In the year 2001, when my husband and I lived in Kansas City, we had the good fortune of meeting Kelly, a young lady with some quite remarkable and unique abilities. When she told us of them, we were very surprised, since neither of us had ever heard of synesthesia. Kelly told us that when she saw letters, as in reading a book, she saw colors in her mind associated with each of the letters. I asked her if the colors stayed consistent, for example “A” is always “Red,” to which she replied, “Yes.”
Kelly didn’t stop there. She told us she also had the ability to write sentences on a blackboard using both hands to write the words simultaneously. However, one hand would write the sentence forward and the other would write it backward, both at the same time. I probably would not have believed it had I not seen her do it with my own two eyes! Then, a couple of weeks later, a letter arrived in the mail from Kelly. She had written all three pages backward and we had to use a mirror to read it.
I felt compelled to do a little research on Kelly’s abilities, which she told us was a condition known as synesthesia. I went to the Internet and searched until I found an excellent article by Richard E. Cytowic, who has done extensive research on this interesting phenomenon and has written several books on the subject, including The Man Who Tasted Shapes.
In an abstract from Psyche: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Consciousness on synesthesia, Cytowic tells us it is an involuntary physical experience of a cross-modal association, which is a scientific way of saying that when one sense is stimulated (as with Kelly sight, words), this causes a perception in one or more senses (color). Synesthesia is not abnormal, but it is rare.
A synesthete might describe the color, shape, or flavor of someone’s voice, or music whose sound looks like “shards of glass.” Another synesthete might see red and also smell red as well. Cytowic goes on to assure us that once someone with synesthesia sees a hammer as “red with white speckles,” he or she will always have that experience when confronted with a hammer.
Synesthesia has been known to medicine for almost 300 years. It is possible that Sir Isaac Newton and Goethe were both synesthetes. Russian novelist, Valdimir Nabokov, was synesthetic, and when he was young, he told his mother that the letter colors on his wooden alphabet blocks were all wrong. Most synesthetes are female and right-handed, have excellent memories, and prefer order, neatness, symmetry, and balance.
I think we humans have a long way to go in learning about our brain and its capacities and feel enthusiastic about all the new brain research findings that are released. I just hope we can find a way to use these newly uncovered capabilities for good, don’t you?