I met a delightful young lady the other day who sees the world quite differently than most of us do. All the letters and numbers she sees have colors. Even more fascinating: for her, letters have personalities. She doesn’t like to put certain letters side by side because “they don’t get along.” But she has no choice, because words are spelled the way they are spelled. She has two forms of synesthesia.
This, of course, sent me rushing off to Wikipedia to learn more about synesthesia. Here’s what I learned.
It is estimated that 1 in every 23 people has some type of synesthesia. This phenomenon can take many forms. The most common is grapheme-color synesthesia, which is associating letters and/or numbers with color. But others might associate sounds with colors, or numbers as points in space, or sounds as sensations in the body, or words as tastes, or days of the week as colors, or letters as personalities, or colors as smells. There are dozens of possible combinations.
Synesthesia should not be considered a disability. It’s more like having an additional sense. “Seeing” extra doesn’t block one’s ability to see the way we do. For instance, synesthetes know that the letters you are reading right now are in black print. But “somewhere” else they might be seeing them in color. So it’s not like the imagery would hinder their ability to drive.
I think synesthetes are very lucky. I personally would love to see a changing palate of color while listening to music, for example. (But I must admit I probably wouldn’t always welcome uninvited smells or tastes. But then, I could say that without having synesthesia, couldn’t I?)
What I find fascinating is that most synesthetes, for a certain portion of their lives, do not even know how unique they are. They assume everyone perceives the world the same way that they do. That makes sense. We all tend to think everyone around us is experiencing things in the same way, don’t we? That is, until we discover differently.
Next time I run across my new friend, I want to ask her a few questions. Are upper case letters the same color as their lower case counterparts for her? Are multiple digit numbers multicolored, or do their colors mix together? What colors and personalities does my name evoke?
I suddenly like the world a whole lot more just by knowing that there are people out there who really can taste the rainbow!
If you are as fascinated by this subject as I am, check out the documentary Red Mondays and Gemstone Jalapeños.
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