this started as a paragraph and escalated to an essay.
It’s dedicated to those of us who find it hard to integrate their synaesthesia in public, those of us who are yet to learn that it’s OK and in some cases lovely to be a little different, and those of us who might be struggling with interacting with the bright loud sharp world that we inhabit compared to those without our quirky neurology.
I went back to see my old music tutor at Oxford a few weeks back. It must have been around 15-20 years ago when I studied music there. The prof told me I spoke like no-one else he taught. I would describe, say, Bach in terms of texture, taste, colour, touch – with so many layers to music it was really important to me to be accurate in my description, but how odd to my tutor for me to describe Bach as a green forest or the smell of damp wood – back then I didn’t know about synaesthesia so it was a joy to finally talk to him about it.
For him, it made sense of all the things I used to say about music – I got a feeling that he was almost relieved to have an explanation for it!
And for me, it made me think a lot more on what might be why many of us with synaesthesia struggle with human interaction.
I think describing the world and especially music cross-modally (i.e. synaesthetically) works really well in a creative context, but in normal conversations I started to wonder if my happily jumping between senses may be jarring to people who are just trying to understand what I’m on about.
Here’s my theory: we synaesthetes freely switch from taste to sound to colour to texture to <insert sense here> when we are talking about something – we engage whatever description works to convey the feeling we have with the most clarity or accuracy, just like someone else would, though we have a much larger vocabulary to choose from, sometimes even including gestures or noises. So to a non-synaesthete I wonder if it might sound like we’re picking from the wrong list.
For example – let us imagine people are expecting a food to taste like <taste>.
When instead we supply someone with
‘this food tastes like <sound> or <colour> or <noise>’
this may seem at right-angles to conventional expectation and leads to scenarios like:
a) Conversation partner completely ignores modality switch consciously but gets confused on some level; tries their best to continue
b) doesn’t notice cross modality at all; continues as if nothing out of place
c) (common with non-synesthetes) conversation moves to curiosity and synaesthetic experience questions – the question of what the food is like is not as important anymore! Questions, so many questions!
d) (common with other synesthetes and close friends) conversation partner understands, accepts and enjoys description, conversation continues and comparative modalities are explored. Amazing, a meeting of uncommon minds!
All of these are OK. I’ve probably missed some others out.
So, I learned a few sentences to say that a) put people at ease and b) put me at ease. I’ve found these are great to use with both “unaware synaesthetes” and non-synaesthetes as it gives a context to our choice of words or actions when they don’t quite fit what people expect. Here they are:
“I have synaesthesia which means my senses are a bit mixed together” works really well.
“I think everyone has a version of synaesthesia, some people experience it more intensely than others” is great when people are more curious and want to perhaps explore their own associations. I believe that everyone has the potential to experience cross-modality at some level.
I’m actually happy to talk about my synaesthesia when asked, much happier if I have access to a piano at the same time. If/when someone says I’m weird that’s OK. I tell them that they are probably right and smile gently. If someone says I’m making it up that’s OK too, it doesn’t matter to me what they think, I smile and say that it’s my experience, which is all we have to go on. If I’m feeling a little like I’m being judged negatively – and some people will be suspicious of things they don’t know about – I try to remember that everyone has their own struggles, perhaps they’re not in a receptive mood for other reasons – then I’ll think privately on how much I’m enjoying delicious food or music around me more than someone who’s not wired the same way.
We have many challenges as synaesthetes. Having said that though I feel that the overall potential to experience the world so deeply with so little effort is worth the odd strange look, explanatory conversation and sense of overwhelm that we no doubt all have to deal with.
Here is an interview I did (it was really early in the morning!) about food and synaesthesia for a documentary on Radio New Zealand – I’m among a variety of artists interviewed all talking about their own experience.