Monday, June 17, 2013

A Melody of the Senses

I hopped on Google Plus for a short break from writing and was instantly intrigued by an article claiming they can predict what colors people think of when they listen to different songs. The thesis is actually pretty simple: you feel more positive or negative based on the tempo and key (major vs. minor) of the song. Happier feelings match with warm colors (which also make us feel happy), and sadder feelings with cooler colors. You end up with Bach's Brandenburg Concerto no. 2 in F major, Adante (minor key, slow) eliciting blues, blacks, and dark reds, and Brandenburg Concerto no. 2 in F major, Allegro assai (major key, fast) elicting yellow and orange. You can try the experiment yourself by listening the clips embedded in the article.

I confess, it didn't work so well for me. The one that got lots of blue made me think of rose, for example. It was also hard to identify an overarching color to the piece as there were many smaller bursts of color going on underneath the theme color that flowed into it and affected it, like the notes being played that meld into an overall melody piece. For as long as I can remember, in fact, music has elicited both color and texture for me. This makes it at the same time a wonderful sensory experience and also potentially distracting.

I have what's called synesthesia. The most common thing about it is seeing letters and number as each having their own colors. This makes it easier for me to remember, say, how words are spelled, or my social security number. If the colors aren't in the right order, I can tell. Every word, in fact, is a sort of collage, a unique blend of color and emotion, a beautiful work of art. It's not the whole reason I love writing and linguistics, but it may have contributed. Words are beautiful to me.

Of course, people like to make big grids with lots of numbers and expect the person with synesthesia to instantly see the patterns that the 7's make (as the webcomic xkcd has made fun of). But this won't work. The digits don't light up like little neon signs. It is when I read over a number or letter and process it, when I recognize it for what it is, that I see its color. I cannot see a letter and NOT see a color. But you can be staring at words and not actually reading them; in the same way, I can stare at a puddle of numbers or letters and not be processing them.

There's more to synesthesia. I also see the year as a circle. Not that I can think of the year as a circle; the concept of yearishness is a circle. Most people who have this see it as a circle standing on its end, but I see it as a slightly oblong circle tilted at ~45 degrees. The high point is around January and the low point around July, with Autumn and Spring making the long sides of the oval. It affects how I feel about time. Right now, we are coming off the steep, downward tilt of Spring and I feel like a ball speeding up as we come down towards the long flat plains of summer, which seem to last forever before starting to climb upwards in late August. The Winter is the best: I can look down on the rest of the year, take in what occurred, decide on changes for the new year, take a breath, and dive down the slopes of time.

Oh, and it flows counterclockwise. Maybe that's why I've always had trouble with analog clocks.

With synesthesia, colors or emotions can be the thing that is associated with numbers, letters, etc. For me, it is both. I think there's good reason for that; colors elicit certain emotions, like the music article suggests. But for synesthesia, it goes a little beyond emotions; it's more like each symbol has its own personality. Depending on how I'm feeling that day, I might relate differently with different letters, and thus feel differently about them. Different words will gain or lose their charm. Words and multi-digit numbers (like 18,750) are like a group of people gathered together, with unique dynamics according to who's present and who's not (and how many of certain personality type is there, too; 'cal' and 'call' are distinctly different). Capitals are usually different from their lower-case counterparts, except in instances where they look exactly the same; Z and z are the same, as are O, o, and 0 (zero).

Some synesthetes associate different days of the week with colors. I do, but I think this might be due to the words for each day. Thursday always has a wonderful dark foreboding to it, like a cozy storm day waiting to happen, but that is because the word Thursday is composed of purple, grey, and brown letters. It's hard to think of Wednesday as "over the hump" day, as if it's a snail you've been awaiting, because it's so cheerful and healthy: lots of green, with splashes of red, yellow, and bright blue. The fact that it starts with W, arguably one of the calmest letters of the alphabet, makes it a content and well-reasoned day.

Music elicits colors for me, too; but much more than colors, music has texture. Wow. Lots of it. It's like wearing a blindfold and running your hands over all sorts of surfaces. It's crazy the detail your nerves pick up on. Taste is similar to me. I am, as I've said before, a super-taster, meaning I have extra taste buds on parts of my tongue and flavor sensations are particularly strong. The only way I can ever describe them is with tactile words like sharp, flat, low, curved, angular, squiggly. Is it special to synesthesia to describe music and flavor in terms of texture, or does everyone have that problem? We just don't have good words for flavor. I find it funny that sound and gustation should manifest similar sensations.

Once upon a time, I always thought everyone saw colors when they looked at letters and numbers.* It is so implicit that I never mentioned it nor questioned it. In fact, I didn't really notice it in an introspective sense; it was just the way of the world to me. At some point in high school, my mom asked me some question about how I knew the word was spelled that way, or perhaps I made a comment about the 'colors' of a passing license plate; I don't exactly remember. But the conversation went something like this:

"You know, B is just so brown. It looks kind of funny."


"B is brown, so the word looks funny."

"B is what? What are you talking about?"

"You know, like Y is yellow and A is gold, and S is red and D is chocolate..."

It quickly became apparent that this was not a common phenomenon. I have felt special ever since. I feel like I'm looking into a secret world that no one else can see. Things have an extra texture, color, feeling, or personality that others don't know about. Of course, it's all in my head. But that's where good stories come from.

* For anyone who is wondering, I also have colors/personalities associated with new letters that I learn in new languages. By the time I decided to take Ancient Greek in college, it was my fifth language to study, so I decided to pay attention and see if the letters had colors as I learned them. (When I look at letters, or graphemes, that I don't recognize, they don't have colors associated with them. I think that the color is a part of the grapheme's meaning, and if the letter doesn't mean anything because I don't know what sound/word it represents, it won't have color.) Guess what? The first two days of class as we learned the Greek alphabet, the letters, as soon as I could recognize them for what they were--as soon as they had meaning to me--had colors. Suddenly, as if they'd always been there, but now I could see them. I don't know where the colors came from, or why those particular colors. How does my brain know which ones to pick? Synesthesia would be a fun research project for any student of neuropsychology.