I first stumbled across synesthesia as a teenager when I was at the Berlin Philharmonic, and the girl next to me asked if I could see the colors. I couldn’t. My mother-in-law sees everyone’s voice as a color. My voice is yellow-green. It was such a fascinating proof of how different our brains are that I knew I wanted to use it in a story someday.
So, I gave the main character in my latest series, Joe Tesla, synesthesia. He experiences numbers as colors, so every time he thinks about the number three, for example, he sees the color red. This is handy for him as a mathematician because he can visualize numbers and their relationships to one another. His friends call him ‘the Mozart of Math,’ which is a pretty cool, if geeky ,nickname.
Scientists aren’t sure what causes synesthesia, but recent studies indicate that synesthetes have more gray matter in their brains, and that the condition is more common than previously thought, although studies use numbers from as varied as 1 in 2,000 to 1 in 23, so it’s tough to say with precision.
But here are 10 people who experience the world a little differently than most of us, grouped by profession so I can sneak in a few extra musicians, in their own words:
Scientists With Synesthesia
Nikola Tesla. The famous inventor had some kind of visual synesthesia, although I don’t know if it’s ever been clearly defined. In an interview for the American Magazine in 1921, Tesla said: “During my boyhood I had suffered from a peculiar affliction due to the appearance of images, which were often accompanied by strong flashes of light. When a word was spoken, the image of the object would present itself so vividly to my vision, that I could not tell whether what I saw was real or not… Even though I reached out and passed my hand through it, the image would remain fixed in space.”
Richard Feynman. A famous physicist who won the Nobel Prize in 1965 and worked on the atomic bomb. In his autobiography, What Do You Care What Other People Think?, he said: "When I see equations, I see the letters in colors – I don't know why. As I'm talking, I see vague pictures of Bessel functions from Jahnke and Emde's book, with light-tan j's, slightly violet-bluish n's, and dark brown x's flying around. And I wonder what the hell it must look like to the students."
Musicians: With Synesthesia
It was tough to pick two, so I’m going cheat. I’ll list a bunch and then call out two who had the most interesting quotes about it. Here’s a partial list, but I get the feeling it could be much longer: Franz Liszt, Billy Joel, Pharrel Williams, Kanye West, Mary Blige, Stevie Wonder, maybe Beyoncé, Itzhak Perlman, Nikolai Rimsey-Korsakov, Eddie Van Halen, Jimmy Hendix.
Duke Ellington. “I hear a note by one of the fellows in the band and it’s one color. I hear the same note played by someone else and it’s a different color. When I hear sustained musical tones, I see just about the same colors that you do, but I see them in textures. If Harry Carney is playing, D is dark blue burlap. If Johnny Hodges is playing, G becomes light blue satin.”
Tori Amos. From her autobiography, Piece by Piece: “The song appears as light filament once I've cracked it. As long as I've been doing this, which is more than thirty-five years, I've never seen a duplicate song structure. I've never seen the same light creature in my life. Obviously similar chord progressions follow similar light patterns, but try to imagine the best kaleidoscope ever.”
Artists with Synesthesia
Wassily Kandinsky. From the website, www.synesthesiatest.org. “Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the harmonies, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.”
Van Gogh. In a letter to his brother: “Some artists have a nervous hand at drawing, which gives their technique something of the sound peculiar to a violin, for instance, Lemud, Daumier, Lançon — others, for example, Gavarni and Bodmer, remind one more of piano playing. Do you feel this too? Millet is perhaps a stately organ."
Writers With Synesthesia
Vladimir Nabokov. From his autobiography, Speak Memory: “Perhaps 'hearing' is not quite accurate, since the color sensation seems to be produced by the very act of my orally forming a given letter while I imagine its outline. The long a of the English alphabet (and it is this alphabet I have in mind farther on unless otherwise stated) has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French a evokes polished ebony. This black group also includes hard g (vulcanized rubber) and r (a sooty rag bag being ripped).”
Joanne Harris. On her website: “I’ve always associated certain colours with tastes and smells.”
Actors with Synesthesia
Marilyn Monroe. From her biography, Marilyn: A Biography written by Norman Mailer. “She has a displacement of the senses that others take drugs to find.”
Geoffrey Rush: From A Man for all Seasons: “Friday is dark maroon, a type of sienna, and Saturday is definitely white. Monday is a cool blue... Since I was seven, when I first learnt counting, numbers had specific colours.”
WHAT ABOUT YOU? DO YOU EXPERIENCE SYNESTHESIA? DO YOU WISH YOU DID? Tell us by commenting on the blog below or on our Facebook page and you’ll be entered to win a copy of DRAWING CONCLUSIONS! (U.S. only please.)