Wednesday, March 16, 2011

On Synesthesia

I have grown rather curious about synesthesia.  I even included an instance of it in my short story, On Gossamer Wings.  
What is synesthesia?  The formal definition that I have found is "a neurologically-based condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway."  Once you've parsed that winding, knotty descriptor, I'll illustrate with an example.

If someone says the phrase "the days of the week" to you, is there an image that comes into your mind?  Do you involuntarily associate each day with a certain color?  That's synesthesia.  In my own case, and that of the character in the short story as well, my graphic representation of a week is a continuum of fuzzy light.  Sunday is the brightest of the seven, then Monday gets sort of a "dirty snow" look to it, and so on until I reach Saturday, which is pitch dark.  What's more, the continuum is always a trifle slanted, moving from Sunday in the bottom left corner to Saturday in the upper right, but with the days able to cycle around as needed is if attached to a carousel.  I have no idea why I do this, I just always have ever since I can remember.  
My conception of the months of the year is much the same, but far less creative in nature.  The year is centered horizontally with the summer months in the middle.  The months of June and July are bright white and then fade into a tremulous, amber-hued August.  We reach gray by October and December is all black.  Things gradually increase in brightness from there.  Like I said, not terribly creative.
Numbers are similar.  One through ten all in a row, then a carriage return to a dark space for 11-19.  The teens are very dark, but everything gets lighter after that.  With all of these "systems" and visualizations I have just described, I always get the feeling that I am going to a location or a specific place when asked to count or schedule a date in my head.
From what I've read, this all sound fairly consistent with those who experience synesthesia.  I don't mean to make myself sound falsely special.  I'm willing to bet most people have this sort of thing going on inside their brains to one degree or another.  I have even met people who claim that they can "taste yellow" for example or "see" certain sounds.
I look forward to reading and learning more about this mental phenomenon.  For those of you who are literary minded, The Gift by Vladimir Nabokov is said to use synesthesia as a metaphor and may be a book to look into.  
The human mind is perhaps more mysterious, even far more mysterious, than much of what I have blogged about here to date.

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  1. I think some of the things you are describing are just normal associative connections within the brain. We have the tendency to associate all kinds of things together based on our experience. FOr example if in school you learned the days of the week from a large yellow poster on which the days were printed in red ink, you may always have some association with those colors when you think of the days of the week.

    My understanding of synesthesia (and I am no expert, by any means, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night) is that it is a condition where your normal pathways get mixed up. So when you would normally see the color green, your brian would access the color green from your memory and maybe some related green associations. On the other hand, with synesthesia, the pathways get mixed up so when you see green your brain mistakenly accesses your memory of the taste of bacon, which otherwise would not be associated with green.

    If I am not mistaken this condition occurs when someone takes LSD which is why people have claimed to have such mind-blowing experiences when under its effects.

  2. David,
    I have been wondering if the origins of my synesthesia are indeed from a colored calendar I saw in first grade, or something to that effect. And as this kind of thing goes, my conceptualizations are on the rather mild side.

    And you are correct about LSD. I have heard a few former drug users describe many synesthesia-like experiences via that substance.


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