Tuesday, April 30, 2013

On Being A Synaesthete

It's only the last few years I've put a name to the way my brain works, but it's always been this way. When I found out that there was a name for it, I was overjoyed--it meant that I wasn't broken, I just had different wiring, and I object to people who define it as a 'neurological disorder' or something like that.

Synaesthesia is when your brain is built so that stimulating one sense sets off others. It's involuntary and it's usually unnoticed until someone thinks you're nuts when you describe a poem as 'green' or say your ear hurts 'like a banked umber behind vellum'*, meaning that particular quality of texture and light and color, or you realize you're looking for someone to marry who 'looks like light through the leaves'**. For me, it means when I hear voices, music, sometimes TV shows as a whole, I get distinct feelings of what it looks like to see specific colors and shapes and often textures. One of my friends looks like flashes of jagged orange. Another looks like silver lines on a black background. I have a friend who tastes words--she says I taste like Lake Erie Perch. To me, she looks like eggplant-purple and acid green in brush strokes over each other.

I also have leanings toward spacial association synaethesia, which I didn't even know was a thing until recently, but now that I do know, it makes perfect sense: knowing where you are in space is just another sense, after all. I don't have the super-strong kind where I see everything in a specific location around me, but I know that the past is behind and to the right, the future is ahead and to the left, biographical data is just above the edge of my upper peripheral vision on the left, and I can easily remember where things are in a house, what the furniture looks like, and where people are or have been or are going in that space.

Some, but not all, numbers have colors and textures. 0 is white like paper. 1 is yellow and probably see-through. 2 is orange like raw eggyolks. 4 is glassy and deep purple-blue and even has sort of a door-number like font. 8 is brown and fuzzy. Out of these, 4 is the most defined; it's been the same while others have gone in and out of focus and complexity.

Looking at textures without being able to touch them makes me feel them on the roof of my mouth or on my tongue; it sometimes makes me want to put things into my mouth to see if the sensations match! And food has to have a good texture or I can't eat it--no matter how tasty it is, if the texture is gross, I can't do it. And a lot of times, the texture translates as a shape or a color or both. Mashmallows are a smooth, round, white shape, and things that taste like marshmallows have a shape something like but not just exactly like that. How close they are to the same color-shape determines how close the flavor is to a match.

The point is, I live in a pretty colorful and textural world.

When I was a kid, I thought everyone saw things all together like this.

When I was in elementary school, they sometimes did creativity-spurring tests where they'd ask us, like, 'what color is 4', and I never got why other kids had so much trouble, or why their colors changed or didn't match with mine. In high school, when I was learning piano, it was as much about getting the color-shape-pattern to match as getting the sound right.

Then, when I got to college, I started looking at how I look at the world, and started realizing that I'm not standard--and that that's fine. It helped when I was drawing or painting, and it made poetry class interesting. Since then, I've come to learn that I'm really, really right-brained, very visual, a branching (as apposed to linear) thinker, a deep introvert***, and a mild-to-moderate synaesthete.

Somewhere along the way, not even consciously, I started filtering my reactions and interpretations of things so that people would stop picking on me for being weird. Getting to know that there are legitimate words and understood experiences for how I view things lets me peel away those layers of translation I didn't realize I'd put up, and lets me be more me--as well as letting me use the strengths I have more than worrying about the ones I don't have.

Because of loosening the translation-layers, I've gotten much more visually accurate and adventurous in my writing. I've been able to create nail polishes that capture what I see when I hear music and see people and watch shows, and I love doing that. I've had fantastic, hilarious, honest conversations with my friends about how our brains work and what color accents are. And it's so very, very nice to know that I'm not broken or crazy--I just have something cool that other people don't have. It's been helpful and charming and adventurous, and it helps me understand why sometimes I need to just close myself in a quiet room and not talk to people, or why I can't sleep while certain music is playing, or why I really hate the sound of alarm clocks (they're way, way too sharp a shape in my head!).

And understanding myself is a good thing.

Sources and resources:

* Actually, most pain has a shape and texture and color. My malfunctioning stomach valve feels like a charred black stick stabbing through my stomach when it goes off. Gall-bladder pain feels like a sickly-green giant bean up under my breastbone. Migraines feel like too-bright orange-yellow light crackling over my head. My sciatica looks like those lines down people's legs in the new Tron movie.
* These are all personal examples.
** Introversion is something else I'll talk about sooner or later, because I think it's fascinating and important to understand.
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