Sunday, July 18, 2010

Reba, guitar and synaesthesia!

Now and then I get off on the subject of synaesthesia, which I now discover I always spell the britspeak way, with the extra a in the second syllable, oh well, and there's a terrific new book out, on experiments of discovery in this area, with a lot of subjects. "Wednesday is Indigo Blue."

It's the phenomenon of having more than one sense triggered at one time: some of us have it vividly when we hear sounds, colors appear in the mind's eye, or somewhere like that, or shapes, or movement. Similarly for some people colors evoke literal taste in the mouth. Or sounds.

My first violin teacher used her powers of synaesthesia to help me tune my violin. When I had the strings tuned properly, the "colors" she could literally see in her mind's eye, were the right shades. And when she checked against an electronic tuner, she was always right.

I have this to a marked extent, always have had. Most of mine involves the images evoked by sounds, names, words, that sort of thing. And they don't change throughout life.

This book might be more information than most of us want to know about the subject, but it's worth dipping into. And one terrific discovery they made, which vindicates me, is that a lot of us synaesthetes have little to no sense of direction. One of their subjects in fact described exactly my own experience: I can visualize place A and place B, could draw them in detail for you. What I can't do is fathom how to get from one to the other. I can follow maps and directions just fine, but have no innate sense of whether I'm going in the right direction, or whether I need to veer across in order to get to place B, that kind of thing. And kind friends pointing out that if I study the position of the sun, all will be fine, don't quite grasp that the sun may know where it is, but I sure don't!

But this study shows that people like me are not clowns nor dumb, and that direction is simply not something you can learn, any more than if you do not have synaesthesia, you can learn to have it. It would be interesting to know from you, dear blogistas and blogistos, if you have synaes. or if you have a skilled sense of direction, or even both if you are amazingly lucky!

There's still a lot of debate over how synaesthetes come to be that way. The belief is currently that all babies start out with it, then as they learn more skills, particularly reading and writing, they focus on fewer of the senses and the crossover tends to fade away. With some of us it doesn't fade, and we are very fortunate, since it's a huge enrichment to life. Most artists have it to a marked extent.

This current study also confirms that it was for many years thought to be very rare, since people who have it assume that everyone else does, just a normal part of everyday life, as I did for years and years. I was stunned to discover as a teen that other people had no idea what I was talking about, were even quite rude about it, as if it were an attention-seeking device. Other people fear being considered odd and keep quiet about it after encountering this sort of response, or they think nobody else has this capacity.

But once the research was under way, it was found that a huge segment of the population has it in some form, and mostly love it as a precious part of life. I had the great privilege of having some of my own experiences used in the second edition of Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia, as a result of an interesting email exchange I had with him after reading the first edition. He had not heard about some of my perceptions before and was interested, particularly in the notion of seeing colors in my head or somewhere, which are not in the normal spectrum. Now you will often be told that is not possible, that the spectrum we are familiar with is the only one you can perceive, but some of us say, nope, there are other whole worlds of colors that we can't reproduce nor find in materials, but they exist for us somewhere!

Names are very evocative of color for me, and I thought you, dear blogistas, might be interested in seeing if yours appears here. Not all names bring out color or shape or movement, so don't feel omitted if yours doesn't.

Irene is a white, smooth area, with slightly ragged edges, very pleasant to see.

West is gray and slightly grainy, while Gabriella is a moving flounce of white satin, like the flourish of a flamenco dancer's skirt. Ruth is slightly indented reddish, rough surface. Annie is a downward curve, bluish. Mary-Carol, the Mary part doesn't do anything to me, but the Carol part is an orangy paper, with a single fold, the bottom part curving away. Avril is not a color, but it's a shape, a double peak, the right slope less abrupt than the left. Paula is an interesting amorphous shape of dark green and black tweedy material, like knitting (intriguing, since this has been my image from years and years before I came across knitting designer Paula). Paul, though, is different: greyish slope, declining to the right side.

So there you have a little of what I see all the time, everywhere, when I hear names and other sounds. Do any of you do likewise? I know Stefi does, since she salivates when she sees certain delicious colors!

