Synesthesia. An unpronounceable name for an indescribable sensation. That's what I wanted to title this post. Or, if I was personifying the word, I might have titled it, "The Tiny Matriarchal Nation of Mild and Unassuming People Who Feel Embarrassed About Being Roped Into a Medical Term." (More on this later.)

Actually, I originally went for "Confessions of a Synesthete," but it turns out someone has an entire blog named this. And a colorful life they must have. I guess I could have gone with Synestacular!, which could also be the name for a travelling science museum exhibit, or perhaps "Synesthesia: Apparently I Have Every Form of It."

Well, no. That's not quite true. I don't taste pistachios when clocks chime, for instance. And besides, it turns out that synezthssss is fairly common. Nearly everyone has some variety, otherwise circular clocks and rectangular calendars would never have caught on. So perhaps the better title would be "In Which I Further Establish My Own Normalcy in Line with the Rest of Humanity."

This synesszths to which I refer, of course, is the condition where...words...and, collide to form vast new galaxies...wait, that's something else.

How do I describe it? (Let me count the ways: female, female, red, yellow...) At first I thought this would be easy, but I might as well try to describe that dream I had where the dinosaurs went to war with the Muppets. To Wikipedia!!

Synesthesia is a neurologically based condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.

Now you know what I'm talking about, right? It's the criss-crossing of perceptions, like if someone sees green when they read the word "library," tastes strawberries when they hear Dvorak's "New World Symphony," hears a cat meowing if they see a hexagon...that's synesthesia. It's the blazing of neural pathways, formed during the brain's early development, between sensory regions that aren't usually connected. And though it's not uncommon, it's unique from person to person, with as many possible combinations as there are possible perceptions.

(It's also apparently sponsored by Skittles: "Taste the Rainbow!"®™©)

Oh, these kinds of strange neurological phenomena hook me like nobody's business, a fascination that began when I first read Dr. Oliver Sack's "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat." Thus my delight when I discovered that, though I'm not quite worthy of a Dr. Sacks chapter (and that's probably a good thing), I can count myself among the proud number (blue) of the synesthete community...even if I can't pronounce its name.

I have three of the most common forms of synesthesia: OLP, color-graphemic, and time-space.

1. Ordinal Linguistic Personification, or "Number 72 Loves His Beef Wellington"

Anyone who has been around me long enough has inevitably heard my "letters have personalities" conversation starter (or stopper), which I like to throw out there because:

A) It is strange, and the reactions I get are amusing

B) I secretly want to find other people who can sympathize with what the heck I'm talking about

C) It's more dinner friendly than the "jungle parasites" conversation

OLP people begin personifying numbers and letters at a very young age, perhaps the moment they learn them, and once designated these personalities become fixed for life. If someone with OLP sees the letter H as a cocky Frenchman at age 6, H will still seem to be a cocky Frenchman at age 86.

H is not a cocky Frenchman for me, but I do have my own unique set of personalities for letters, numbers, colors, days of the week, months of the year, words...etc.

For instance, the letter F is a young, rather weak-kneed fellow who would get into trouble if it wasn't for the older, wiser gentleman G living right next to him. Troublemaker E loves to drag F into his antics, but can't do a thing with his other neighbor, the perky and somewhat daft lady D... and so forth.

So when I seen a word, I don't see just the meaning of the word, but a complex interaction of personalities. Perhaps this explains my unusually good ability to catch spelling errors. "If" and "of" are pleasing to my eye because the strong letters I and O put docile F in his place, but if I see something like "fo", it looks as wrong as a dog taking a man for a walk. Of course, I have to know what the correct word looks like to begin with, otherwise I'd think there was nothing wrong, per se, with a dog walking a man.

In that regard OLP imparts a bit of an editor's advantage, but sometimes the personalities are more confusing than helpful. I can never quite remember that the "subject" comes before the "object" in a sentence. O and the word she commands is very dominant, while S and her word are submissive. I want to rank them in order of their energy, so "object" always tries to come first.

The letters in my words sometimes shift vertically according to their relative dominance, making it difficult to scan text quickly. This is extremely exaggerated, but I see MOCK TURTLE SOUP sort of like:Besides an active emotional life for each letter, each word has its own personality too. This is dependent on the letters it contains and the order they're in. A word like "Eiffel" is a veritable frat house, thanks to E's loose morals. "Synesthesia" is a tiny nation of like-minded, mild, mostly female letters.

Words retain their identities no matter where they are. Within a sentence, the words interact with each other like a room full of people.

