Lies You Believe About Synesthesia

Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which the person who has it experiences a combination or combinations of different senses; i.e., smelling colors or tasting sounds. I have synesthesia, and because I've had some issues explaining it to people, I'd just like to set the record straight on a few points, seeing as I've got this lovely 'create-a-page' feature on my blog.

1. Synesthetes are not making it up to get attention. This one drives me nuts. I have actually met many people who honestly thought I was making it up, which hurts, because I would never do that. Synesthetes usually assume that everyone sees the world the way they do until they learn otherwise. When a synesthete discovers that they have synesthesia, many of us are eager to explore this aspect of who we are. It can be frustrating to not be believed or understood during this phase. Also, synesthesia is not a 'problem' or a 'disease.' Our brains were simply made this way, and we have no control over it. You cannot 'catch' synesthesia. You cannot 'learn' to be a synesthete. And please, if you don't have synesthesia, do not pretend that you do. Having synesthesia can honestly be very challenging in a way that is nigh impossible for others to understand, because every synesthete's experience is different. When someone pretends to have it, it feels like we're being mocked. So please, just don't, okay? (And besides, if you proclaim that the letter 'F' is green and then a week later assert that it's always been pink with orange polka-dots, we can tell you're making it up, okay?)

2. "All synesthetes are bad at math." "All synesthetes are artistic and/or good at music and painting." "Most synesthetes are left-handed."  These are MYTHS, gentle readers. While it's true that math is challenging for many synesthetes on account of their condition, this does not hold true for all of us. Some who have grapheme-color synesthesia (details below) actually find it easier to keep track of numbers because of this. Personally, I think my various types of synesthesia make some parts of math easy for me and other parts really, really hard. But all in all, I'm actually quite good at math (though I hate it). There is no evidence to support the idea that most synesthetes are left-handed. While it's true that many synesthetes are artistic, it doesn't hold true for all of us. I'm actually really good at music, but I pretty much suck at painting. Just remember that we are just people, and we're just as varied as everyone else on this lovely ocean-covered planet. :)

3. Synesthesia is not always a cake walk, but it's not always a struggle. When I attempt to explain synesthesia to someone (which, as of late, I try to avoid doing, because to be honest I'm really tired of people not getting it or deciding that I made it up), I usually get a response that falls roughly along the lines of "I'm so sorry for you. That must be such a struggle." or "WOW that's so cool! You must be some kind of superhero! What does my name taste like?" Both of these are responses from people who mean well, but I don't want to give anyone the wrong impression. Some parts of synesthesia definitely are fun. I love playing and writing music because of the colors, and I enjoy thinking in pictures. For me, it's incredibly easy to memorize phone numbers or historical dates because of their colors and personalities. I wouldn't give up my synesthesia for the world, because it makes everything I experience way more interesting.

On the other side of the coin, I've got to admit that sometimes I really do struggle with it. My motion-audio in particular is really hard to deal with, because it's really easy for me to get horribly overstimulated in a room with, say, a lot of blinking lights, even if there's technically no sound for anyone else. I mix up numbers in math, and I get emotionally invested in algebra problems in a distracting and annoying way that I can't control. Sometimes the colors and sounds and everything in my head just overcome me and I can't escape the over-stimulation due to the fact that it's in my head, and literally with me wherever I go. I think my biggest struggle with it, however, is simply the fact that literally no one understands exactly what it's like for me. I'm kind of afraid of telling my parents and teachers exactly how hard it can actually be for me, because I don't think they'd take me seriously. And I wish I could show people what I see when I play music, because it's really beautiful and I want to share it with other humans. The closest I can possibly come to sharing my experience is composing, which is one of the reasons why I love it so.

So yeah, having synesthesia is amazing and wonderful, but it can also be really lonely. It honestly helps just to have someone to talk to about it who's willing to listen. Have you hugged a synesthete today? You should. :)

4. Not all synesthetes have all types of synesthesia. There have been about 50 different kinds of synesthesia documented, and they range from smelling color to thinking of musical notes as different body contortions. And in visual types of synesthesia, not everyone 'sees' the colors and/or shapes in their line of vision. Instead, some people just experience them clearly in the 'movie theater' of their minds, like a day dream that won't go away (I'm one of these people). Some people have only one kind of synesthesia; others have several. So I can't actually tell you what your name tastes like. Sorry. ;)

Just for fun, here's the list of what I've got:
  • Grapheme-color (also known as lexical synesthesia): numbers, letters, words and symbols have color.
  • Audio-visual: Perceiving sounds (especially music, for me) as having color, shape, and/or pictures. 
  • Motion-audio: When I see motion, like a branch in the wind, a clock ticking, a blinking light, a spinning wheel, or even a finger wiggling, I hear a kind of rhythmic melody in my head, even if the moving thing is making no sound. 
  • Ordinal Linguistic Personification (OLP): numbers, letters, time units and things that come in patterns have personalities. For me, 8 is pretty, kind and female (and also light green), but 7 is reddish-brown, male, and awkward.
  • Object Personification (OP): basically, things have personalities. Like, I might not get along with your lamp based on its personality. The easiest way I can think to explain this is that it's like compulsory, involuntary anthropomorphication of everything around me. Have you seen that short cartoon before Monster's University? The one with the umbrellas? It's kind of like that.
  • Pain/emotion-color/visual: I experience extreme pain and really intense emotions as color/shape pictures, but only if the emotion or pain is really bad. For instance, when I had an anaphylactic reaction to tree nuts, there was a yellow lump in my throat surrounded by gray that made it hard to breathe, and I 'saw' it in my mind on the same 'TV screen' that you see when you daydream. When I was falling pretty hard for someone once, I felt red and yellow swirling around in my chest cavity. Headaches are usually light blue for me.
  • Random stuff that I know is synesthesia and I'm sure has a scientific term but I don't know what to call it: When I used to dance, the different dances all had colors (e.g., the Highland Fling was yellow). Countries, months, days of the week, etc. all have color. I think of the calendar year as a circle in front of me in space, with the months as sort of hazy, colored rectangles.
Bottom line: Synesthetes are people, too. We can't control what we perceive, and it's not a disease. Synesthesia is a huge part of who we are, and acknowledging that fact and having patience with us when we struggle with our synesthesia means a lot to us. And while we're on the subject, that message can be extended to everyone on the earth, regardless of whether they're synesthetic, have a mental or physical disability, are a different nationality from you, wear a shirt you don't like, or anything else at all.  Just treat people like people, and seek to understand rather than to be understood. <3

If you're interested in synesthesia and you know something about it I don't, please let me know! Aside from the fact that I'm a synesthete myself, neurology and psychology are hobbies of mine and I love learning about synesthesia. If you're a synnie too, I'd love to hear from you! 

2 comments:

  1. Interesting read, Maddie. Coincidentally, I think my little brother might have synesthesia. We were listening to music this morning, and when a Katy Perry song came on(though he doesn't even know who she is) he looked at me in horror. "Her music is pink!" I asked him what he meant and he just stared at me like it was *so* obvious. He's also made comments in past years about inanimate objects having personalities. Or maybe he's just weird ;)

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    1. That's pretty cool. Your brother is officially awesome.

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