Am I experiencing synesthesia?
January 9, 2008 1:23 PM   Subscribe

Do I have synesthesia?

I guess the most common type of synesthesia is when letters and numbers evoke colors. I don't have that. Rather, I have this:

If my eyes are closed during sex, I usually see colors very vividly- this has been going on almost as long as I've been sexually active.

Certain numbers are inextricably connected with phonemes, and have been for my entire life without changing. The earliest I recall this is second grade, and I'm 24 now. It even carries across alphabets- for example, 2=N, ن, and ㄴ, all graphemes that represent the same sound in various languages, and this just feels right to me. 2 does not evoke any other sound. if someone said 2=T, I'd think they were wrong.

On rarer occasions, people with certain types of personalities make me 'feel' a certain color (like an aura but minus the hocus pocus aspect).

So, am I just weird? Or do I exhibit characteristics of synesthesia?
posted by tumbleweedjack to Science & Nature (24 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
The colors with your eyes closed sounds more like phosphenes. The rest, sure, you could call synaesthesia if you want: "Synesthesia can occur between nearly any two senses or perceptual modes. "
posted by ook at 1:55 PM on January 9, 2008

This does not seem to be what is normally thought of as synesthesia, a sort of cross-wiring of senses.

In any case, this linking of phonemes with numbers is interesting. What happens when you are presented with a phoneme which is not in a language you know, which is, say totally different from any language you know? Possibly you connect it to a phoneme which is most similar in your own language and assign the same value.

In any case, though I'm not qualified to say so, I don't think this sounds like "classical" synesthesia (whatever that is).

Anyway, regardless of what it is, must you label it?
People these days are always looking for an excuse to give themselves some sort of exotic name tag. The mind is a complex thing. Go with it.
posted by mateuslee at 2:00 PM on January 9, 2008

I thought seeing all kinds of crazy shit during sex was normal. It's fun to speak it or write it down. I get very emotionally-charged lucid dreamlike images, like fox kits, leaded windows, icicles, kumquats, whathaveyou.

The rest sounds sorta like synesthesia to me, but I couldn't say with certainty.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 2:01 PM on January 9, 2008

Every person I've ever talked to about synesthesia (regardless of whether they've previously heard of it) maintains that they must have it, for nearly the same sorts of reasons you state. And it's doubtful they all actually have it, based on what I've read concerning the prevalence of synesthesia. I've always 'connected' certain numbers with colors and numbers ("4" is yellow and relates to "H." "9" is purple and relates to "N." "3" is green and relates to "R.")

In any case, I'm confident I don't have synesthesia. I suspect all of us make these seemingly pointless "connections," at least a little.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 2:06 PM on January 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

I was at a Grateful Dead show and every time Jerry played certain notes, I could taste different flavors. Some notes were cherry, some lemon and so forth. To this day, whenever I hear those notes on an electric guitar, I can taste them regardless of who plays the actual guitar.

I doubt I have synesthesia. I doubt most people do. Maybe you do though.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 2:19 PM on January 9, 2008

Response by poster: ook: they aren't phosphenes, which I used to enjoy greatly as a kid (I'd rub my eyes until I'd get them). It's really more like rather than seeing black when I close my eyes during sex, waves of color wash over me. Maybe I just have really good sex.

mateuslee: it's less a desire to label and more 'does this happen to anyone else or am I wholly unique amongst the human race in this regard'. Regarding other languages- I don't think there are any phonemes I don't know, having been a linguistics major in college. At any rate, since I only usually work with numbers in an English setting, I can only answer to my experience in that regard.

on preview: Dee Xtrovert, thanks for confirming that at least I'm not alone in the numbers/phonemes thing.
posted by tumbleweedjack at 2:20 PM on January 9, 2008

I thought seeing all kinds of crazy shit during sex was normal.

I heard somewhere that it's pretty common for women at least. For a long time I would see a fish market by the pier.
posted by herbaliser at 2:20 PM on January 9, 2008

I always wondered if a number of people experience the letter/color thing do to the prevalence of refrigerator magnets. While searching for a nice photo of alphabet refrigerator magnets, I came across this article ( HTML from PDF): " In this paper we demonstrate that the particular colors seen by a grapheme-color synesthete AED were learned from a set of refrigerator magnets and that the synesthesia later transferred to Cyrillic in a systematic way, with the colors induced by the Cyrillic letters determined by their visual or phonetic similarity to English letters."
posted by oneirodynia at 2:27 PM on January 9, 2008 [3 favorites]

I don't know about refrigerator magnets (we didn't have those where I grew up), but I've often thought about the long poster of the alphabet in my kindergarten / elementary school, with its colorful depictions of each letter. Could my "connection" of certain letters with certain colors be just a partial memory of how those letters were shown on this poster (or some other early childhood memoribilia concerning the alphabet)? It seems plausible to me; more plausible than the idea that I've got synesthesia, at any rate! One would think that these "basic" connections (i.e., colors to letters) would last much longer or be more potent than the actual context in which they were viewed - kids' memories are like that, I think.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 2:46 PM on January 9, 2008

