In this post: The fascinating neurological condition synesthesia affects how I see and write about the world. Join the conversation and I'll tell you what my synthesthesia senses in your personality!
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When I was thirteen years old, I had a deep-water experience that terrified me. My sister, cousin, and I swam out to the buoy that delineated the beach area from the rest of Lake Champlain. Not being a strong swimmer at the time, as soon as I reached the buoy, I was tired and wanted to head back to shore.
I flipped onto my back, since backstroke is my strongest stroke and easiest to do when I'm tired.
My right arm is apparently a lot stronger than my left arm, so I pulled unevenly.
Unbeknownst to me, I was heading straight out toward the open lake.
My sister and cousin tried to call to me, but I could not hear them. In the deeper water, the wind stiffened its sweep over the water and waves began washing over my face. When I paused to see how close to shore I might be and realized I was further than ever, my waning strength flared into sudden terror. I totally freaked out.
When my cousin finally reached me, I did exactly what panicked swimmers do to their rescuers: I climbed up him to get away from the water.
My cousin fought me off, flipped me onto my back, and began pushing me toward the shore, shouting for help. My mother heard us (she is an excellent swimmer!) and came to our aid.
Every summer after that, my mother brought me to the same beach and pointed to the same buoy. "Let's swim out together."
"No, Mom." I turned cold and quivering just at the thought. "No, please."
Still, she insisted and I listened. She knew I needed to face my fear with her by my side. I knew I could physically do it. I knew I wouldn't drown. But the thought utterly terrified me. As soon as my feet left the safety of the sandy lake floor, my fear closed in upon me like converging waves.
"That's when my teeth would feel blue," I told a friend, recounting the story.
"Would feel what?" She blinked at me.
"You know... all numb and tingly and blue."
I looked at her for understanding, at her boyfriend, at my husband. None of them had any idea what I was talking about. But there was no other way to describe how my fear affected me. My fear concentrated in my jaw and it made my teeth feel blue. Wasn't that understandable?
Then I realized what was going on and I laughed. "Have you ever heard of synesthesia?"
An article in Psychology Today explains synesthesia this way:
Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway (for example, hearing) leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway (such as vision). Simply put, when one sense is activated, another unrelated sense is activated at the same time.
"For me," I explained to my friend, "Everything has a color. The letter A is red. The story of the Lord of the Rings is mostly a misty gray with occasional sparkles of gold. Your personality is green. I can see sounds too. Soundtracks or songs become very visual to me, like they have a movie that goes with them."
"Oh!" My friend's boyfriend sat up. "That's like how I assign gender to most things. For example, this tree is female."
"Really? Gender?" That was a new one for me. "What about that rock?"
"Um..." He shrugged. "It's a rock. It's not a living thing."
We all laughed.
Synesthesia is a fairly common subject among my writing friends and I. My fellow synesthetes hear color, see sounds, assign genders to inanimate things, taste personalities, smell emotions, feel the textures of certain words. I suspect it is because those who deal in human perception and emotion (such as writers, artists, musicians, actors, and other creators) deal with uncommon associations and possibilities.
For me, it's all about color, texture, and movement. One of my friends is "yellow" to me, but a still, serene yellow, like sunlight through trees. Another friend is also "yellow," but with abrupt, light movement, like sunlight sparkling from water. The better I know you, the more texture and movement your color acquires in my mind's eye. My Dragon is a solid, stationary brown with wood-texture, accompanied by unpredictable flares of warm and powerful luminescence. In other words, he's a campfire. ;-)
Do you have synesthesia? What examples can you find, from your own life or from literature?
Comment below with a description of yourself--whatever you want to share--and I'll tell you what color, texture, and movement you evoke in my mind's eye!
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