And I was listening to Reba'a Greatest Hits and to Flamenco Guitar while I read the book, quite a mixture, terrific stuff. The book was very left brained, the music very right brained, and they worked together just fine. Except I had to keep stopping to marvel at Reba's vocal technique. I'm not much for country music, but her voice is an amazing instrument, and she knows exactly how to play it. She really could have had an operatic career, I think, with those pipes, but she knows what she likes to sing, and write, and this is it.

I wonder if she has synaesthesia, too, come to think of it.


  1. I have both synesthesia (although the American kind) and a good sense of direction, so by your definition I am amazingly lucky. I would happily argue this in general, but in this case, by definition, I cannot!

    My synesthesia only consists of colors associated with all symbols, has always been the same and has helped me with remembering spelling, birthdays, phone numbers, etc, since the colors "look right". It even helps with Chinese characters.

    My sense of direction did not exist until I was 23 or 24, and then it just snapped in ;like I opened my eyes for the first time.


  2. The above post was put in by me, Boud, because Liane's post had crashed out on her and I thought it was so valuable that I really wanted it restored. So I took the liberty of doing so after she emailed me.

    It's her words, but it shows as my comment, because I goofed it up, sorry.

  3. A friend on Facebook posted a review of a book on "taste" synaesthesia she just read. Thought i'd mention it because it has a great title: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender. Maybe you could look for it in the libe!

    I love your detail about white satin, of course. I wonder if we met face to face if it would make any difference to your perceptions.

  4. Sadly I'm neither a synaesthete or have a particularly good sense of direction. A few years back my DH and I were travelling up the east coast of NZ's South Island and although I knew we were going north, my body was telling me we were going south - and that was with the sea on my left. I wonder what that all means 8-).


  5. Mild, and constantly varies. One invariable is that though all our subway stations are on the north side of Bloor Street, and I know this intellectually, there is one station that I am certain is on the south side. I get off at that station and cannot find my way to the shop I want because I turn to the west instead of to the east. It makes no difference that the sun tells me I am going the wrong way, my mind insists I am to do so. I can tell myself to turn to the right when I come up the stairs, but if I labour the point, I am so confused I have been known to just go back down and get on a train again. Aggravating when I taught ESL at a Church to the east!! Pain has both sound and colour for me. Sounds have colours, too, most of the time.

  6. And to prove how absolutely hopeless my sense of direction is, of course the sea was on my right as we travelled up the east coast.


  7. This is Boud, bringing over an email, with the permission of the writer, Schoenly, because I thought it was too good to just share with me! Okay, these are her words, not mine:

    Does the ability to identify--almost…‘taste’-- a familiar-but-unseen object, based on the sound it makes (e.g. when being moved, struck, or when hitting the floor) at all count as synesthesia? If so, I have it…I get a 3D, textured, spatial sense…almost a ‘taste’ of sound, in the back of my throat--But it’s not smell and flavor crosswiring…more…a volume/spatial/texture--almost a ‘palate-feel’ for sound, which I’ve a hunch may be pretty common, and which may underlie most vocal/accent-mimicking ability). All sounds, words, including those spoken (or sung, for that matter) have a certain ‘heft, sculptural shape, density, feel for me--Where you get undulating fabric and color, I get…shape and texture, viscosity-level and (if the sound is a human/mammalian one) an instantaneous understanding (as if through mirror neurons/muscular networking) of how I’d have to shape my mouth/palate/use my vocal chords in order to reproduce it.

    Miraculous, the individual way in which each of our brains recreates for us, the outside world, no?

    Finally--on the subj. of books & the brain--I gratefully took note of your “Wednesday…Indigo” recommendation, and venture to proffer one of my own, on the off chance that you haven’t already had the pleasure: Have you read any Ramachandran??? (neuroscientist/neurologist brilliant on subj. of brain-mapping, etc. particularly interested in phantom limb phenomena). He’s brilliant and downright Sacks-esque in terms of the depth and breadth of his intellect, humanity, culture, humor, and writing skill….

    There. That’s all.


Thanks so much for commenting. I read all comments with care and much pleasure!