I would suggest you read some of neuroscientist V S Ramachandran's work in this area. What he proposes is that synaesthesia occurs due to cross-wiring of different sensory regions in the brain, so that what should be an input to say an auditory area of the brain (in the case of your phoneme example) gets wired to the part of your brain that is responsible for your sense of number. So when you here a phoneme or see the letter that represents that phoneme you also sense a number. I'm not explaining this very well, but he also touches upon the notion of qualia -- the experience of sensing something -- for example the colour red. We have no guarantees that what I experience when I see the colour red is the same as what you experience. So a synesthetes brain regions are so cross-wired that they experience two types of qualia from a single sensory input. I don't understand why people are so quick to say that what they experience is synesthetic -- JohnnyGunn's experience, for instance, seems like classic synesthesia to me.
posted by peacheater at 2:49 PM on January 9, 2008

I do not have synaesthesia, but 3 = r and 6 = s.
posted by agentofselection at 2:54 PM on January 9, 2008

JohnnyGunn, that's just the acid working its magic.
posted by fourcheesemac at 2:58 PM on January 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Art Benjamin, a human calculator (NOT a rain man type, he's a normal-functioning person in other areas and in fact a math professor), uses a numbers/phonemes association.
posted by madmethods at 3:04 PM on January 9, 2008

I can't eat pork - it tastes yellow, and I find the mixture of senses unpleasantly disturbing. Note that it doesn't happen with ham, bacon, etc, even though everybody scoffs and tells me they're all the same thing. In fact, I'm cooking up some nice fresh country-bought bacon for breakfast right now...

Synaesthesia? Possibly, but for me it's more a personal curio than anything else. As a kid, after I learned that other people didn't experience the same thing, I just figured it was some sort of brain/mental miswiring that everybody had in one form or another, to one degree or another. It wasn't until I was in my late 20's that I learned it had more extreme forms, and a name.

I like oneirodynia's link; I've often wondered whether the classic numbers/letters -> colours thing may, in a lot of cases, be just a connection learned in childhood. In my case, with pork I don't actually see yellow - I experience yellow. If yellow had a taste (which it doesn't) ... well, that's what pork tastes like to me.
posted by Pinback at 3:20 PM on January 9, 2008

Watch this TED Talk (video) by Vilayanur Ramachandran. He talks about a number of subjects, including synaesthesia, commenting and proving at one point that we all experience it in at least some ways.

Many strictly association the term with the number/color thing and there's this buzz about synaesthesia's correlation with artistic genius that makes some people want to consider it a rare and binary gift that some special snowflakes have and others don't. Of course we all want to think we do and at the same time that you don't.

But I like Vilayanur Ramachandran's interpretation of it, which is that it's a phenomenon of associative connection in the brain, and is loosely related even to very common stuff like the use of metaphor. I think this largely deflates the whole big question of which of us have The Genius and which don't.
posted by scarabic at 3:38 PM on January 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

"Many strictly associate"
posted by scarabic at 3:38 PM on January 9, 2008

I'm not sure if those are synesthesia characteristics or not. I associate letters with different "personalities" but that's the extent of it. So I don't know that I'd say either of us definitively have it...just aspects of it, maybe. Like scarabic was saying, it's probably more common than we realize.
posted by flod logic at 4:05 PM on January 9, 2008

I'm not sure on the synesthesia, but 2=N for me too.
posted by fermezporte at 4:10 PM on January 9, 2008

While looking for this article earlier today I found an article that suggests that many of this idioms we use to describe sensory input with terms normally use for other sensations my be the result of similar "cross talk" that goes on in everyone's head.

As for the "learned in childhood" interpretation, that doesn't explain the observations in the article above.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:29 PM on January 9, 2008

I don't get the number thing. Mine is more tied to music ("Oh... you don't.. see.. (and then paint) the music..?? Hmm??")

Wikipedia is a good place to start. Explore their links and so on. The conclusion I came to is there are categories but it's fairly individual. It also occurred to me that it may have effected things like test results throughout a persons life. Solutions and answers will always be coloured (ha ha) by it , it might have been an advantage or it might not.

I've 'seen lights' but I don't think this is what you mean though. But, the first time I kissed SO, the moment our lips touched I had an intense sweetly searing pink flash through my brain. With the kind of intensity that oblitorates perception of all else. As it faded off and reality came back - I felt slightly concerned you know :) , as it hadn't happened before and nothing like That has since, but it was the most beautiful and perfect pink I've ever laid eyes on. (God that man rocks my world).

Out of curiosity though - what are your dreams like??
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 6:40 PM on January 9, 2008

Thinking in Pictures is how Dr. Temple Grandin, a well-known author who also happens to be autistic, describes her experience.
posted by tamitang at 8:23 PM on January 9, 2008

Here's a Question: Can you memorize series of sounds as number and vice versa? So, can you memorize a new word in a language as a sort of color strip, e.g. NORAK red-blue-green-yellow. I guess not.

Of course there are phonemes you aren't familiar with (see my prev comment) even if you were a linguistics major. What do you associate with a click? does an ejected [p] and an aspirated one have the same association? etc.
posted by mateuslee at 10:55 PM on January 9, 2008

Response by poster: mateuslee: I associate numbers with phonemes, not phonemes with numbers. So not every phoneme has a number, which is why I don't run into the problem you're describing.

mu~ha~ha~ha~har: I've always had extremely vivid, detailed, intense dreams.

fermezporte: I love you.
posted by tumbleweedjack at 12:26 AM on January 10, 2008

@JohnnyGunn: I taste music too. Why is it not a form of synesthesia?
posted by lastobelus at 3:51 AM on January 10, 2008

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