Most people would likely agree that we have 5 key senses. We see with our eyes, we hear with our ears, we smell with our nose, taste with our tongue and feel through touch. It seems straight forward enough, however for some of us, that’s not exactly what we experience. There is a neurological phenomenon called synaesthesia in which there is some confusion between senses. For example some people taste sounds, or see pain.
Some of the better known types of synaesthesia are as follows:
Grapheme-colour synaesthesia – where individual letters, numbers or words induce the experience of a colour.
Chromesthesia – where sounds induce the experience of a colour
Spatial sequence synaesthesia – where numbers and sequences exist in space
Auditory-tactile synaesthesia – sounds induce a sensation associated with touch
Ordinal linguistic personification – sequences, such as numbers, week-day names, and alphabetical letters exist as personalities
Mirror-touch synesthesia – where observation of another person experiencing touch induces the same sensation in themselves
Lexical-gustatory synaesthesia – where sounds induce the sensation of taste
Spatio-temporal synaesthesia – where time is experienced as a spatial construct like a map of the year.
There are other forms not mentioned, and in fact very little is known about most. Grapheme-colour synaesthesia is considered the most common, where as those forms related to taste and touch are considered rarer. What differentiates synaesthesia from mere association is the consistency and lack of thought that goes into it. You can ask someone years later what colour the letter H is and it will likely be exactly the same to them. It can’t be learnt, taught, or got rid of, it is simply the way some people brains are wired.
General consensus on synaesthesia is that it is not a handicap, and can in fact be very helpful specifically in memory related tasks. People with spatial sequence synaesthesia generally have great chronological memory. Grapheme-colour synaesthesia, or ordinal linguistic personification provide you with an extra idea you can latch on to remember things by. However in extreme cases people can struggle with sensory overload.
There are some online tests you can do for some of the more common forms of synaesthesia but for greater reliability they need to be taken multiple times years apart. The one I have completed a few times is for grapheme-colour synaesthesia at synesthete.org. It gives you a full colour range to select the colour you experience for different letters and numbers, testing for consistency and speed; my results are below.
I myself experience two main types of synaesthesia. One is grapheme-colour synaesthesia, generally considered the most common, and the other is ordinal linguistic personification which is less known about. I had no idea that this wasn’t how everybody experienced life until I was in my late teens. My mum and I could hold conversations about what colour certain letters or numbers were (it seems she has a mild form of synaesthesia also), or when naming cars or any object really rationalising the name by saying it was a red name or a blue name. My red and chrome MG BGT was called Archie for obvious reasons to my mind. It was only when I happened to catch a documentary about the phenomenon that I realised that it wasn’t the standard view of the world.
When I say I experience things visually I mean for example that the number 4 is a pillar box red, I don’t associate it with red, I don’t mentally link it with red, it just is red, there is no thought that goes into it; it just is. Similarly other letters, numbers and words they have a different visual existence for me than their basic form.
The ordinal linguistic personification I experience most strongly with numbers. The number 6 is awful, like a black hole, controlling and evil, tainting and overpowering everything around it. The number 9 in contrast is like a slightly gloomy, geeky, teenage boy; tall and lanky with spots. The number 7 is my favourite, he’s like a loveable rogue, a con artist but only going after bad guys. They also have colours and this on the whole I find useful. In fact I memorised my bank card pin by colour and have a sense of whether a number is right or wrong by the colour I experience and whether it matches what I remember.
The only problems this has ever caused me is when certain object aren’t really the colour the I experience when thinking about them, or when letters and numbers are all together like post codes or number plates. For example the Olivine is a white word, however the mineral is green. The word Quartz is a black word however the mineral is white. When you’re studying geophysics and have to take exams on mineral properties this can get very confusing. I also get the number 4 and the letter A confused as they are exactly the same shade of red.
There is a novel I intend to read called A Mango Shaped Space by Wendy Mass that follows the life of a 13 year old girl with synaesthesia. I believe it’s quite well known in America but harder to get hold of here in the UK.