For example, in that last sentence there were three distinct social cliques, plus some aggression between the beginning and ending. The dominant words are marked in bold, the submissive by parentheses:

I never mind these interactions much when I'm reading, ignoring them sort of the same way that I might ignore all the conversations around me as I beeline towards the dessert table at a crowded buffet. But when I pause to consider the structure of the sentence, the interactions are always there.

Only once did I meet someone who experience something similar to my letter-personification, although the personalities of her letters were completely different than mine...and therefore heresy!! Truly, someone saying something like "the letter B is male" might as well try to convince me that the ocean is filled with toothpaste.

Recently while procrastinating by surfing the internet looking for anyone else who might have the same thing, I finally turned up a name for all this craziness: Ordinal Linguistic Personification. It's been officially documented only lately...although it's probably as common as mud, if subsequent forums and message boards are any indication. And everyone says the same thing - "We thought we were the only ones who had this!"

Actually, finding other people with OLP is deeply annoying. The conversations always descend into arguments about which letter is having an affair with which, etc. Or else the conversation consists entirely of dry, unreadable, unrelatable lists:

A is a boy
B is a polite lady
C is a vicar
D is a prostitute who's just trying to earn enough money for college
E is a dopey British man with a knife
F is my dog Steve

That kind of thing. Since no two people every have identical synesthesia, these discussions essentially become as pointlessly circular as blind men describing elephants.

No. I don't want to hear about who populates your alphabet. Please don't list the fights your colors have had, or the favorite foods of every number between one and a thousand. Because you are very boring when you're like this. Also, you're wrong.

Oh heck...As long as I'm throwing around graphics, here are the genders (sans personalities) of my cardinal numbers:While such arguments tend to be dull beyond salvation, I have to admit that it's very hard not to go around educating people that the number 2 is, in fact, a lady. (Whose personality is very similar to the letter R and Saturday and December and red....ah, can't stop!)

Truth be told, I'm really more of an EP (Everything Personifier) because I do this with all inanimate objects, including rocks, telephones, my own fingers...huh. (I never really thought about that last one until just now. What are you looking at, Mr. Pinkie-on-the-right-hand?) My place setting is a tangle of love and angst on an operatic scale, with the hot-headed fork in a relationship with the napkin, yet having a burning undying love for the spoon, who is in a committed relationship with the knife, who has a history with the napkin yet is far too much of a gentleman to leave the love of his life. The plate is a bachelor.

Come on now, synesthetic researchers. Come up with a name for that one!

2. Color-Graphemic, or "Your Middle Name is Too Purple"

Speaking of red, the colors in the above examples are far from random. For me, 2 is always red, 7 always blue, and so forth what have you. This is a different type of synesthses...syn...ssszz...

Okay, seriously. Can everyone in the synesthetic community (or "Synesociety") please agree on an easier, cooler term to use? I suggest brain wizardry.

Anyway, color-graphemic brain wizardry links the perception of colors with numbers and letters. It's the most common form of brain wizardry, and one that's easily measurable. And when I say that, I'm referring to the Synesthesia Battery, an online test that measures synesthesia based on colors, genders, and spatial relationships.

The Battery takes a bit of time, but it's a great deal of fun. Go on and try it. If you turn out to be a synesthete, I'll buy you a cookie. (Which you will not be able to eat, because it will have a personality and a backstory of tragic failure and redemption.)

I scored high, but here's my secret. This test measures mostly color-graphemic synesthesia - sorry, brain wizardry - and my numbers and letters have colors only because they and those colors share a common personality. The number 8 and the month of December are both red because, like the color red, they are both brassy women. Because their personalities align so much with the personality of the color red, they will always and forever be red.

But there are 26 letters, 10+ numbers, and only about 10 colors, so invariably I'll have a problem like the letter N, whose personality doesn't match that of any color. Consequently, I'm lost. G is like a Cherokee filling out a questionnaire that reads "White or African American, check one." And so the color of the letter G constantly shifts in my mind, sometimes dark green, sometimes dark blue or gray, a chameleon varying between the various shades of his personality.

3. Time-Space, or "Get Your Elbow Out of My September"

When I read James Gurney's Dinotopia as a kid, one section jumped out at me more than any other, and years later I was able to remember it almost word for word:

"You of the West," Malik said, "think of time moving in a straight line, from past to present to future. Your eastern brothers regard time as a circle, returning endlessly in a cycle of decay and rebirth. Both ideas have a dimension of the truth. If you were to combine geometrically the movement of the circle with the movement of the line, what would you have?" He snapped his mouth shut and peered at me with an uncanny resemblance to my old schoolmaster.

