The first person to discover my secret was my brother. During our monthly catch-up session over the phone, I told him “You know that tingly feeling you get when you here an animated or mystifying story…like the words are massaging your brain?”
“Uh…what? What’s wrong with you? What have you been drinking?,” I could see his face scrunch up as the words came out of his mouth.
At 20, I don’t know why I suddenly felt compelled to share the intense sensations I felt when I heard sounds, or question why I saw colors when I saw certain objects or words. To some extent, I perhaps assumed everyone felt similar sensations when interacting with the world around them. In fact, my senses are so aroused and reactions so intense, it is hard to imagine that most people are oblivious to sounds, words and objects they see and touch everyday.
Yet another person to discard my ‘crazy visions’, I went back into my shell and didn’t share the vibrant colors and sounds I often felt. Until a few months later when I got a phone call from my brother saying that a new colleague in his office was animatedly talking about how he saw blue butterflies flutter around his head every time his phone rang.
I’ll never forget the thrill I felt hearing that I wasn’t the only one. It felt like I was flying…to know there were others who experienced a world as vivid as mine!
I soon learnt that this phenomenon I had been experiencing all my life wasn’t as unheard of as I’d thought. It even had a medical name – synesthesia. Bearing Greek roots, the words means “joined sensation” (‘syn’ = together, ‘esthesi’ = sensation).
Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which one sense is simultaneously perceived as if by one or more senses. Another form of synesthesia joins objects
such as shapes, letters, numbers, or people’s names with a sensory perception such as smell, color or flavor.
Looking back, I vividly remember how I associated numbers with colors during my school days. While the number 3 was red, 6 was maroon. I recall my teachers getting irritated with me because I always seemed to talk about art during my math lessons. It was pretty helpful though…the association with colors helped me remember number sequences.
Other instances of when my senses seem to become tangible are when I hear certain sounds or taste certain foods. For example, the smell or taste of any sour foods, especially lime or sour candy create an explosion of yellow tingly fireworks in my head.
At 30, ten years after I have publicly acknowledged my condition of synesthesia, I have learnt to further appreciate it even cherish each feeling. To further understand the reason behind its occurrence, I have visited various doctors along the way. In one of my recent encounters, a doctor even requested to have further meetings with me in order to understand the neurological components of my brain. Through understanding the wiring of a synesthete’s brain, he hopes that he and his team of scientists can find clues to causes of disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Schizophrenia…I am anxiously excited to see where this may go!
While the experience is positive for the most part, synesthesia can sometimes be an obstacle, and I have had multiple unpleasant encounters. But I see this like how a ‘normal’ person might experience a foul odor – a person with a sense of smell often gags at the stench of sewage or vomit. Similarly, a number of synesthetes have unpleasant visuals or sensations.
But don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t trade my synesthesia for anything. The idea that each of us perceives reality in such different ways intrigues me. In fact I sometimes even crave the experience of a new sensation – I never know what new visual or reaction might arise when I hear a new voice or taste a new type of food.