Synesthesia and me

Some of you may have heard of synesthesia before. While it is of course not exactly how The Onion depicts it, there are many forms of synesthesia and people who have it (about 3.7% of the population) can have one or many of the 60+ forms.

Synesthesia is a neurological occurrence in which the stimulation of one sensory or cognitive input leads to another automatic and involuntary sensory or cognitive output. The classic example, which I still remember from the first time I heard about synesthesia, is a child asking her classmate, “Isn’t the letter A the prettiest pink?” In this case, the cognitive input is the child reading the letter ‘A’ on the page, and every time she does so, she sees it as a particular color pink, which is her cognitive output.

As I said before, there are at least 60 types of synesthesia, as there are so many sensory inputs to experience—sight, sound, taste, smell, touch being just a few of the basics—and just as many sensory outputs as a result. In all of the cases, synesthesia results in an addition of senses, not a replacement. Therefore seeing the letter ‘A’ (also known as a grapheme) did not mean the child saw a splotch of pink in her book; rather, she saw the letter ‘A’ as the rest of us do, but she additionally saw the color pink. According to one source, this grapheme-color synesthesia is present for 62.51% of all synesthetes, making it the most common form of all synesthesia.

Now that I’ve given you a brief understanding of this as a whole, it’s time to bring it back home. As you may have guessed from the title of this post, I do have synesthesia; however I do not have this most common form, and although I’ve known about the condition for years, I never realized until this past year that I was one of the 3.7%.

Realization

For years upon hearing of synesthesia, I generally thought there was only the grapheme-color, grapheme-personification, and music-color. Being a musically and artistically inclined person, I was naturally drawn to the music-color one, as I didn’t see many downfalls of it. Besides the general idea of “wow, seeing colors while listening to music would be cool!,” I thought it would make things easier in singing and music theory as it would probably give me perfect pitch (That note sounds green—must be a C# then!). Beyond this however, my knowledge of synesthesia was slim and since I didn’t have these types, I assumed I didn’t have any of it.

But then one night as I lay awake in my dorm room attempting to fall asleep, I felt my leg jerk as it sometimes does while I try to fall asleep. Instead of putting it out of my mind, I picked up my phone and scoured the Internet for a reason why this happened. I then came along this page which explains all the things the brain and body does during the transitional stage from wakefulness to sleep, also known as hypnagogia. I learned that what I was looking for is called the hypnagogic jerk, and also learned about the Tetris effect that I have experienced many times after being at the ocean for hours.

The most notable thing I found tucked away in this article was one particular sentence: “Sometimes there is synesthesia [when falling asleep]; many people report seeing a flash of light or some other visual image in response to a real sound.” As I read this, I realized I experience this all the time while trying to fall asleep in a dorm room—someone slams their door, I see a flash of white light. If the radiator makes a surprising click, I see another flash of white light.

I then understood that there were many more types of synesthesia than I thought, and not to self-diagnose, but I probably had at least one of them. Since that day I have periodically researched synesthesia on my own and found that I definitely have four types, and possibly even six or more, though these two extra are questionable. Since I didn’t want to diagnose myself (I am definitely not a doctor), I did talk to my neurologist that I see for migraines and asked her what she thought of what I experienced, and she did agree with me that I have it based on what I told her.

My types

The first type I have is general sounds to colors, which makes up about 14.72% of the synesthete population. This includes hearing someone slam a door or hearing the radiator click and simultaneously seeing a flash of white light as I already mentioned. Sometimes I’ve also noticed that when the radiator makes a more metallic click I see cyan. Once, when my teeth were hurting, the radiator clicked and I saw wavy lines instead of a flash of light. Unfortunately, these sounds happen so quickly that it’s difficult for me to tell what I am seeing. I haven’t seen fireworks since I realized I have synesthesia, but I think this is perhaps why I never liked them as a child as I remember complaining that they were too loud and bright.

The second type I have is kinetics to sounds. The list I have says this is about 1.07% of the synesthete population, however there may be a lot more people who have this than scientists thought. The main result of this is when I see something move I hear accompanying sound effects, even if the object isn’t supposed to make sound. For example, if I see a computer screensaver moving, I may hear a whooshing sound. Sometimes I leave a webpage open on my computer that has movement such as .gifs and when I see it moving out of the corner of my eye for a while, I find myself having to take it off the screen because the sound is too annoying.

Opposite of this, sometimes when I hear sounds I see movement in my mind’s eye. This sound to kinetics type is present in about 1.05% of synesthetes. This tends to happen when sounds change from pitch to pitch; for example, if the faucet is dripping and it makes two distinct drip sounds, I will see an up-to-down movement, with the lower-pitched sound correlating with “down” and the higher-pitched sound correlating with “up.” This also translates to another type, musical sounds to spatial coordinates, which occurs for an unknown percentage of synesthetes. When I am listening to music, particularly with music that I know fairly well, it is almost like I’m seeing a miniature roller coaster in front of me in my mind’s eye, but there is no visible track, just the movement of an intangible object moving in various infinite directions.

The last definite type of synesthesia I have is called “ticker-tape,” which occurs in about 21.91% of the synesthete population. When I speak or hear someone else speak, it is almost as if I have captions running across my vision. Because of this, the spelling of names are important to me. Somehow “Kaitlin” and “Katelyn” sound different from one another. I’ve also realized that my want for captions while watching television or movies is for good reason—if I have captions made for me by a computer, my mind doesn’t have to think as much to create its own captions, as the ones on the screen replace the ones in my mind.

Then there are types that I’m still not sure if I have them, but they crop up every once in a while. Once or twice I’ve felt pain and seen a pulsing light in my vision, which would be part of pain to colors, making up 5.26% of synesthetes. I am also still trying to determine whether or not I have sound to touch synesthesia (the percentage of which is unknown), since sometimes I feel something towards the back of my head when the radiator clicks. Sometimes I do hear a musical chord and think “that’s brown, like my boots,” or look at a color and think “that’s a French Horn sound.” Once I ate a piece of dark chocolate and thought, “that tastes blue,” and sometimes I’ll be sitting in bed and I feel like I’m tasting a cube. Additionally, sometimes I wonder if I’m having synesthetic hallucinations as result of the air conditioner’s constant white noise sound at night or if it’s the ringing I already have in my ears.

Partly because the types I have are less common and partly because it’s unnecessary to do so, it’s difficult to test myself to know I have this. At the same time, it’s a difficult thing to fake, as faking it would result in different effects each time. It’s also hard to fake something that can sometimes be an annoyance to myself, like seeing the radiator click annoyingly every night when I’m trying to fall asleep.

This is an ongoing learning process for me, and this will probably be the case for the rest of my life. Though research about this is pretty minimal and for the most part amounts to “we’ve researched this and it exists,” I hope at some point in my lifetime scientists will learn exactly how and why it exists, as so far I believe they have not found a conclusion. If anyone has any information on the subject that I may not know about, please let me know, even though I still have yet to read the copy of Wednesday is Indigo Blue that’s waiting for me at home. Until then, I will continue to lament the fact that the slamming of the door across the hall is increasingly and annoyingly bright.

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