteen years or so, I have privately described some of my sensory experiences as a phenomenon called synesthesia. I don’t talk about it much because I am not sure whether synesthesia is an accurate description. Over the years, though, I find that term still feels appropriate in many ways. Maybe it fits something you experience, too.

To talk meaningfully about what synesthesia is, I’m drawing from the first paper I read on the subject, one called “Synesthesia: Phenomenology and Neuropsychology” by a man named Richard E. Cytowic.1 Later research has appeared since 1995, so I’ve looked some of that up as well—much of that by Cytowic as well.

What is synesthesia? It’s an inextricable linking of distinct senses, such as sight and sound. Cytowic says this more with more academic language: “[T]he stimulation of one sensory modality reliably causes a perception in one or more different senses.” It’s not symbolic or metaphorical. It’s a literal, sensory experience that happens reliably.

Importantly, though, it’s not a mental disorder. It cannot be diagnosed using the ICD or DSM. There’s no hallucinatory aspect to synesthesia, and it does not impair those affected by it.

What do I mean by “linking of distinct senses”? There are numerous forms of synesthesia, but as an example, consider the form that associates sounds with visual experiences (like color). When a person who experiences synesthesia (a synesthete) hears a sound which triggers an association, that sound itself is perceived both as the sound and as the visual event (such as the color green). This isn’t to say that the synesthete has a hallucination in which the color green appears literally and visually before their eyes—a phenomenon that would only be described as a hallucination. What I mean instead is that the sound is itself the color green in their brain. By hearing it, they have experienced the color green, with all its appertaining associations.

There is a certain ineffable quality to that mixture of sensory experiences. Consider it for a moment. How would I know, as an unaware synesthete, that the color green is the correct association? I haven’t seen the color green in any literally visual sense.

I might make sense of this by working backwards from the associations green has in my mind—each tied both to the sound and to the color. Or else, I might find the color linked rather directly to the sound, working backwards from what associations the sound has in my mind. Stranger still, I might find associations between sounds and colors I haven’t even seen in reality.

Synesthesia seems to glom things together until the experiences occur not only simultaneously but literally as a unified sensory experience. To experience the trigger is to experience its association.

I believe this causes synesthesia to go under-observed and misunderstood. Many of us experience synesthesia without understanding it for what it is or how common it is, how subtle and integrated into our sensory experience. I don’t believe it’s universal, but I believe it’s possibly a widespread feature that exists on a spectrum.

I believe synesthesia-like phenomena underlie certain kinds of universal sound symbolism, such as the bouba/kiki effect, which has been found across different ages and cultures across time. Ramachandran and Hubbard did some influential experiments in this area.2

So as for me? I experience compelling visual sensations brought on by specific auditory experiences—in particular, music at certain frequencies. I didn’t have much breadth of exposure to music growing up (only hearing country music on radios around me until I was a teenager), so I didn’t really understand much about myself and music until I was nearly an adult.

I began to put it together when I was in a college class for music (with a powerful sound system), and I found myself instinctively blinking and averting my eyes while listening to some baroque music, and for the first time I realized how forcefully visual the music became for me. I started reading more about synesthesia and thought maybe this was a reality for me. Since then, I’ve learned some of the details of how music affects me.

My experiences have some color components, but I struggle to describe what those colors are, beyond cool or warm. They often have textural or spatial components, disjointed in space nearby.

Percussive sounds cause white or otherwise desaturated interruptions in the visual experience. They are like visual noise—snow, static, walls. I tend to seek out music which avoids or minimizes percussion.

Vocal accompaniment causes almost no visual sensation whatsoever. I tend to ignore vocals in music or seek out purely instrumental music. Highly distorted, distinctly stylistic, or highly polyphonic vocals are an exception.

Higher pitched sounds tend to have stronger associations, but I get fuller, more textured experiences from richer musical arrangements. These can be classical, electronic, guitar bands, or whatever.

Sounds of different pitches or timbres tend to make themselves more or less visually salient. Usually higher pitches layer over or through lower ones and have more compact visual representations, warmer colors. The progressions of melodies and overall chord progressions tend to lead to eddies and swirls.

Chromaticism from modernist compositions cause some of the most interesting visuals. “Clair de lune” starts with such rich, variegated lavenders, which yield then to legato scintillations of all colors, covered with lots of warm notes, like stars embedded in a cool sky. The Tristan chord from Tristan und Isolde felt like a greenish-yellowish blight melting into a veil billowing in the wind as the prelude carried into further dissonances—while the final “Liebestod” glowed like a hot, clean pink for me.3 “Aquarium” from Le carnaval des animaux by Camille Saint-Saëns (you probably know it as “that music that plays in cartoons when someone is underwater”) has all these piano glissandos riding over top which cause indescribable motes of light to flit away.

I don’t believe I’d call synesthesia (if that’s what this is) a blessing or a curse. They simply shape the way I enjoy music. I find them vivid, memorable, and affecting—they add a substance. I’m glad it’s there, but I don’t really have any explanation for it, and I enjoy plenty of things without it. I’ve found it gives me a better sensory recollection for things that happen while I’m listening to music, but that might be the only benefit.

I don’t really talk about synesthesia. (I searched my Twitter account for mentions, and I see I’ve only ever mentioned the word once before today.) It’s an extremely personal, subjective experience, and part of it is ineffable. It’s like describing a dream—no one really cares but you.

Since there’s no way to convey the affect portion of the experience, it’s hard to communicate your intentions. It sounds like an attempt to make yourself seem special or gifted in some way. Synesthesia has been associated with artists and art since the 1800s, especially musical composers. It became faddish enough for a time that it was even popular to fake aspects of it.

I want to emphasize again that I believe there is a universal quality to sensory crossover. My personal belief is that synesthesia-like experiences exist on a spectrum in many people—some more than others. The more we talk about it for what it is and how it actually is experienced, the more readily others will recognize the experience in themselves and normalize it.

For this reason, I don’t want to state definitively I have synesthesia. I’m not saying that. I will say that I have experiences that feel could be appropriately described by the term, so I wouldn’t rule it out. I imagine that many people feel like I do or have some similar quality to their sensorium. I just want to open us up to the possibility of synesthesia being ordinary.