Wednesday 12 October 2011

That's a funny thing

Salt is a synesthete. Each letter, number, and day of the week he associates with a colour. The colour variations are limited, but they are always the same.

1 is white
2 is red
3 is yellow
4 is blue
5 is a mustardy yellow
6 is pinky red
7 is green
8 is a dark, strong red
9 is also yellow
10 is black, as is zero.

For teens, the second number dominates, for example, 19 is yellow. For all subsequent numbers the first number’s colour dominates.

Sunday, Monday and Tuesday are all different shades of yellow;
Wednesday is a red, orange;
Thursday is grey;
Friday is black; and
Saturday is a reddy, pink.

Some characters of the alphabet interchange between black and white depending on the context, the others are permanently their colour.

His form of synesthesia means he has no emotive connection to the colours, and he describes it as an internal connection, rather than an external one. He can see that the text is black and white, but says that the colours ‘exist in the ether. I can see a black 2 on a page, but I know that the real character of 2 is to be red.’ He has no explanation for the associations, and says that it hasn’t particularly helped him in life. The colour sequencing can help with spelling although it’s not reliable for double letters in a word, for example, meerkat. Too much yellow.

Oliver Sacks talks about synesthesia in MusicophiliaTales of Music and the Brain. Sacks says that synesthesia occurs in about 1 in 2000, probably more although most people don’t see it as a “condition.” Each synesthete has their own colour correspondence, and it can also involve any of the senses, so that a colour can have a smell or every musical interval its own taste. Many musicians have synesthesia and associate colour to sound. Salt is a jazz musician, and after relentless questioning, he assures me that he doesn’t colour associate to sound, but he does to the notes. He has met only one other synesthete and their colours were all together different, “it made no sense, to think that the colours would be different, it was like the world was upside down – what? No! 2 is RED!”

I remember Salt first telling me about his synesthesia. It was followed by a bombardment of questions. Every now and then I think of a new question, like, what if you see an actual red 2, does it make it invisible? One of Salt’s many virtues is patience. “Nothing happens when I see a character in the colour I imagine it in, that would be normal, what is more strange is if I see a character in a different colour ... and they are all 'wrong' then it seems a little strange. Not overpoweringly so. I mean, I still function pretty normally, ask my wife if you don't believe me...”

He functions normally, well, normally enough for me.

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