"The spiral?" I ventured.

"Yes, yes. Or the helix. They are our models of the passage of time."

"So time moves on, but history repeats itself."

This made so much sense to me. Time as a spiral! Yet even though it logically made sense, I couldn't undo my perception that years move in a forward line, months move in a circle, weeks move in an oval, and days move up and down.

Time-space synesthesia may be the most common of all the synesthesia. In fact, it's reasonable to believe that the human brain has incorporated this cross-wiring into its normal structure, a product of trying to convert an abstract concept - time - into something that can be communicated and, more importantly, recorded. All human civilizations develop a physical representation of time, whether it's marks on a clay cylinder or moons on a deerskin canvas. People are predisposed to time-space synesthesia.

Trouble arises when the mind's representation of time does not match the actual passage of time, and therein lies my problem.

There's a wonderful BBC News article called "Can you see time?" by Victoria Gill (9/11/09) that details many of the forms of synesthesia, especially time-space. While I was reading it, I came across an illustration (based on an illustration by Carol Steen) that made me nearly jump up out of my chair. It's the representation of how one synesthete views the calendar year:

I was a bit stunned by its familiarity. "That's it! That's it! That's just like mine!" I said. My second thought was, "What on earth happened to this person's poor year?" I wanted to take a bike pump to it.

I say this because, for comparison, here's mine, with the months' colors and the approximate dates for the 3, 6, 9, and 12 o'clock positions. It truly is that round.

Also, what is going on with the man in the middle of that illustration? some people mentally pivot around in the middle of their year? (And if so, do they feel trapped by time?) Does time rotate them, or do they work it like a hula hoop? Hmm, the article mentions nothing of this.

My circle floats vertically in my mind. The blank space in the middle does not exist, or if it does, it can't be looked at directly, an elusive timeless place beyond the water lilies, sort of like Aslan's land in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

Unfortunately, because my weeks and years are so uneven I sometimes think I have a lot more time than I actually do. (October through December race by at an alarming speed.) And after the 6-o-clock position on the clock, I reverse my weeks and start climbing up through them backwards. The month of November:

But wait, it gets worse.

The way I envision a single week is actually like this:

So when I think of November, the looping week combined with the backside of the "annual clock" gives me a internal picture that looks something like this, if November 1st is on a Sunday:

(I've just realized that I gave November thirty-one days. Well, ignore that last Tuesday, because I'm not gonna redraw the whole darn thing.)

Unless I'm using something that puts time in its proper perspective, like a day planner, I struggle to track time realistically. You'd think I would learn how to ignore the idea that November takes up 1/6 of the year, but this mental image is so deeply embedded that I find myself completely surprised, year after year, when it's suddenly December. Where does the autumn go?

So that's what I can say about synesthesia. It's more in-depth than most of the other posts I've seen online about it. It's not nearly as in-depth as I could make it, but no matter. Since no one else sees the world quite the same way as I see it, it's more of an academic exercise, a self-affirmation, to attempt to describe it, friendly colors, frantic months, feuding forks, and all.


TSOldtimer said...

That was fun! Welcome back!

But what about those of us who put colors to sounds and sounds to flavors and dances to everything?

Kt said...

That just means you've got synezsthzz AND groovitude. 8D

Heather said...

This is absolutely the most fascinating blog post I've ever read! I've never put a title or description to these thinking patterns i have. But here they are! Shocking! I've just learned something about myself that I never knew. I'm going to have to sketch my thoughts out as well. Awesome, awesome post!

Kt said...

Great! Glad you liked it! I was hoping this might ring a few bells with some people. I myself was really excited when I first realized this was a "thing." It's heartening to hear about other people's variations of synesthesia.

If only there was more research on it, especially what it might be linked to, whether it indicates other neurological conditions, etc. Still, it's a relatively new area of study.

I'll be interested to see what you come up with!

heather said...

I'll sketch it out and post a blog.....

Kt said...

Yeah! Do eet!

Kelly Coe-DeVore said...

Honestly, I cannot ever recall reading someone's blog completely from beginning to end! You are remarkable and intelligent. I learned of synesthesia recently from a friend that tried to describe it to me from what he knew.

Kelly Coe-DeVore said...

Additionally, I was interested enough web search it. The conversation came about when I describing a rare condition that my daughter has: Misophonia. She has an auditory cross-wiring that responds with violent emotions.

Kt said...

Kelly, thank you so much for the high praise! I apologise that it's taken me so long to moderate your comment. I have a good excuse for being so woefully busy. Fifteen Feet will resume shortly, and hopefully with content that's just as readable as before.