Written by: Ashley Chean (22-O1)
Designed by: Sophie Ho (23-E3)
i have synaesthesia — i was born with this condition and since young, i had always seen (and associated!!) music and people and words with colours — every “letter” is tinted a different colour for me. but you must ask, why is this so? what caused it, and what is it really like to live with it? allow me to share my experiences with synaesthesia, what i struggle with, and what it really is!
so what is synaesthesia? it is a perceptual phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. generally, it is characterised into two forms — projective synaesthesia: seeing colours, forms, or shapes when stimulated (the widely understood version of synaesthesia), or associative synaesthesia: feeling a powerful and involuntary connection between the stimulus and the sense that it triggers. for example, a person with projective synaesthesia might see colours when they hear music or taste flavours when they see shapes.
some famous people with this condition include marilyn monre, kanye west, frank ocean, billie ellish, and olivia rodrigo. this condition became more widely known when billie ellish, a 21-year-old singer shared that she had the condition and even the colour she felt with each of her songs (for example, bad guy is yellow). but what really causes it?
it is suggested that synaesthesia is caused by a combination of environmental and genetic factors, though little is truly known about what ultimately causes synaesthesia. synaesthesia develops as a child is first exposed to abstract colours and concepts. shapes, colours, letters, and numbers are usually the first abstract concepts that educational systems require children to learn, and these are hypothesized to explain how synaesthesia develops. synaesthetes are also seen to have several excess connections in the brain, especially in the inferior frontal lobe – with increased grey and white matter in the brain. in addition, it is widely believed to be genetic, and even hereditary, with 40% of synaesthetes reporting a first-degree relative with the condition. however, the specific form of synaesthesia an individual expresses can vary within families, suggesting that genetic undertones impose a predisposition to synaesthesia but not in its expression – for example, a parent with chromesthesia (sound-to-colour) can birth a child with grapheme-colour synesthesia (words/letters-to-colour).
there are many different variations of synaesthesia, but we will focus on the three main types!
the first is grapheme-colour synaesthesia: this is when numbers, letters, or symbols are perceived as having distinct colours. for example, the number 5 may always be seen as red. however, things may not be so simple. specific words may have their own colour, with the word “cat” appearing to me as blue-orange, not its specific colours, as represented here.
next, we have lexical-gustatory synaesthesia: this is when words or sounds trigger the perception of taste. for example, the word “chocolate” may taste sweet, or the sound of a trumpet may taste metallic.
finally, we have chromesthesia, which many of the musicians listed above have. this is when sound triggers the perception of a specific colour or even a shape. for example, a certain note or musical key may be associated with a specific colour.
it’s important to note that while two people may have the same branch of synaesthesia – e.g. chromesthesia or grapheme-colour synesthesia, the colours and tastes they experience can vary with each symbol. just like other conditions like autism or dyslexia, not every synaesthete’s experience is the same. however, most synaesthetes within branches have “common traits”, with most grapheme-colour synaesthetes seeing the number “5” as red, though the specific shades may vary with each synaesthete. but you might wonder, how does synesthesia affect the creative process?
It is believed that Vincent van Gogh’s chromesthesia, or sound-to-colour synaesthesia, may have influenced the use of colour in his paintings. Van Gogh experienced vivid and intense associations between sounds and colours, often using bold and vibrant colours in his artwork. in his letters to his brother Theo, van Gogh described how he saw colours in response to different sounds and music. he wrote that he saw “violet-black” in the sound of a church bell, “emerald green” in the sound of a trumpet, and “red-violet” in the sound of a tuba. in his paintings, van Gogh used these intense colours to express emotions and moods. he used bright yellows and oranges to convey energy and vitality, while blues and greens were used to create a sense of calm or melancholy. his use of bold and expressive colours helped to divulge the intense emotional experiences that he saw and felt. Van Gogh’s synaesthesia likely played a significant role in his artistic vision and the unique and expressive style of his paintings. it’s worth noting, however, that while his synaesthesia may have influenced his use of colour, it was just one aspect of his creative process, and his art was also influenced by many other factors, including his personal experiences and artistic influences.
it’s important to note that synaesthesia is not a disorder or pathology; rather, it is a natural variation in perception that affects a small percentage of the population. many people with synaesthesia find it to be a positive and enjoyable experience, and it can even enhance their creativity and memory skills. personally, synaesthesia has helped me in my creative process, and although disorienting at times, is a useful tool in understanding the world.