The Not So Colorful World of Synesthesia

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My interest in synesthesia (a condition in which one type of stimulation evokes the sensation of another) began six years ago after reading an article in the local newspaper. Two years later, I befriended a woman that experiences this neurological phenomenon in her everyday life. I based, Clancy, after my friend and although my fictional character experiences extreme forms of synesthesia, unlike my friend, I had no idea how close I’d hit the mark on my character’s psychological scars until after the interview.

Scones were baking in the oven, a pot of coffee was brewing, and I’d just placed fresh hand towels and a dish of scented soaps in the guest bathroom (Martha Stewart at her best) when the doorbell chimed.

“Come in,” I said, giving my friend a hug. “Thank you for being a guest on my blog.”

“How could I refuse? You bribed me with an afternoon of wine tasting after the interview. Just one thing . . . please don’t use my real name.”

“Pick a name,” I said.

“I’ve always liked the name, Shelly.”

I knew synesthetes saw letters and numbers in color even when they appear black in print to others. Extreme synesthestes see the days, months, and year in color, too.

“Why Shelly?” I asked, leading the way toward the kitchen.

“Are you starting the interview?”

“Yes, pretend I’m Diane Sawyer.”

“Okay, Diane, I like how the side by side yellow L’s divide the other colored letters. It’s a soft name.”

“What about my name, Mitzi?”

My friend winked. “I like the name Shelly better.”

I mentally slapped my head. “I bet you love my maiden name, McColley. Two C’s and two L’s.”

“Is something burning?”

I grabbed a mitt and removed the scones from the oven.

“I hope you’re a better interviewer than a pastry chef.”

“Me, too,” I said. I poured two cups of coffee and handed my friend a napkin. “Do you want your hockey puck plain or with butter?”

“I hate to tell you this, but I don’t like scones with fruit.”

It’s not uncommon for synesthetes to describe flavors as round, square, or pyramid. “Do blueberries taste like a shape?”

Shelly laughed. “No, they taste like blueberries. However, I don’t like chicken because it tastes like a pyramid . . . sharp.

“What does sharp taste like?”

“I don’t know. I’ve had synesthesia for as long as I can remember,” Shelly said, glancing at the list of questions sitting on the table. “I can’t give you answers on why, how, or when. It’s just a part of me, but it doesn’t define me. What did it feel like growing up as a funeral director’s daughter?”

“It wasn’t any different from being a butcher, a baker, or a candlestick maker’s daughter.” I laughed nervously, and made the where-did-that-come-from gesture.

Although I was no Diane Sawyer, I was sure the basic rules of interviewing were to keep the interviewee from turning the questions toward the interviewer.

“See, you sound defensive. That’s how I feel when I don’t have answers for synesthesia,” Shelly said.

“I wasn’t teased while growing up. It was as an adult that I ran into ignorant people. I’m proud to have four generations of funeral directors in my family, but it doesn’t define me either. You know what really bothers me? The fact that most Americans think Mt. Rushmore is located in North Dakota. It’s in the Black Hills of South Dakota. And another thing . . . not everyone in South Dakota lives on a farm or ranch.”

If this were a televised interview, we would break for a commercial.

“I gather you’re not a native Californian like me. I’m pretty sure Americans know the Golden Gate Bridge is in California.” Shelly smiled and shoved the synesthesia notes to the center of the table. “Would you mind if we didn’t have a structured interview? It seems strange because you know all the answers. What if I talk while you take notes?”

“Perfect,” I said.

“I was born in the late forties when being different labeled a person as crazy. I see blocks of colors when I hear music. Each letter of the alphabet, along with numbers, has specific colors. The colors never change. I hear what I see and see what I hear. I learned after second grade to keep quiet and blend in. Being bullied everyday by your classmates changes you. I pulled inside myself.”

My friend paused and took a sip of coffee. I cursed silently for not paying attention during my shorthand class in high school, and then shook the blood back in my fingers while my mind wandered off Interview Highway 101 and onto Memory
Lane. All those abbreviations of lol, bff, etc., were nothing but an updated version of shorthand. The youth of today probably thought shorthand was a medical term for a rare physical deformity.

“I’m glad schools have a zero tolerance policy against bullying,” I said, making my way back to the interview.

“It’s in the past,” Shelly said. “My mother taught me the names of the colors and then moved on to numbers and letters. She’d draw the numbers or letters on a piece of paper with a pencil and ask me to name them. Instead of saying the number or letter, I would always say what color they were. I’m sure my mother thought something was wrong with me, but she was always supportive and protective. My grandparents thought I had an overactive imagination.”

“What about your father?” I asked. “I’ve read that the father hands down the trait to his daughters.”

