Your Aura is a Bit Splotchy: Synesthesia Revisited

If you’re a long-time reader of Persephone, or you’re interested in weird and wonky goings on in the human brain, you may have read the article I wrote back in February about being a synesthete (which you can find here). I was ecstatic to find that so many people were interested in my “brain disorder” and how many of you actually discovered that you, too, had synesthesia, after reading my piece.

I’ve known that I was a synesthete ever since I was a teenager. I remember googling “letters in color,” after someone had told me I was weird for saying B was orange. Before that, I’d thought everyone saw their letters and numbers in color. It was kind of a happy shock to me to find out that I was different, that I had an odd way of looking at things. I perused websites, talked to other people with synesthesia, read about famous authors and painters who had it, and embraced the disorder fully. I learned that my lifetime habit of giving letters, numbers, and other symbols personalities, colors, genders, and ages did not indicate that I was going mad – it was part of synesthesia. Seeing flashes of color in my head when hearing certain songs, smelling certain scents, or eating certain foods were also symptoms of synesthesia. It also explained my uncanny ability to remember phone numbers years and years later, even after the person in question had changed phones. I see people’s names in color (if I’m being accurate, colors – usually a pattern of some kind), and it’s the same with phone numbers, words, sentences, and basically any grouping of several characters. All of this is part of synesthesia. It has been an awesome journey, reading about the disorder and realizing that all these things I thought made me incredibly strange and bizarre were in fact symptoms of what I view as a wonderful, creative blessing. My brain has crossed wires, and it’s something I’m incredibly grateful for!

For all the studying and research I’ve done about synesthesia over the years, I still find myself learning things I didn’t know before. Since writing my last article, I discovered that other aspects of my personality and behavior are likely part of my synesthesia, and I’ve also discovered something else – my synesthetic characteristics are still presenting themselves. They are seemingly growing. Since my last article, I’ve suddenly developed symptoms of the disorder that I never had before. You can imagine my surprise, since in all my research and study of the subject, I’d never heard that you can develop more symptoms well into adulthood. Apparently, if I’m any indication, you can.

I have, in recent years, made baby steps towards becoming more athletic. I’ve recently taken up cycling, as well as hiking and running. I’ve always loved being outdoors and athletic activity, and in the past year or so, have made great strides towards getting healthier and more fit. What might this have to do with synesthesia, you ask? Seemingly nothing, and a few short months ago I would have failed to see the connection, either. But they are connected. Imagine my surprise as I was cycling down the street, helmet on, the gentle resistance of the wind in front of me, when I discovered that I was seeing colors in my head. As I coasted downhill, my head was filled with a deep, calm blue. As I changed gears and started to struggle up a large hill, the calm blue transitioned into a dark plum, and finally into a bright, vibrant red, which pulsed with every pedal. As I crested to the top of the hill and stopped for a water break, I had a sensation of dull, muted orange. If you’re reaching for logical explanations, I suppose it makes sense that the feeling of calm would be met with the color blue, and that physical exertion might be described as being red. But fatigue as orange? When I noticed the same phenomenon a few days later, as I was taking a long walk in my neighborhood, I began to realize it was part of my synesthesia. That incredible, drug-like euphoria you get after a great workout? Silver and gold, interwoven, so bright it almost feels like it will come out of my ears. As it fades, it turns to gray.

I’ve also started experiencing odd tastes in my mouth that I never noticed before. I have noticed some taste-sensations related to synesthesia over the years, but generally speaking, that was the one area that I was lacking in the past. Suddenly, I’m experiencing it all over the place. If someone is angry near me, my mouth fills with the taste metal, as if I’m chewing on a pen. If I’m anxious or in a rush, there is usually a cloyingly sweet taste, almost like diet soda, on my tongue. It is incredibly bizarre, and something I’ve only started experiencing this year. Many people with synesthesia have experienced this their whole lives, however.

Possibly the most exciting new development in my synesthesia is the auras. I realize I’m delving into kook territory here, but it’s the truth. I’ve developed a kind of sense when it comes to people and their auras. I can’t see them right in front of me, or anything, but I have a sense of them. When someone approaches me, I get a sense of their aura and my brain fills with that color. If they are sick, upset, jealous, I can sense it, through the colors in my head. Whether or not they are always accurate I wouldn’t know, because I’ve never asked, “Hey, your aura seems a little red today, are you angry?” – not my idea of suitable dinner conversation. Generally, they seem to be right on par. This newest sensation is by far my favorite. I’ve always been fascinated by auras and wished I could see them. This is the next best thing. Interestingly enough, though, when I “sense” a person’s aura, nine times out of ten it is NOT the same color as their name appears in my head. The letters making up a person’s name are usually more than one color, forming a pattern, which is generally very distinctive (explaining why I’m able to remember names and phone numbers so well). Auras are more of a general sense of a color, and, as a rule, they tend to be a totally different color than the person’s name. It makes for a confusing battle of wits in my head, I can tell you!

Since writing my last article, I also discovered that I have several other symptoms of synesthesia that I didn’t even realize were related to the disorder. For instance, I see time as a map of sorts. If we’re talking about this next week, for example, I see it as a large sheet of paper, covered with markers. Each is represented by a slot of time, each a different color, because my days all have different colors. Monday is reddish orange, Tuesday is black, Wednesday is turquoise, Thursday is dark brown, Friday is black, Saturday is white, Sunday is burgundy. If I were to discuss my plans for the week, I see the map stretching out in my head, almost as if there were a GPS tucked in there. If I say, “Oh, I’m going to my family’s Thanksgiving on Thursday,” the head-GPS travels forward and rests on the dark brown square. When I mention, “Then on Saturday I’m having some friends over for another Thanksgiving dinner,” it moves forward and off to the right towards the white square that is Saturday. I see all time that way. My months are laid out in my head like a giant Rolodex. The individual days in that month are maps, all contained within that Rolodex. When I talk about time, that is how I see it. And to make it even more complicated, all my months have colors too. Today, for instance, is November 21st. November is the color green. Twenty-one is gray and white. Monday is reddish orange. So when I think of today’s date, my head fills with swirls of hunter green, gray, white, and reddish orange.

