Synesthesia Is Better Than No Thesia at All

I see words in color. I hear words in color. I also hear music and other sounds in color. Until I was ten or eleven, I thought everyone did, so I never talked about the experience. When I finally mentioned it aloud and found out how weird it was, I closed the subject altogether until I was an adult. Now I think it is rather interesting, and I consider it a gift. It is in any case an inescapable aspect of how I perceive things. This is my attempt to describe what I see.

   The letters of the alphabet and the ten numerals have color values in my mind. They are not color associations, and they don’t have any meaning or significance, and I didn’t pick them and can’t change or control them. They just are. It’s entirely involuntary. When I read words, think of words, or hear words spoken, they appear before my inner eye in color. The letters themselves seem to have the color, rather than the sounds. As I hear words spoken, they play visually, almost like closed captions, and the color appears with them. I have to know how to spell things, or my inner experience of them is confounded. It makes a difference to me whether the name I hear is Catherine or Katherine. Alan, Allan, and Allen are not interchangeable, and when I hear them, I want to know which one I am hearing. Finding out that someone I thought of as Laurie is really Lori changes what I see when I look at her. Because I am accustomed to seeing color patterns when I look at words, misspelled words jump out at me. I am a good proofreader but a terrible candidate for a conversational language class.

   All letters have color, and therefore all words have color. Names have the strongest chromatic effects internally, and within that group, the highest level of color intensity belongs to the proper names that are part of our everyday language: names of the months, days of the week, U.S. states, planets, and so on. Whenever I meet someone who possesses this perceptual characteristic, the person almost immediately mentions months and days. Even though there appears to be no consistency in the color valuations that various people experience for the same nameJanuary may be red for me and blue for someone else—they are constant for each person.

   I think some people may see such words whole and experience the color as a single quality. I have carefully analyzed my own experience, and I know that most of the time for me the colors of the words derive from the colors of the letters. They are stronger in proper names because the letter is a majusculea capital letter. Majuscules are invariably more intense in color than minuscules (lowercase letters). Most of the time, in fact, the color of the majuscule will determine or at least dominate the color of an entire word. The red of capital A will turn nearly any word red. But A is such a strong color that even a proper name that begins with another letter but has several A’s in it, such as Maryland or January, will be predominantly redespecially when they are close to chameleon letters, which pick up the color of their neighbors, and transparent letters, which present no competition.   
   The colors I see aren’t “out there.” They’re “in here.” That is, the color isn’t in the letters but in the seeing of them. So a page of text would not look right to me if it were actually printed or displayed in my colors. That’s what I found out at about age 11 when I took my 96-color box of Crayolas and tried to write words the way I saw them. I learned two things then: first, that the color was something that happened inside my head, not in my eyes, and so the words actually did not look right when written with multicolored letters; and second, that the people to whom I showed my alphabetical palette had no idea what I was talking about.
   Still, the urge to render my subjective experience objectively has persisted, and now I have made use of text in Photoshop to create an imperfect but serviceable representation of my letter and number colors. Here they are. The H, I, O, Q, S, X, and Z really can’t be shown correctly because they either change colors or have no color, but this comes close. The Q typically picks up color from its partner U. H is yellow all by itself, but it is a chameleon letter and usually extends the color of the letter that precedes it. X is almost more felt than seen, like a ghost. Some letters vary from their standard color in certain words. And some words have such a strong color association in themselvesthe actual names of colors, for instance, or colorful words like “rainbow”that those effects take over.

   When I look at a page of text, it is almost as colorful as scattered confetti. Here’s a passage from Edgar Allen Poe’s story “The Fall of the House of Usher,” as I believe most people see it. (Click to see a larger image.)

And here’s what I see. Actually what I see is not like this, but this is a very rough approximation of the internal experience. (Click to see a larger image.)

There is no straight color-to-letter formula because some words are seen whole and some letters are affected by their neighbors, by a system that seems to be nearly as complex as the rules of sandhi in Sanskrit; for example, K is green when it appears next to C, but otherwise it is usually purple.

   The coloration effect persists into other languages that use the Roman alphabet, though with some variation occasioned by differences in pronunciation, diphthong groupings, and special characters. For example, the umlauted vowels in German are different in color from their plain counterparts, the differences shading toward their nearest equivalents in sound, and the double-s ß (ess-zett) character, which has no Roman equivalent, is dark blue. Fraktur letters are mostly the same colors as Roman.
   What seems especially curious is how the effect changes in another writing system. The only ones of which I have any experience are the Greek alphabet, the Hiragana and Katakana characters of Japanese, and the Devanagari alphabet of Sanskrit. When words of those languages are transliterated, the Romanized characters have the same values as they have in other non-English languages. When they are written in their own alphabets, the colors of the characters seem to correspond to their sound-equivalents in English, although generally paler in tone, probably because my learning level is barely beyond that of beginner. I think that if I were ever to become proficient in those writing systems, the characters would take on hues as strong as those I see in printed words in English. 
24 May 2003
Copyright © 2003 Meredy Amyx.


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