Chaos Theory Test Site

This is my linkable blog. Here lie assorted ideas, rants and ramblings that I can't seem not to write.

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Location: Victoria, Australia

This blog is a result of my wanting to share and exchange ideas with others, without cluttering up their blogs with my lengthy replies or necessarily having to exchange email details. Probably I'm nowhere near as angsty as I sound in some of my posts here. I promise I'm really pretty mellow. Honest.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Ooh! Look at the pretty music!

Another mild form of weirdness with which I live seems to be Synesthesia.

"syn·es·the·sia also syn·aes·the·sia (sns-thzh)
  1. A condition in which one type of stimulation evokes the sensation of another, as when the hearing of a sound produces the visualization of a color.
  2. A sensation felt in one part of the body as a result of stimulus applied to another, as in referred pain.
  3. The description of one kind of sense impression by using words that normally describe another."

When I was in primary school, I believed that everyone experienced the world as I do. When searching for an appropriate word, I'd describe them by their colours and I did get some strange looks: "What's a greener word for anger?" (blank looks) or "It's a word like like 'story' only yellower." (exchange of sidealong glances) and exclamations of "You're weird!"

After working out that not everyone experienced what I do, I learned to suppress references to it, and, to some extent, my own acknowledgement of it. It is of very little practical use, so, like metaphysics, I set it aside from my engagement with the Real World.

Of course, for me it is not weird at all, only weird to try to understand what life must be like for people without it. I have to compare it to my trying to understand tone deafness or colour blindness.

I finally stumbled across the word 'Synesthesia'.
(that word registers as flat, crisp foil texture, coloured red/peach with traces of burgundy, shadowed streaks of pthalo blue and sap green, by the way)

I recognised it as what I was experiencing and the article specified that it was not common to all humanity, but not unique to me. I've spoken to doctors and shrinks about it, and though they say it sounds like synasthesia and appear to find it fascinating, it has never been the core problem about which I've been consulting them, so it's nought more than an interesting aside from their perspective. Fact is that it's never been a problem at all, once I realised that it was not something I could discuss in common with my peers. It only gets out of hand when deliberately and vigorously pushed, so I don't do that.

I'm going to try to describe what I experience. I will not succeed, but it's a genuine attempt. The 'describing in words' part of my brain is a long way from the 'seeing/feeling sounds' part of my brain, so it takes a certain amout of thought to try to convey what I experience to people who don't have similar experiences. I am far more accustomed to suppressing my impulses to describe or remark on what sounds look and feel like than expressing them, but I'll try. I hope it is to some degree effective without sounding too weird.

Okay. So...

Colour associations are pretty predictable. I know that as I have always had them and they are second nature to me, that they will seem obvious to me, but when I have described them to other people, they can also see simple, predictable links between sound and colour/texture. I have noticed an emotional association between sound and word colours, and have occasionally wondered about the possibility that my experience is based on my emotional reactions rather than a direct sensory mis-wiring.

Words have blasts of colour as they are recognised. They land not as a series of letters, but as concepts, and it is the meaning that renders their colour more than their construction, though particularly french sounding words are shadowed with a rose/salmon pink, and recognisably latin words tend to be shadowed in navy blue unless they are botanically associated in which case they are shadowed a sticky dark green like the food colouring I use for cake decorating. There is often an afterglow to a particularly good word useage. When the context of a word changes, as in a pun, the colour does, too, but the previous colour/texture context lingers like a sunset behind a street light.

Sometimes I will be surprised by a word or sound that has an unexpected colour or texture. That's disconcerting, and can throw me off my stride as I try to work out why I am mis-perceiving it, or if in fact I am. Often, when I take time to think about it, I will find that I have some confusion about the meaning or spelling of the word. If I come across a word that, to my mind, has been misused or misspelled, I get orange - stereotypical colour of cautionary warning, but it's what I get. If I have made a freudian slip, I get orange and burgundy and I know that I have said something potentially embarrassing, and I falter as I try to recall what I did say.

Textures can shift depending what I have been doing. Lately, as I have been learing about fabric, different fabric textures are common. When farming, the textures would be those of hay and metal, hide and wire. It seems that newer sensual experiences are 'at the top of the heap', therefore come to hand more easily for textural interpretations of new or uncommon sounds. Still, there are many words and sounds with entrenched textures of their own that don't change according to what I am doing in my life.

Though specific sounds can register every concieveable hue, shade, texture and tone, my default soundscape is predominantly shaded in yellow, cream, yellow ochre, all backing onto white. It's a speckly texture, with the size of stippling and intensity of colour increasing with the definition of the sound. Less pleasant noises enter as shades of grey, again speckles and blotches, but denser and more roughly shaped. These are against a background that shades to warm black/charcoal. I can only use approximate descriptive terms like 'crushed egg-shells' and 'washed roadside bluemetal' to try to accurately describe the sensations of texture that come with sounds.

I find that recognisable sounds take on associated textures and colours. The wooden kitchen chairs being moved sounds of the shade the timber is, and they rap against oneanother with shots of glossy red ochre. The scrape against the floor is a crosscut saw-blade of dull, vibrating white high and to the right. Less obvious are the high-pitched sound of the television in another room registering as threads of vanishingly elongated diamond shaped copper stabbing into a roll of soft, damp grey packing blanket.

Most of the time, the soundscape is somewhere behind my eyes, not intrusive. I tune out the colour and texture of the misty grey computer hum, the porrdigey French Grey fog of the heater, the faint white diamond-encrusted-cotton-bud-stabs of the ticking clock along with the actual sounds.

