Monday, January 14, 2008

Taste the rainbow

My next blogging subject was suggested by an article on, entitled "The Letter E is Purple." Without even reading the lede, I knew exactly what the article would be: a first-person narrative nonfiction piece about synesthesia. I knew this because I have had similar statements bouncing in my mind since an early age, except to me, the letter E is orange.

Synethesia, as the previous links will tell you, is a state in which the mind connects the input from one sense with the felt experience of another. Being able to taste colors, see music, or indeed, associate colors with numbers and letters.

Ever since I was little, I've associated a certain color or colors with each number and letter. The image above more or less represents my color associations with the ten individual Arabic digits. Not all of the color associations are strong, and some are hard for me to pin down if I think about them. 1 and 0 are hard, especially. 3 is sometimes yellow, sometimes orange. But for my whole life, I've had a starter set of colors that I associate with numerals and with letters. Like each color has a Platonic form sitting in a locked room somewhere, a perfect Sesame Street Muppet version of itself that all other examples of the symbol is copied from.

I think that when I was a kid, I understood these colors to be universal, but after a couple arguments ("Don't be stupid! E is brown!"), I realized that my colors were not other peoples' colors. And over time, I think I realized that a) the colors were subjective and b) not everybody had the colors, so I let it drop. That has always been the extent of my synesthetic experience: each letter and numeral has a color. Sometimes words or longer numbers have colors, being combinations or sequences of others. Sometimes a color overwhelms. The letter F is green, as are the words Fred or Frederick. B and Beukema are red. Incidentally, my favorite color is blue. On an early date with my wife, I explained my experience of synesthesia to her, and mentioned that her initials went well together (MSR = blue, grey and brown, although the letters are black, blue and reddish brown respectively -- I never claimed this made any sense to me).

Years later, again in Doug Diamond's music history class (see also my second post), we talked about the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, and I first learned the word synesthesia. Seems old Alex had a particularly strong case, and saw colors associated with musical tones. His composition was necessarily affected by his colors, and in order to convey his experience with his audience, he devised a color organ that would project the colors he saw for each note. The wikipedia article on Scriabin describes arguments he had with Rachmaninoff and Rimsky-Korsakov about his associations. Apparently the latter had a low-grade synesthesia himself. Of course his colors didn't match Scriabin's -- I think everybody who has this has a different set of associations, formed by certain chemical connections randomly happening at some time in one's youth. Maybe I had a children's book that showed the numbers as I show them above. Or maybe "green" and "4" just landed in the same place in the primordial soup between my ears.

I've spoken personally to two other people who have had strong synesthetic experiences. One is my friend Adam from college, who, if I recall, had much stronger associations than mine, including musical ones. And I once had a conversation with a synesthete who described how she would see the colors associated with words and letters projected over a page as she read it. That's very different from and more extensive than my simple, back-of-the-brain experiences.

A Japanese video game designer named Tetsuya Mizuguchi created a game for the Sega Dreamcast and Playstation 2 called "Rez" that sought, in part, to simulate synesthesia for the player. The game is full of simple, stylized, colorfol visuals and pulsing, evocative techno music, resulting in a simulation of a rave as much as anything else. But it's a fun and easily recommendable game. Check out some video from it.

So, handful of readers, do you have synesthetic associations? Have you told anyone about them? Have you talked to others who have them? Please, do tell.


Seaswell said...

strange - i just learned about this a few weeks ago while reading "Musicophilia" by Oliver Sacks. There's a whole chapter on people with muscical associates with colors and a lot of more general information. many people with perfect pitch claim that it's easy to tell which pitch is which because of the colors that pop up in their minds. he said another common form is having color associates with dates and days of the week.

oh - and he covers someone who associates TASTES with musical notes, which is just plain weird.

all i had know about it before was the nabokov and his wife both had strong cases and that it affected how he wrote... some of his stories are "mostly purple," etc.

Nora Rocket said...

Very interesting, Fred...I would say that my sense-mixing associations are between colour and music; taste and colour; and smell and colour (especially that last one). When thinking about what perfume/scent I'd like, I always think in terms of the colour: should be green to grey, not at all pink or orange, and mostly not blue. Also, the french horn plays red, the tuba a heavy, dripping gold, the flute white, and the clarinet a very rich brown.

Anonymous said...

I had an archaeological field school student once tell me that I tasted like bubble gum. She was chewing while I was describing how to excavate a fence post hole.