In my head, the letter N is green. The number 5 is blackish gray, and in his early 20s. The month of February is lavender colored and covered in ice.
So in case you haven’t guessed, I have synesthesia.
I’ve had it all my life, I suppose. People who are experts on such things say that we are born with it, that it is a brain disorder. The wires in your brain get crossed, and you experience all five senses simultaneously. They overlap where they should be separate.
Everybody who has it has a different form of synesthesia with minor undertones of other kinds. Mine mainly exists with letters and numbers. I see numbers, letters, words, etc in color. All of my letters and numbers have different colors, personalities, textures, ages and gender. I literally see them as living beings. Colors themselves also have gender. When I was a child often I’d play ‘house’ with my crayons instead of dolls. Seriously, I’d have red and blue get married or green and orange have a sordid affair. My Grandma used to think it was so funny. It was just normal to me. Words have colors – for instance, my son’s name, Callum, is a bright, sunny yellow with flecks of baby blue, particularly in the L’s.
The inside of my head kind of feels like a Jackson Pollock painting. All splotches and globs of brightly colored paint, roads leading nowhere, just an explosion of thick, goopy color with a nonsensical message. Convergence, 1952 by Jackson Pollock is my favorite painting. Probably because it’s the colors of my name. Yellows, a hint of orange, lots of black, and a little fleck of blue peaking out; all of it streaked into oblivion. My name looks just like that; it did long before I ever saw a Pollock painting.
I also have synesthesia with regard to music. Certain songs bring vivid colors into my head. If I listen to ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’, by the Beatles, my head fills with alternating flashes of mustard-yellow and bright, silvery white. It has a distinct pulse and a gritty, sandpapery feel. David Bowie’s voice always invokes a bright sky blue that sometimes turns darker, or has shades of gray, depending on the mood of the song. Rap music invokes a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes all spiralling through my head at warp speed. I prefer one sole theme, which is why I think I don’t usually care for rap music unless it’s really unique or exceptional (for instance, Lil Wayne’s voice is a silvery gray with purple undertones that I find really pleasing). Classical music takes me through a landscape of color, shape and feeling. Usually I close my eyes when listening. It’s like having my own personal DVD of Fantasia playing through my head whenever I listen.
Usually when I tell people about my synesthestic experiences they look at me like I’m some crazed hippie. I probably am a crazed hippie in reality, but what I experience is more than just psychadelic. It’s spiritual. My synesthesia is so ingrained into me that if I lost my ability tomorrow, I would feel as if I’d been blinded or deafened.
Occasionally I experience the other types of synesthesia that have to do with taste, sensation and smell, but only occasionally. Smells and tastes definitely invoke a distinct color in my brain. For instance, the smell and taste of fresh garlic makes my head fill with bright, vibrant green. Diet drinks with their saccharine sweetness always appear in my head as being a shimmering, blinding silver.
It can be strange, having synesthesia. If I’m out to dinner with a friend, and they scrape their fork on their teeth, my brain fills with unnamed metallic colors, and my ears roar with the sound of it. I can’t stand it. I can taste the metal on my own tongue and it is unbearable. It can cause obsessive compulsive behavior sometimes. Occasionally the sound and taste of silverware is so loud in my brain that I have to use plastic cutlery when I eat.
Synesthesia certainly enriches my life as an avid reader and a writer. It always helped my poetry and as I become better at essays and stories I find that it enriches them, too. Certainly F. Scott Fitzgerald was synesthetic. No-one can read The Great Gatsby and tell me that he wasn’t. I think that is why I feel so decadent and wistful when I read his books. I’ve read Gatsby dozens of times and never tire of the language and the way his words flow in an endless barrage of color. Many artists and celebrities are synesthestes, including Tori Amos, Eddie Van Halen, Frederick Nietzche, Stevie Wonder, Vladimir Nabokov, and many, many others.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t grateful to have synesthesia. I have had it so long that it is like second nature to me now. I often forget that I do have it, and just go through life assuming that people are experiencing the same sensations as I do. I see the months of the year like a giant rolodex, spiralling through an open space. They all have colors, genders, ages and personalities. I also benefit from having a somewhat photographic memory with directions, phone numbers, addresses and names, because I see them as a pattern of colors.
It all tastes blue to me.
Picture Credit: Convergence, 1952 by Jackson Pollock
326 replies on “Your Name Tastes Like Purple”
Your article is wonderful… music to my ears! I grew up thinking everyone thought the same way I did, regarding each color and each number being a color. I had seen a mention of synesthesia on TED, which was an awakening. I see each word with the color of the first letter being the predominant color of the word especially if the word is capitalized. A is yellow therefore the word Arizona will mainly be yellow when I hear it but of course each letter has its own color when I look them and think about it. As you say it does help remembering names and numbers. I can’t imagine not being a synesthete.
I didn’t know this was a disorder, it seems more like a blessing then a curse. I associate scents with color.
I didn’t know this wasn’t normal. I’ll have to research more into it, I’ve always had color/feeling associations with letters and numbers.
This is a great and informing read, Teri!
I just saw a special on this condition a few weeks ago on PBS. They had neurophysicists illustrating and discussing why this happens and what is going on in the brain when it does. I think it was on their Nova series. It was absolutely fascinating.
Thank you for sharing your personal experiece, you must feel very lucky to experience the world in a way most people never do!
What a gorgeous way to experience the world.