When I am tired, crazy or stressed - or even extremely relaxed - it becomes more dominant. I don't hallucinate in the Real world, but the visual and textural sensations become stronger, which is very pleasant if the sounds are nice. (I used to think that people saying that they were 'getting a buzz' were referring to similar textural sensations)

I can feel the sounds moving and changing, and I can 'see' the colours and patterns - just not projected onto the world. I don't know what to compare the sensation of seeing inside my head to... It's not simple imagination - I have one of those and it's certainly different. I have had migraine aura, but that does mess with my vision, and sound colours don't.

The best handles I can apply describe a para-space in which I experience the colours. It corresponds largely with my surroundings, but very much reflects my 'head-space', too. The more tired and low I feel, the less defined or smaller (it's hard to say) the field becomes.

The colours and textures play in this field of perception as I experience them. The location in which I see a sound predictably occurs in the direction in my para-world that corresponds to the origin of the sound in the real world, though they do move up or down depending on the quality of the sound. The degree to which I am aware of them varies, mainly according to mood. Sometimes, under exceptional circumstances, the colours and textures resolve themselves into very coherent and well defined patterns.

I have tried to render these in graphic form, but the effort has been extreme, the results unsatisfying and the consequences for my mental state quite frightening. The crazier I am, the more vivid and intrusive the sound colours are. The more I try to capture them, the more they intrude, therefore the crazier I get. Down that path lies madness, as they say.

Aside: Someone I know describes strangely reminiscent experiences when he was ill, delerious and "going off his nut" a few years back. He could see patterns flowing and moving at great speed. As his condition deteriorated, he found it harder and harder to 'come out to check on the real world'. Finally, the real world was not something he could distinguish from his alternate perceptions.

Mainly, as I experience it, it's a pretty screensaver for my brain. I listen to music when I am in a relaxed crazy state and the colours coalesce into patterns and forms, moving, changing... kaleidoscopic is a good description, in a way.

It's useful to monitor my moods and general health. It's a handy extra dimension to language skill and melody learning. It can be unhelpful when the experience I have of a word in text clashes with that experience in sound. A word in text has a colour and texture, but if the pronunciation is wildly different to what I expect, I have two levels of confusion to deal with - audio and visual/textural.

Hmm. It's been a frustrating excersise to try to write about something so non-verbal. I hope that the above gives some idea of what I experience, or at least a starting point for formulating questions for anyone who is curious about such things.


Blogger Daniel said...

I was recently part of a conversation in which two others were describing their own synesthesia. The things they described were intriguing and disturbing. On the spur of the moment I commented that I sometimes associate music with colours. However I have since introspected on this a bit and I was mistaken. What I in fact do is this: I will sometimes associate a particular timbre with a temperature and then go onto associate that temperature with a particular colour. So a saxaphone sounds 'warm' and warmth puts me in mind of a golden orange. Likewise a violin sounds 'cold' and cold puts me in mind of an icy blue.

Notice that I am still hearing rather than 'feeling' the sound. And the associations made are the product of thought rather than sensation. I never actual feel the temperature associated with it. All of this could be understood in terms of culturally acquired associations rather than some unique miswiring of my brain. In that sense I am only 'synesthetic' as per the third and final of the three definitions you provide.

1:19 pm  
Blogger Jac said...

Disturbing? Erm. How?

Myself, I find that it is often so simple to rationalise an explanatory link between a sound and the colour I have vision of that I have wondered whether it's not something that I am conjuring reflexively as with an old and deeply ingrained habit. A visual 'bless you' to the auditory 'sneeze', so to speak. An OCD permutation?

As I understand it, objective identification of synesthesia involves periodic testing over decades and/or brain scans of some kind - and as I've said, my sound colours do not hamper me. So it's only a matter of curiousity to me to wonder if what is going on in my head is a wiring issue or a habit. It just happens.

The description I've written is as direct and accurate as I can render, and is essentially by way of 'coming out' as experiencing something a little unusual. I'm trying to get over coming from a culture of 'anything unusual is wrong' in which I was plently unusual without letting on about the sound-colours.

I believe that most people use cross-senses descriptions to better describe sensations. I do so myself, and have grown used to it being the default use of cross-sense descriptions. I've not ever spoken to another person with synesthesic experience. That would be interesting indeed.

7:26 pm  
Blogger Daniel said...

Those people discussing their synesthesia with me were choristers. I wonder whether it is more common among musical sorts? Maybe you could visit a choral performance and then loiter around backstage afterwards, and whisper conspiratorially "your performance had a lovely shade of lilac" to anyone you bump into, to see how they react...

12:21 pm  
Blogger Jac said...

Mmm. I have participated in amatuer theatre musicals, church and folk singing things throughout my life, but despite encountering abundantly colourful individuals, I have not known anyone involved to experience sound as colour.

I suspect that loitering backstage whispering cryptic things to people in quiet corners would have some folk trying to buy drugs from me, anyway. :-P

8:55 pm  
Blogger Miriel said...

I have a milder version of synesthesia (sound/sight), so I find your descriptions very intriguing. Since it's not so strong in me, it wasn't something I even realized I had until a few years ago; I can still recall the odd shock of noticing that others don't identify songs as "the one with claws" or "that bubbly blue one."

I do think that synesthetes tend to gravitate towards the arts. It's said that Gershwin was a synesthete (telling the musicians to play "a little bluer, please"), and I believe I read a list somewhere of famous artists and musicians who scientists believe had synesthesia.

11:52 am  

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