Imagine a life where you are surrounded by colours every time you hear music, or that you can taste words, that letters are always colourful and numbers have personalities! This is what it is like to live with synesthesia.
Whilst recently organising the Sovereign Art Foundation Students Prize Algarve, I met Lucas Phelan, aged 18, who submitted his painting entitled ‘Without Mushrooms’ which was a reflection of “what I live and experience when I listen to music, due to my synesthesia”.
So, what is synesthesia? It is a phenomenon that occurs when two or more senses are mixed, and one sense is automatically stimulated by another to give the individual an involuntary perceptual experience. It may be inherited as there is a high prevalence amongst first degree relatives, i.e. children, parents and siblings, and people who have synesthesia are known as synesthetes.
In 1812, German physician Georg Sachs first reported on synesthesia and over 80 types have since been diagnosed as there are many combinations and cross activation of the senses with each synesthete having different triggers, sensations and intensities.
Scientists remain unsure how it develops but one theory is that it occurs when children are learning about abstract concepts, shapes, colours and sounds, and that synesthetes have too many neural connections between different brain regions such as between the language and colour processing areas. It could also be ‘disinhibited feedback’, a failure in the normal inhibition of the neural feedback connections which causes the synesthesia perceptual experiences. Non synesthetes may experience this during meditation, sensory deprivation or from using hallucinogenic drugs.
Lucas has the most common type of synesthesia called chromesthesia, which causes photisms, visual coloured experiences of a hallucinatory nature that are triggered by sounds. Lucas explained that “every sound I hear has a colour and a shape which is in constant movement and changing. I gave this title to my work because of the hallucinogenic magic mushrooms that allegedly give hallucinations, similar to what I painted and expressed. But, as it is and always was a natural event for me, I do not have the need to use mushrooms to feel this effect. Music is enough as the sound waves are my inspiration for this picture.”
Rap, dubstep and heavy metal music inspired Lucas to create his painting, but his perceived synesthetic colours are not restricted to the standard colour spectrum, so it can be frustrating to not be able to mix paints that reflect exactly the tones and hues he ‘sees’.
Water, sand, glass and lightning are also elements that he distinguishes in his work. The ‘emotion’ of the music does not change the colours or shapes, but different instruments elicit different ones. Notes on a piano are all shades of blue whilst drums are yellow, orange and brown!
Volume makes a difference, with colours intensifying as the music grows louder and shapes move closer together with a faster tempo.
Often those with chromesthesia have perfect pitch which, for synesthete musicians, is ideal. Renowned musicians Jimi Hendrix, Lady Gaga, Billy Joel and Duke Ellington are known synesthetes and composer Franz Linszt would often amuse his orchestra by asking “O please, gentlemen, a little bluer, if you please! This tone type requires it!”
Synesthetes report that they ‘see’ the photisms on a screen in front of their faces or they feel like they go to a particular place or that it is like a memory or dream.
Lucas’ earliest memory was, as a toddler, of running around in a panic, in Portimão’s noisy auditorium, trying to get away due to the overwhelming colour perceptions he was experiencing.
He was 16 when he learnt that he had synesthesia, after seeing a You Tube video entitled ‘Do you hear colour?’ It was a revelation because, until then, like most synesthetes, he thought everyone had the same perceptual experiences and saw the world in the same way. It is usually a casual remark about their perceptions to friends or family that makes synesthetes realise that this is not the case!
Synesthetes often have two or more types of synesthesia. Lucas also has grapheme-colour synesthesia, so he sees letters and numbers each with a distinct colour and, although he does not see himself as an “art kid”, he chose to study it in school because ”science had too many numbers and humanities too many letters!”
Whilst synesthetes see different colours for the same letter, there are often similarities; for instance, A is usually red. For Lucas, U is a bluish black, C is yellow, A is red and S is green/white, but, fascinatingly, he cannot ‘see’ the letter L, which for him is almost transparent. When looking at text, on signs or paper, synesthetes see the text’s actual ink colour but they also perceive their synesthetic colour.
Other forms of synesthesia cause individuals to perceive texture or experience negative feelings or feel a sensation in a part of the body when triggered by a sound; some perceive numerical sequences, months and days as having genders or personalities or as 3D, arranged like ribbons, as points in space or as a three-dimensional map. For example, the number eight might be a stubborn young girl!
The rare ‘mirror-touch’ synesthesia causes the synesthete to feel the same sensation as is being experienced by another person, such as pain if witnessing someone hurting themselves and lexical-gustatory synesthesia causes the perception of certain tastes or smells triggered by a particular word.
Not all synesthetes embrace their synesthesia and I read accounts of people feeling lonely, of being seen as crazy or not being able to cope with the invasion of colours during intense emotional moments.
Lucas separates his emotions from everything else, so they are generally not linked to colour and no, he does not see red when he gets angry! In fact, red is Lucas’ favourite colour. Synesthesia cannot be turned on or off at will, but when Lucas has to focus on a task, like studying, he can mostly ignore it. He describes his synesthesia like “having a younger brother who is occasionally annoying but who I love nevertheless”.
With approximately 4% of the population having synesthesia, Lucas feels it is a gift and talking to him was fascinating. Apparently, my voice is blue green with a faint red and has yellow diamond shapes!
So now you know!
By Isobel Costa
Isobel Costa works full time and lives on a farm with a variety of pet animals! In her spare time, she enjoys photography, researching and writing.