I do this with numbers, but I don’t have it for sounds or anything else, and I didn’t realize that there was a term for it. Thanks for sharing.
Wow, I’ve never heard anyone else talk about what I just thought was a weird childhood quirk of mine! I must admit, my synesthesia is “milder” than what you describe – I don’t have your amazing ties between colour and music. But I have gone through life with imagined relationships in my mind between numbers or letters of the alphabet – each had an elaborate life story and relationship to the ones around it. So nice to finally put a name to the experience!
I have always established strong associations betwen colours and letters, especially vowels, and I also thought it was the result of having been an only child with an overactive imagination. I remember reading a book in school in which an African woman complained about the name of Congo being changed to Zaire, because Congo is a black word and Zaire is not, and all my classmates went “WTF?” while I thought “Makes total sense!”
I first read about it in a book that my son has called “The Name of This Book Is Secret”
Have you ever read Deep In The Shade of Paradise by John Dufresne? There is a character in the book who apparently has synesthesia. I didn’t realize that was a disorder until I recently saw the BBC documentary on it. Very interesting stuff. Thanks for sharing.
Thanks for sharing- this is fantastic! I have lexical gustatory synesthesia (I taste words), as well as some other milder synesthetic experiences. It’s always interesting to read about other people’s synesthesias, because it seems like everyone has their own unique versions.
Out of curiosity, how did you find out you had synesthesia? I remember learning about it briefly in a psychology class, but because I have such a weird kind, I didn’t make the connection. It wasn’t until I was wandering around Wikipedia one day a couple of years ago that I found that not everyone goes through life thinking “David” tastes like raisins and “flight” tastes like potato chips and “affection” tastes like strawberry jam.
What a great article. I’ve always wished to have synesthesia.
This sounds absolutely fascinating. Do you ever find this affecting the way you speak and write? Do you avoid certain numbers or words because you don’t like their colors?
Thanks for this!
This is great. Thanks for sharing!
Thank you everyone for the comments and for sharing your experiences. I’m glad you all enjoyed the article!
To answer the question about my son: honestly, I’d never thought about it until you asked, but I do love the name Callum because of the feelings it invokes. I knew a Callum in my time overseas and his personality was just as sunny as the yellow brightness of the name…and that definitely came into play when I named my son. So yeah, I’m sure that my synesthesia did have a hand, however unconsciously.
When I was fifteen I decided that I would name my future/hypothetical son Lucas. Incidentally, Lucas is a purple name (because of the U, duh!), and purple is my favourite colour. I also like Ursula for a girl, but I feel like that would be purple overkill. I would never give one of my children a name with only E’s, I’s, or a combination, because I’m not a fan of orange and yellow, either separately or combined. Blue and yellow is ok, though â€“ probably because that’s the colour of my name (A’s and I’s).
Absolutely fascinating, Teri. You’ve explained it so well to a “non sensing” person. And thank you Sara B and Black Beetle for sharing your experiences too.
Until I was 15 or so, I didn’t know this had a name, and I thought everybody had it. Or nearly everybody — the people who didn’t, I considered weird.
When I was little, I played a game with three voices — one was dark green, one was pink, and one was light and salty, like brine pickles. I also drew comics, and one of of them was with letters — the Russian ? (ah) was a high class lady that was nice but a bit stuck up, ? (b) was alternately either a chubby servant man or a flighty woman who often had affairs with people, and so on. In the English alphabet, A is red, B is green, C is yellow, and D is light blue. 1 is also light blue, and surrounded by white and light blue tiles that are fairly cold, whereas 2 is red and black. 5 is just red, and so is Friday. Saturday wants to be red, but it’s orange. If I look to the right of this comment box, I see “Spicy,” which is red, orange, black and brown, and “Armadillo”, which is a long yellow line with a circle on it. I don’t have synesthesia as much with music — there I just get scenes and certain feelings in my head, and music is generally either cold or warm to me. It can be spacious and I really don’t like songs that register as yellow in my head (like, “When I’m Sixty Four” by the Beatles — ugh.)
Also, as far as months, that reminds me of how much I liked this one story by Hans Christian Andersen when I was little, with all these people in a carriage that were actually the months of the year. Though everytime I read it, I would draw the way /I/ pictured them. And then there is one part in this book called “Jon and Sofus” (Swedish, I think?) wherein they discuss what colours the days of the week are, and I disagreed with both of them completely, because Wednesday is NOT white, it is light pink. And even if it wasn’t Wednesday, there are no white days of the week. /childish petulance
I’ve been toying with the idea of writing something about synesthesia, but you did a much better job than I would have. I found out that I have number form synesthesia by accident. I read about synesthesia in a book and did some further research because the subject was so interesting. When it got to the description of number form, where numbers have a specific location in my head, I just laughed and said “Well, duh, everyone does that.” Even after reading more about it, I still had to poll a bunch of friends before I believed that it wasn’t something everybody did.
I’ve tried to find more about flavor related synesthesia because I see different flavors as colors (I’ve never liked zucchini because it tastes like a nasty shade of green) but it doesn’t seem like an area that has been explored much.
I have this too, but only with numbers, years or days of the week. I so envy your being able to experience synesthesia while listening to music.
This is a fantastic article.
This is so interesting! I find synesthesia endlessly fascinating and I love reading about people’s experiences with it!
When you chose your son’s name, did you do so because you liked the way it looks – color-wise? Were there names you considered and liked but had to discard because they were distasteful in term of synesthesia?
Also, are you artistic at all?