I see colours all the time, FOR FREE.
Last year Sage Magazine asked me to write an article about synesthesia, and how it affects my art. So I thought I would share it! It’s not online anywhere else – you’d have to get your hands on the magazine to read it. So I’m just going to copy it right into this blog. Like so:
Living with Rainbow Brains
When I was 16 my dad came across a newspaper article about neurological cross-wiring in the brains of some individuals, causing a strange linking of the senses. He passed the article on to my mom, who passed it on to me, thinking I might be the next to find it interesting (because I’m one of those “artsy fartsy” types, as my dad puts it). My mom handed me the article saying, “Did you know that some people see colours when they read or think of letters and numbers?” My confused response was, “Doesn’t everyone?”
This is synesthesia, domain of not only the artsy fartsy types, but of a small percentage of people everywhere. The currently accepted theory is that we are all born with these extra sensory connections because they help us to learn. Once no longer needed, they are sort of trimmed away, or at least stop being active even if the pathways still exist, and our methods of perceiving the world are pared down to the five senses. For whatever reason, in some people, some of the connections between sensory modalities remain, allowing “cross-talk.” Ta da: synesthesia! One sense automatically and involuntarily triggers another, causing reactions that are idiosyncratic and consistent. Every number and letter of the alphabet has a distinct and unchanging colour in my mind. The letter C, to me, is pink, has always been pink, and always will be pink. Believe me, I would not have chosen my name to be forever the colour of cotton candy if it were up to me. It is not associative; to a synesthete, it is definitive. That is, the letter C is as defined by its specific and unchanging shade of pink as by its curved shape.
Brain scans of synesthetes have shown that different areas of the brain really do become active when only one sense is triggered. These colours, sounds, and tastes are not being imagined or remembered; they are so real that there is no reason to think that the rest of the world doesn’t see things this way. …Unless you get weird looks for saying you want to hear the song that tastes like vegetable soup again, so you can do your “vegetable soup-inspired” dance. Or until someone hands you an article about synesthesia when you’re 16. Surprise!
To me synesthesia seems neither strange nor amazing, even though I’m glad I have it; it’s just my every day norm and nothing unusual – I can’t imagine not having it. In addition to its richness and beauty, it can be helpful, especially with memorization via colour-coding. It is how I learned to play the piano and read sheet music, as each piano key and note on the page has its own corresponding colour. Granted, remembering that someone’s phone number is green is not enough to dial with – it hasn’t necessarily made my memory any better than the next person’s.
My particular way of thinking adds an extra dimension to any decision I have to make; when I set my alarm before bed I fine-tune the minutes to find the right colour combination I want, to set the tone for the next day. For example, if I need to wake up around 9:00, I might set my alarm for 8:57 for a nicer colour to wake up to, or 9:03 as something a little jazzier or more dynamic to get me up and moving. I would not select 9:02 – who would want to wake up to such a gross colour palette as that? Naming any children I might have is going to be a challenge: everyone wants a nice sounding name for their kid, preferably one with meaning. But on top of that, what I choose will have to have nice colours, and must not clash with any middle or last names. I am going to require a patient partner.
In my case, I see letters and numbers in colour, as well as music, physical sensation (touch, as in massage therapy treatments or pain), and occasionally smell and taste, though these last two are not as strong for me. At least half of all music I like is in varying shades of purple, which I find odd as I’ve never liked the colour purple. Yet my absolute favourite songs are all a beautiful green colour: the colour of the letter D. It looks like new spring leaves, filtering sunlight overhead. Startling noises cause synesthetic pain in me, usually in my forehead or legs, and this pain in turn has its own colour and shape, often one that moves through me. As a child I could bend my body into the shape of sounds, something which I have lost with age. I still enjoy how words fit in my mouth – like a physical space they take up there – so I wonder if this form of synesthesia, rather than inhabiting my whole body, simply became smaller and quietly moved into my mouth. I’ve also had strange spatial experiences: I can sometimes feel as though my whole body or sometimes just a specific body part (my arms and hands, or my lips and teeth usually) grow so large that they fill the room and I can hardly contain them, yet are simultaneously impossibly small, and I feel like I cannot keep my form stable. As a child I found this to be both fascinating and terrifying – I would be unsettled by the sensation yet afraid that it would slip away and I would loose this incredible feeling.
I’ve always been artistic, and how much synesthesia may have directly caused that, I don’t know. It has a definite role in my art work, just as anyone’s creative output is filtered through their own individual viewpoint and “coloured” accordingly. The quirkiness of synesthesia does make for some interesting and unexpected stories though!
To my mind, a vertical rectangular shape is intrinsically green, and a horizontally aligned rectangular shape is in essence red. I used to not like the colour red, and for this reason would only take photographs vertically and would make all my paintings vertical. In trying to get accustomed to the idea of using red in my art, I began orienting my canvases horizontally: the direction of my canvas was my first use of red in my artwork, though not a drop of red paint was used. Now, images that are predominantly red, I instinctively paint on horizontal canvases, and predominantly green paintings are always vertical (unless of course I am intentionally inverting them). I do this so automatically and subconsciously that I don’t realize I’ve done it until after the fact.
I often choose or avoid certain colour combinations because of a taste they evoke. Whatever music I put on to paint to will certainly affect the colours of the painting I am working on, though I more often select my background music to match the painting, than paint to match the music. These are not things you could necessarily see when looking at my art, nor is it anything you need to understand to appreciate it; it is essential to how I do what I do, but not to anyone else’s enjoyment of it.
Synesthesia continues to steer me in subtle ways, both in my artwork and in the bigger picture of my life. I am still discovering things I do and connections I make in my mind that I had taken for granted as normal, but turn out to be other forms of synesthesia I didn’t know I had. I don’t know if synesthesia makes me a better artist, but I love making art, and I do enjoy the colourful offerings of my brain – the depth that the experience lends to music and food and movement and words and art. When I think about how I could have grown up not experiencing this (although I cannot understand how), I suppose that it is rather enchanting. The world is rich with beauty, and there is always more, and more, and more, and that is one of the reasons I cannot stop painting.