Recently, my husband was watching the show Taboo on television, and the episode was about people who fall in love with inanimate objects. Imagine my surprise when the narrator mentioned that this was a form of synesthesia. I had never heard that before, and I bristled a little at the idea that I might fall in love with a wall or a fleece jacket. “That’s B.S.,” I sniffed to my husband, and his little smile only served to make me angrier. But then, I thought about it. Ever since childhood, I’ve attributed personalities and feelings to my stuffed animals, and to other objects, as well. When I accidentally break something in the kitchen, I feel a need to silently apologize to the item, because I’ve killed it. If I don’t wear a favorite pair of jeans for a long while, I begin to feel as if I’m neglecting the item and should wear it. Due to these feelings, I’m kind of a hoarder and very rarely throw anything away. I only loan out things to people I know will take care of, aka “love,” the item. And for my entire life, I have found it extremely difficult, almost impossible, to walk past displays of stuffed animals at the store. In my head, they are all calling out to me, begging me to take them home and love them. My son’s room is stuffed to the gills with all my stuffed animals from childhood, because I can’t bear to throw them away or banish them to the shed. It would hurt their feelings! It would make them sad! So no, I’m not quite so bad that I fall in love with inanimate objects or feel deep hatred for the ceiling fan, but I do attribute human characteristics and feelings onto objects that are definitely not alive. I’ve thought I was a total freak in secret for years. Turns out, it’s just another happy side effect of the synesthesia.

Synesthesia is just incredibly fascinating to me. Every day of my life, I find new manifestations of it and have new sensations to explore. It has never proved to be a nuisance to me, though I suppose it probably does seem a little weird to those close to me. I consider it a blessing. How lucky am I that I can sense auras, taste emotions and feelings, and see my life as a giant Rolodex, consisting of colored maps and patterns, unique to me alone? I love my almost photographic memory, and how every song I listen to, or meal I taste, is enhanced and sensory. I love how, even at 30 years old, I’m still developing new traits and discovering that things I’ve always experienced are part of synesthesia, too. Most of all, I love how talking about synesthesia has introduced me to so many people who find it interesting, and who have it themselves. I’ve learned so much about what synesthesia is, and how it varies from person to person. I’ve yet to meet a person who wasn’t grateful for it, who didn’t feel it enriched their life. Synesthesia is just fascinating. I look forward to learning more about it, and enjoying my “disorder” for many more years to come.

Image Credit: Jackson Pollock, Moon Woman Cuts the Circle.

By Teri Drake-Floyd

An almost 30-something synestheste, foodie, genealogist and all around proud geek.

11 replies on “Your Aura is a Bit Splotchy: Synesthesia Revisited”

Sound has always been movement and texture for me- It took me ages to connect that as synesthesia- and to some extent visuals as the same, but more recently it’s gotten more intense- flashing lights being like getting hit with one of those inflatable hammers for example. So having stuff be all synesthesia like more frequently/more intensely/more obviously isn’t an experience you are alone in I guess is my point?

Thanks for sharing! This is the first I’ve heard about synesthesia outside of the odd TV reference, and it sounds like a lovely way to experience the world. I wonder how the linkage between specific colors and experiences/objects varies between people with synsethesia – that is, whether personal preference influences the valence of a given color. Or perhaps the opposite is at work sometimes, and some intrinsic feature or association of a color or sensation lends it its significance. I remember a dorm at my college that had the walls in the rooms painted blue to produce a calming effect, and the study rooms painted orange to supposedly enhance concentration (didn’t live there, so I can’t attest as to whether it worked!).

I don’t think experiencing auras sounds kooky :-). In fact, it sounds as though it may be related to fast processing of emotionally salient stimuli in the limbic system of the brain. Lab studies have shown that the brain responds in a matter of milliseconds to emotional facial expressions (I got the information from the book Cognitive Neuroscience of Emotion, ed. Lane and Nadel), and since in your case you experience this as a color, you may be cognizant of it sooner than others. Just a thought! Thanks for giving us something so interesting to think about!

As far as I know, I do not have synesthesia, but I do attribute feelings/personalities to inanimate objects.  Usually only ones that mean a lot to me, but still.  For instance, I have a beloved stuffed animal (yes, I still sleep with her sometimes, yes, it’s a her) who is displayed in my room when she’s not cuddling with me.  I apologized to her when I was packing her away to move, and after the first night I didn’t sleep with her because I slept with a dude instead.  I pet her (she’s a dog stuffed animal) when I walk by her in my room.  In my case, I think it’s just a weird quirk of my personality.  But yeah, I get that one.

Also, I remember thinking this when I read your last article on this, but synesthesia sounds pretty awesome.  And that aura thing is wicked cool.

Interesting. Is there a lab researching synaesthesia near you? If you contacted them I’m sure they’d be interested in testing you – the research coming out is showing synaesthesis is broader than we thought even a decade ago.

I have been wondering if there is such a thing as smell-sensation or thought-sensation synaesthesia, which would explain my quirks… I’ll have to find a researcher in it and corner them some day…

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