Life with Synesthesia

Isaura Greene
Isaura Greene is a sophomore at Great River School.
"When my synesthesia is its strongest, I prefer reading with white text on a black background because it feels cleaner to me."

My favorite number — 15 — is also my favorite color, a beautiful green-blue. My least favorite day of the week is Thursday, which is a nasty brown-green in my mind, and makes me want to puke.

This may seem strange, but that’s how people with synesthesia see the world. Synesthesia is a condition that causes you to experience one sense at the same time as another, according to the website of Eagleman Laboratory at Baylor College of Medicine.

David Eagleman, the researcher at the lab, said on his website that about four percent of people experience synesthesia.

So I see the world a bit differently. Some days my synesthesia is not very strong and it makes me feel deprived. Something important is missing. Sometimes it goes hand in hand with my emotions. When I’m stressed and tired, it’s stronger.

I didn’t know I had this condition until I first heard about it a year ago when I read a book called “A Mango-Shaped Space” by Wendy Mass.

When I read that part about Mia, the main character who experiences synesthesia, describing the way she sees the year I was shocked. “I have that, I have that, and that’s synesthesia?” I said, practically aloud.

Before then, I thought it was just natural to associate numbers and letters with a specific color. I found an online forum – Nexus — where I could talk to other people with synesthesia and learned a lot about it,

Think of a calendar of the twelve months of the year.
What do you see? The illustration above is what
Isaura Greene sees when she thinks of the months of
the year, except instead of this 2-dimensional circle,
Isaura’s calendar is a sphere, which she sees as January
being closest to her, and the summer months being
the farthest away, “downhill,” she said. This type of
synesthesia is called a “concept map.”

Photo illustration by Isaura Green

Grapheme synesthesia, when one sees letters or numbers in colors, is one of the most common types.

Some people may just see this in their mind — it’s called associating synesthesia. Others actually see colors when reading words on the page or doing math problems.

I associate colors with many other things: numbers, days of the week, months. December is a cerulean blue with white spots. I didn’t pick December’s color. My brain just assigned the colors and associations on its own.

When my synesthesia is its strongest, I prefer reading with white text on a black background because it feels cleaner to me than black text on a white background.

Sometimes it’s hard for people who experience synesthesia to describe the colors they see because they don’t exist in nature. I’m not sure how to describe what the color nine is to me because it’s a dark pink — with reds, brown, and maybe some orange — that I’ve never seen in the physical world.

I also have object-personification, or OP for short, which not everyone agrees is a form of synesthesia. I’m not sure either way, but it feels similar because I associate genders and personalities with everyday objects.

I used to do this more when I was younger, but I still have it.

When I was kindergarten, every day I would eat toast with butter and strawberry jam cut into fours — not an unusual snack at that age. What was unusual is my snack became a family.

My mom would yell at me for taking so long to eat because I felt I had to reassure each piece of toast, in a sort of ritual, before eating them. I would tell them not to worry, they were just going in my stomach, and I’d always remember them.

Adults thought it was cute that I had imaginary friends. But as I got older, adults didn’t think it was cute anymore. Breads still have personalities for me, but I can eat toast now without guilt maybe because it has faded a bit.

Before my sister was born, when I was an only child, I played with my fingers because each finger had a very specific personality. I spoke dialogue between my fingers, and acted out little dramatic scenes like other girls playing pretend teatime with dolls.

My thumb on my left hand is Thum Thum, and my left pointer finger is the mother, who’s responsible for my other fingers. My left ring finger is Ding Dong; she’s a mother too but younger. And, of course, there’s Pinky, who’s very girly but also strong-minded. And my fingers have aged as I’ve aged.

There’s another type of synesthesia — object-linguistic personification — that causes people to personify letters and numbers as well. I do this a little. For example, 19 is a self-centered, over-confident, young athlete. My favorite number is 15, a fair, even-headed, mature type of guy.

Some people who have synesthesia have “concept maps.” This is my strongest type, and it’s very difficult to explain.

For example, when I think of a year, I see a circle, not a calendar. On that circle, the months of the year go in order. I always picture myself looking at January, and then the circle slopes to the right toward the spring, enters a valley in the summer months, then gradually slopes back up in fall to its peak in winter. Each month is a color, like squares on a game board, though there aren’t lines separating the months on my map.

I have concept maps for days, weeks, years and even a time-line of centuries.

Synesthesia is a condition that just makes the world a bit more colorful. Even those without synesthesia should all be grateful for colors, arts, music and best of all, the sensations that we experience in this world. Without them, the world would be gray and dull.

Everyone has their quirks, things that set them apart from the crowd. Embrace their uniqueness; be accepting. Please don’t gawk at others’ explanations of how they understand things, but help them out.

It’s actually really a pretty neat view of the world.