Sunday, January 27, 2013

Synesthesia is a colorful way of life

Do you see numbers or letters in color?

You're not crazy. It's rather common.

It's called Grapheme synethesia.

I never knew that what I see had a name. So often people looked at me like I was crazy when I said I see numbers in color. I stopped telling others.

I thought it was cool. I liked that it helped me memorize things in school, and do math in my head.

So I dug around to learn more. Here's a little bit of what I've found so far.

Synesthesia definition

The short of it...Hank on SciShow.

The longer Wikipedia bit...
Synesthesia from the ancient Greek, "together," and "sensation," is a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.

In one common form of synesthesia, known as grapheme → color synesthesia letters or numbers are perceived as inherently colored, while in ordinal linguistic personification, numbers, days of the week and months of the year evoke personalities. In spatial-sequence, or number form synesthesia, numbers, months of the year, and/or days of the week elicit precise locations in space, or may have a (three-dimensional) view of a year as a map.

Synesthetes often report that they were unaware their experiences were unusual until they realized other people did not have them, while others report feeling as if they had been keeping a secret their entire lives, as has been documented in interviews with synesthetes on how they discovered synesthesia in their childhood.

Facts (so far)

  • Over 60 types of synesthesia.
  • Runs in families.
  • Eight times more common among artists, writers, poets and other creative types.
  • Once thought to be uncommon, but exists in about 1 in 25 people, 4% of the population.
  • Known for hundreds of years, science just now studying it.

Some fascinating videos

V.S. Ranachandrum at Beyond Belief 2.0, From Molecules to Metaphors
One thought about how it happens...crazy? memory from early childhood? just metaphorical? No, it's a concrete sensory phenomenon. See what happens in the brain. Watch part 2 and 3 too.

Synesthesia: A film by Jonathan Fowler
Another theory, by David Eagleman, involves excitation and inhibition of certain parts of the brain. The experience can wax and wane, or be affected by alcohol or antidepressants so it has more to do with giving off or receiving certain signals in certain parts of the brain. But it's not the same as a hallucination.

Seeing Life in Colors: Crosswired Senses
An ABC news report. One sense—taste, sight, hearing, touch or smell—gets jumbled with another, creating what Dr. Richard Cytowic, a neurologist, describes as a blending of the senses.

Big Think: David Eagleman
An inroad to how different brains see the world differently.

Extrordinary people—synesthetes
One woman who has several forms of synesthesia—unusual.

2012 MAPS film school
Love that one young man composes music using his synesthesia. For example, listen to his piece that exhibits all the colors from "Where the Wild Things Are" children's book.

Entertaining visualization

Michal Levy creates delightfully designed animations based on the involuntary sensations she gets from jazz music. Love this.

Here's what I see

The numbers are definitely colors, some letters too but not all, and the days of the week and months of the year are colorful. Working my way through the year is definitely a 3D pathway, as are simple math calculations.

1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  0 or 0

So what does it all mean?

Here's what I take away from this new-found knowledge.

For the most part, it doesn't really matter. We are all unique in our own ways and we should celebrate that in ourselves and in others.  (At what age do we stop clapping for all the marvelous things our children do. Never, I say.)

But to that person it does matter. It helps them interpret the world and their experiences in it. It feels like a gift to some, a leg up, but not in a superior way, to others—just how it is to be them. Let's be curious and supportive.

For me it's a happy discovery. I'm thrilled to learn this new thing about myself (at my age!) and I want to explore and create and augment any talent I can find. Maybe it could help me be a better artist. Maybe it's why I love metaphor or see meaning in everything. Could be the start of another career or hobby, who knows.

Hope you discover something new about yourself, at any age. It's never too late.

And, by the way, it's a great conversation starter. Let me know, in the comments, if you have some form of synesthesia.


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