“My parents divorced when I was three, but I’ve had relatives tell me that my father disliked inanimate objects like coat hangers and wicker chairs because of their personalities. He also considered the color blue spiteful and red as money hungry.”

“My main character, Clancy, thinks doorknobs and fine china are snobby.” I waited for a comment, but my friend only nodded.

“I was married for eight years. Synesthesia didn’t play a part in my divorce, but my husband may disagree.  Did you include in your story how the sound of water gives the sensation of a full body massage?”

“Yes, I think I mentioned it on page two of my manuscript. You’d like my main character, Clancy.”

“Does she like fountains?”

“Dang, I never thought of fountains. Clancy turns on the shower.”

“I have eight tabletop fountains in my home. The fountains are the only items my husband didn’t fight over in our divorce.”

“If you ever started dating would you share your world of synesthesia?”

“Dating? Never. I have my grown children for support.”

“How did you learn you had synesthesia?”

“My son learned about synesthesia years ago and brought it to my attention. Knowing my quirks have a name doesn’t change my daily life one way or the other.”

“Neurologists compare synesthesia to a LSD trip.”

“I’ve never taken illegal drugs, so I don’t know if that’s true,” Shelly said.

“Does getting upset heighten your synesthesia?”

“Oddly, yes. Especially as I got older. Here’s something you might find interesting. I had a MRI last year. I don’t know if the MRI had anything to do with this, but afer the test my senses were dull for a good five days or more.”

“Dull?”

“Fuzzy. It’s hard to explain.”

“Some synesthetes say colors blur when they are sick.”

“Yes, blur. That’s a better way to describe it.”

“Do you have any hobbies?”

Shelly’s demeanor instantly changed. Why didn’t I ask this question sooner?

“I love everything to do with gardening . . . even pulling weeds. When I work in the garden, I get instant satisfaction. I played tennis when I was younger. Now, I have to enjoy watching tennis on television. I have a time-share in Hawaii and take long walks along the beach. Oh, and I design jewelry . . .”

I listened as my friend continued to described her love of nature, family, and photography. When my stomach rumbled I stopped taking notes and said,”Are you hungry? Sattui Winery has a wonderful deli and we can eat outside.”

What did we talk about on our way to Napa Valley? If you guessed everything but synesthesia, you’d be right.

Additional Information on Synesthesia:

• More women than men are synesthetes. The trait is more frequent among left-handed women.
• Documented cases of extreme forms of synesthesia show 32 combinations of the senses. These individuals are often misdiagnosed as schizophrenic.
• People with synesthesia have extraordinary memories and high intelligence due to the multiplicity of their sensory experiences.
• Synesthetes often experience unusual occurrences such as precognitive dreams, déjá vu, and clairvoyance.
• Flavors are often described in shapes—pyramid, round, or square.
• Certain words beginning with a specific letter of the alphabet produce color and taste—depending on the sequence of the letters.
• Noises produce not only colors, taste, emotions, and sensations, but in extreme cases, synesthetes experience frightening visions.
• Sudden pain often produces a visual experience.
• Synesthetes feel sounds on their skin.
• Vibrations cause numbness, colors, and taste.
• Touching an object can produce a specific flavor.
• Synesthesia produces gustatory sights, auditory smells, and colored hearing.

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About Mitzi McColley Sorensen

Mitzi McColley Sorensen grew up surrounded by the Black Hills in Hot Springs, South Dakota. Her father was a second generation funeral director. Death was as much a part of her everyday life as breathing. She attributes her quirky sense of humor, viewing life as a gift, and placing family first to her upbringing. After attending Northern State College in South Dakota, she headed west with her husband to live with her beloved grandmother who was suffering with Alzheimer’s. They stayed in California where they raised three daughters and a son. For the past twenty-eight years, Petaluma, California has been her home where rolling vineyards replaced the majestic views of Mt. Rushmore. Working her way up the ranks in a pharmacy, Mitzi learned that the customer was always right, the benefits of most drugs outweighed the possible side effects, and that her male clients mellowed with age. Mitzi befriended an individual that experienced synesthesia in her everyday life. Although the main character in THE TASTE OF ORANGE is fictional, her symptoms mirror that of her friend’s. Retired after twenty plus years, Mitzi enjoys writing novels, traveling, reading, welding, and golfing with her husband, Mark, even though she yells fore more often than scoring a par four. She keeps in shape by catching lizards and snakes with her nine grandsons and three granddaughters.

One response »

  1. Are you at all familiar with The Name of this Book is Secret? It’s a children’s book, but also explores synesthesia. I had never heard of it before then. A rather beautiful way to relate to the world, in my opinion.

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