In conjunction with research for this article, I conducted discussions with fellow synesthetes. Their experiences and my presentation of them are subjective, and may not be true of all synesthetes.
Most of us assume that all human senses operate the same way. Universally, we all see sights, hear sounds, smell scents, etc. Many people, however, (myself included) live with a neurological condition called synesthesia, which is an involuntary blending of the senses. It derives from the Greek “syn” for together, and “esthesia” for perception, or perceiving together. Some of us can see sound or touch smells, but synesthesia can also encompass the non-traditional senses such as temperature, time, movement, space, or pain. Because synesthesia can be any combination of any of the senses, there are around 80 varieties.
It is difficult to estimate just how many people have synesthesia because it is challenging to diagnose, and scientific study on synesthesia only started increasing over the past 30 years. Right now, the estimations range from 1% to 25% (not very helpful, I know). In the 1980’s, it was considered quite a rare phenomenon. Though modern scientists are still unsure, studies are trending towards labelling synesthesia a more common occurrence.
My personal type is spatial sequence synesthesia-- my senses of time and space are crossed, as in time takes up physical space in my world. For example, the months of January to June sit on my right, and the months of July to December on my left. Fellow synesthete, Abigail, has grapheme synesthesia, meaning she associates colors with numbers (7 is green, 4 is purple, 0 is black). Another synesthete, Sophie, has ordinal linguistic personification, where numbers have genders or personalities.
How do synesthetes interact with the world differently?
Synesthetes are 8 times more likely to have a creative career (among us in my discussion group an art history student, a writer, and a linguist). One study done on art school students in Switzerland found that about 7% of art students were synesthetes, compared to 2% in regular schools. A study conducted at the University of California showed that synesthetic students taking the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking scored over twice as high. Synesthetes are most likely drawn to art because as a viewer or reader, it satiates our natural curiosity about the world, giving us the comfort that an artist views the world differently just as we do. And as a creator, we have the freedom to present the world as we see it, where the number 3 is light pink, the calendar year is an oval, and the smell of bread sounds like jazz. Among artistic synesthetes are Vladimir Nabakov, Duke Ellington, Pharrell Williams, Charli XCX, and Vincent Van Gogh.
Our memories also tend to be heightened. Abigail, for example, memorizes the date of the paintings she studies in school by associating the year it was made with the colors on the canvas. I have a filing system for anniversaries and birthdays by how close or far away they are to me. While occasionally synesthetes report sensory overload due their synesthesia, it can sometimes come in handy. Synesthete Daniel Tammet attributed his successful memorization of 22,514 digits of pi to his ability to see numbers in color, touch, and sound.
How does synesthesia affect activism?
You may be thinking that all this sounds interesting, but what difference does it make when it comes to activism?
Sophie described it as a “domino effect.” For her, having synesthesia created a love of art, which led to an interest in people and therefore an overwhelming desire to help:
“When you realize that your life doesn't look like everyone else's, you have the opportunity to care. Then you make the choice to advocate for people in the real world. And art is the connective tissue that forces us to see one another.”
One scientific study found that those with synesthesia tend to have more “hyperexcitable” brains. Another suggested that some synesthetes tend to be more empathic, and yet another found that synesthesia is linked to an increase in openness to experience. Combining empathy with openness and a hyperactive brain leads many of us down a pathway to activism.
Many synesthetes end up labeled with a “wild imagination” as kids. But it’s hard for us to imagine life without our swirling colors or ribbons of time, and it shapes our way in this world as artists and activists.