(A re-run while I have a staring contest with my poor cell phone.)
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For those with synesthesia, the world seems no more interconnected than they assume it always is for the rest of us, until the person with the condition casually mentions how lively and bright blue the letter K always is to a playmate, who then reacts in a baffled way.
It is a condition that an unknown number of people have, but it is a condition to which the modifier “suffers” can not be added, because it does not often have negative effects on an individual’s life. (For some, it must have negative effects, just as any condition might.) It is not known how many people have or might have some form of synesthesia because not many people take the time or are offered the opportunity to describe the way they perceive how they perceive the things they perceive.
A person who is color-blind usually learns at a young age that there is a color that everyone else sees and can name that they do not see. (I am a person who does not have color-blindness, so I have difficulty describing it. I have had color-blind friends, and one, a great writer, made it sound like something I wanted to experience, too, which was not his aim.) Opportunities do not present themselves very often to mention that when they see blue they taste sweet, and when the first opportunity comes and the synesthete takes it and is met with a puzzled look that they interpret as criticism, most do not mention it again.
It is a world of connections that the synesthete occupies, with sounds presenting colors or colors tastes. At its most benign, it is not an intrusive sensation; there are not many reports of individuals avoiding specific words or numbers because of a foul taste or harsh sound, or vice versa. But there are some. Most people with synestesia report that the experience is an awareness that, for instance, a color is involved with the letter or word they are looking at. It is something that can be ignored or enjoyed.
Somewhere in my school days, I must have mentioned seeing words as I speak them, and the classmate to whom I told this must have made me feel terrible. What remains in my memory is a ghost of a thought that I was somehow a bad person for this and needed to tell on myself to the teacher the next time we had a spelling bee: I thought I was cheating whenever I “saw” a spoken word and could spell it out loud as if it was in front of me. (I think I did try in my eight-year-old way to tell her and was met with a baffled look.) Maybe I am simply a very good speller and that’s that. Maybe everyone sees their speech. (It is always word by word, not whole sentences and they are always white letters.) If it is a form of synesthesia, it is the most boring case of it anywhere, ever, and all it ever did for me was earn me a lot of 100s in spelling tests in elementary school.
To this day, if I concentrate, I see the words I speak … somewhere in my perception. Not so plainly that they block what I am looking at in reality, but they are somewhere, usually to my left. This was the case when I studied foreign languages, too, the spelling just came naturally. There are words that never show up, though, and those are the words I always need to look for. (Mickey Spillane used to say that his characters were always clean-shaven because he had to look up the spelling of the word “mustache.” I get that.)
How does one describe one’s perception? Perception may be the most unique and personal portion of human experience—or it may be the most identical; either way, we do not have a means of testing it, except based on anecdotes from individuals. Perhaps strawberries taste the same for you as they do for me—in which case, Hooray for the two of us! because “strawberry” is the best flavor, period—or they do not. And there is no boundary definitively marking the areas in which a “blue always seems to cheer me up” casual causality that most people express and the areas in which a child can spell, not because of an “i before e” rule, but because red always goes to the left of green, which tastes better anyway.
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This post first appeared in 2014.
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I first heard of it only last October: out for dinner with some friends, a person I didn’t know very well mentioned suffering from synesthesia. I think I rolled my eyes. Then I googled it in the taxi home and was ashamed to see it is indeed a condition. I stand corrected. Funny thing is, since that first time, this must be the fourth time I have come across it, after a lifetime of not knowing.
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