Around 1 to 3% of the people in the world have Synaesthesia – a neurological condition that is characterised by the involuntary stimulation of multiple, unrelated sensory or cognitive pathways at the same time, leading to several interconnected sensory experiences. An example of Synaesthesia would be the association of colours with alphabets and numbers – someone who suffers from grapheme-colour Synaesthesia identifies each alphabet or number with a specific colour and cannot possibly imagine any set of alphabets that is not coloured.
First described in detail in 1880 by Sir Francis Galton, the phenomenon was more often than not ousted as ‘crazy’ and considered an anomaly in society. Fearing ostracism, synaesthetes, for generations, have rarely spoken of their condition; most of them keep it a secret their entire lives.
Synaesthetic experiences don’t just stop at associating letters with colours. Every logical combination of senses – sometimes even more than 2 – can lead to Synaesthesia and there are about 80 documented types of Synaesthesia. Chromesthesia, the most common form of synaethesia, allows the synaesthete to visualise colours in different shapes and forms as soon as they hear any note of music; the opposite also holds true.
Now imagine being able to see every hour, every day, every week and every month of the year before you, carefully laid out in the form of a staircase or a chessboard or a ladder kept at rest. Everything is colour-coded – vacations, weekends, exam days and birthdays – and no colour repeats itself. Your to-do list floats around in this endless space and fits like pieces of a puzzle in this intricate network. Each day that passes by takes you to the next block, like you’re a pawn in a game your brain is playing with time. This madness is known as Sequence-Space Synaesthesia and this is what my brain looks like.
I’m not crazy and I’m not alone, however. Brendon Urie of Panic! At the Disco, everyone’s favourite Billie Eilish, music composer Hans Zimmer, theoretical physicist and Nobel Laureate Richard Feynmann, actress Marilyn Monroe and perpetually misunderstood creative legend Vincent van Gogh – all suffer(ed) from Synaesthesia. For centuries, Synaesthesia has been used extensively as a literary device to describe the intermingling of senses of the protagonist. Although references to Synaesthesia can be found in the Iliad and Odyssey, it became extensively popular in the 19th century in the works of poets Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud. It is also found in F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and other works of the 20th and 21st century. In most of these works of literature, Synaesthesia appears as pathologies, romantic ideals or emotional completeness, as Patricia Lynn Duffy writes in the Oxford Handbook of Synaesthesia.
As much as a synaesthete’s mind is mostly absolute chaos, it also serves as a sink of creativity, especially for grapheme-colour synaesthetes and chromesthetes. Such individuals are skilled at using their ability to indulge in and excel at complex creative activites such as music, art and theatre. With my Sequence-Space Synaesthesia, all I ever do is organise and schedule and schedule and organise; the word ‘deadline’, in all its representations in popular culture does not scare me and time holds no meaning for me – it’s a game I need to finish. The upside of having SSS is that I can remember birthdays and anniversaries with an almost freakish accuracy.
How one acquires Synaesthesia is still rather ambiguous – while some researchers believe that it runs in families, it is also believed that brain damage or trauma to the head can result in the development of Synaesthesia. Another theory suggests that single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) – substitution of a single nucleotide at a specific position in the genome – results in decreased pruning or decreased inhibition and increased activation in the synaesthete brain. Cross-talk between different regions of the brain may also account for different forms of Synaesthesia.
One thing to remember about Synaesthesia though, is that it is not a disease and is not directly harmful. Most synaesthetic experiences are pleasant or neutral, but there are reports of these experiences leading to sensory overload. For example, although the Sequence-Space Synaesthesia doesn’t affect me in any kind of social setting, it makes me extremely prone to severe panic attacks about the things I still need to do (even if it is in a year). Something that has helped me keep these moments at bay is Bullet Journaling – systematically and warily noting down everything I have to do, including attending a party, gives me a peace of mind nothing else does.
Synaesthetes often assume that everyone sees the world the same way they do; it comes as a setback (and sometimes as an existential crisis) to know that this way of looking at commonplace things is not all that common. Talking about it may give synaesthetes a different perspective on this condition, but most just don’t mention it and it works. For all we know, it is as normal as breathing.
For more, visit: