Friday, February 02, 2007

My Life as a Synesthetist

I am a synesthetist.

There, I said it. Actually, I’ve been saying it ever since I read an article in Smithsonian Magazine a few years ago and discovered that most people don’t see things the way I do and that there’s a word for the way people like me perceive the world: synesthesia.

It’s very difficult to explain, and if you’re like most folks, you’re going to think I’m nuts, but here goes. Borrowing from a scholarly article, “The word synesthesia, meaning ‘joined sensation,’ shares a root with anaesthesia, meaning ‘no sensation.’ It denotes the rare capacity to hear colours, taste shapes, or experience other equally startling sensory blendings whose quality seems difficult for most of us to imagine. A synesthete might describe the colour, shape, and flavour of someone’s voice, or music whose sound looks like ‘shards of glass,’ a scintillation of jagged, coloured triangles moving in the visual field. Or, seeing the colour red, a synesthete might detect the ‘scent’ of red as well.”

There you have it. My synesthesia is mostly connected to letters and numbers—I see them as certain colors. Time is influenced, too. Time has a particular shape for me, playing out something like an enormous game board that you move through, taking definite twists and turns. Sometimes when I’m trying to remember a date, I just “peek around the corner” of that game board and there it is.

I’m digging myself in deep, aren’t I?

I bring this phenomenon up from time to time because someone will say something that makes me think they just might be a synesthetist, too. In all honesty, I find it hard to comprehend that everyone doesn’t see the world this way.

Until I read that article, I never, ever discussed these things with anyone. Not because I was embarrassed or thought it was weird, but because I assumed everyone experienced things my way. My oldest son is a synesthetist, too. I knew this because a decade before I read that magazine, he once asked me in preface to something he wanted to comment on, “Mom, you know how “a” is red?”

“It’s blue, honey,” I corrected. “But go ahead . . . .”

See, that’s just it. Synesthetism is different for every person.

I have to confess I feel irritated when I hear the song by Christian artist Chris Rice entitled “Smell the Color Nine.” It’s all about the complexities of God, and the chorus goes something like: “But sometimes finding you is just like trying to smell the color nine. But nine's not a color. And even if it were you can't smell a color."

It’s purple. Duh. And I guarantee some people can smell it.

I could go on and on about why I choose certain words to express certain things. Grey with an “e” is that kind of sick tornado sky color, “e” being green. Gray with an “a” is the color of a storm at sea, “a” being blue. Do not ask me to spell it one way consistently. It totally depends on the actual shade I’m writing about. Why is the word “excruciating” the best word in some instances and “agonizing” the best in others? Or how do I choose to use "delighted" over "joyful"? It often depends on what color looks best in the sentence. “U” changes everything, by the way.

Laugh if you will, but I really have a point to all this.

As we journey through life, every person we meet—synesthetist or otherwise—has their own perspective on things. Right or wrong, they see things from a vantage point that feels as real as our own. While I believe that all truth is found in God, much of what we judge each other on or argue with each other about is simply our own perception of what is true or important. Maybe that's why He tells us to show His grace toward one another and let Him do the judging.

And just so you know, “s” is red. At least to me.


Ginger said...

I recently read a fiction book by a Christian author whose main character was an artist/search and rescue synesthetist. I had never heard of this until then and I find the whole thing amazingly awesome. I have to admit, in many ways, I am jealous because I think it would be totally cool to see/hear things this way. But, I think it would really cause me MAJOR problems with my ADD! Thanks for sharing!

Ginger said...

By the way, the name of the book is "Kaleidoscope Eyes" by Karen Ball.

Caron Guillo said...


Thanks for your comments. It probably seems funny, but the truth is that seeing things this way seems very ordinary to me--like having 10 fingers and 10 toes. It's just one of those curious things the Lord does, I suppose.

Thanks, too, for the tip on the book. Might be an interesting read. I met Karen Ball at a Christian writer's conference a couple of years ago. She invited me to submit a proposal to her (she was an editor at Zondervan at the time), but I finally decided that particular manuscript only belongs on a shelf in my closet. :) By the time I had another one to send her, she'd gone back to writing full time. She taught one of the best classes on understanding the world of Christian publishing, though!

Julie Harper said...

Hi Caron, I hope all is well! Steve read your page last night (because I have it bookmarked on my computer) and has decided he's a synesthete too! I read a book a couple of years ago, "A Mango-Shaped Space" by Wendy Mass - that was the first time I'd ever heard about it. It's a great book, especially for kids or teens trying to figure out how to deal with it (I believe it's fiction, but I could be wrong). I'm jealous too - I think maybe it has to do with creativity in certain individuals (like you and Steve). Anyway, thanks for sharing! Love you.

Julie Harper said...

Here's the website for Wendy Mass

Caron Guillo said...

Thanks for the comments, Julie. Glad to know Steve's a fellow synesthetist. I always knew I liked him. :)

Dadgum, now I've been referred to two novels on the subject. I've obviously been writing the wrong books! ;-)


Julie Harper said...

Right! You need to write a book about being synesthetic! (because Wendy Mass isn't). I'll buy it!

Anonymous said...


If someone would laugh about you they're out of their minds! Don;t ever think you are weird or stupid, I think it's pretty cool:) Do you like some poets more or less because of their style of writing and choosing words? That would be funny!

Greets from the Netherlands

Caron Guillo said...

Thanks, Dutch! :) And, no, unfortunately, I'm not much into poetry (maybe they all use the wrong words! ;-). I did just read that synesthesia is considered a disorder. Hmmm.