“Oh my goodness, you’re a synesthete! How exciting!” I said: “Oh, you know about it? Not many people do.” Her: “Oh goodness yes. I love science fiction!”
Synesthetes operate in a strange, mixed up world where one or more of their senses are naturally and indelibly fused. So every time you hear the word “Friday” you might experience a chocolate sensation in your mouth, or when you encounter the colour yellow a cacophonous bang sounds in your inner ear. My particular strain of synesthesia (or synaesthesia) is all visual. Every single one of my other senses are visualised, all the time.
Apparently, people who try LSD and other hallucinogenics can experience the effects of synesthesia for a few hours. I’ve never tried LSD. I never dared. Because what I’m experiencing all the time is akin to being high all the time, apparently. Because I don’t know any different, it’s not at all strange to me.
The best way to explain it to “normal” people is to ask, have you seen the Disney film Fantasia? Or a more modern analogy – the visual accompaniments to music tracks on Winamp. For me, all sounds are visualised in the same way, so the bang bang bang of drums in one music track will draw up visions of a white/grey plate on top of another plate on top of another, rising up in a pile. Or a soprano singing a high note will equate to a thin deep red line, a bit like a piece of string, moving from the left to the right of my inner “eye”.
It happens all the time, and it can’t be switched off. If a friend slaps me on the back, I “see” that slap as well as feel it, and it would be “seeing” a cold, steely colour directly at the point where contact was made. Everything I hear gives me 360 degree perceptive vision, in a way, as I’m so conscious of where the sounds are coming from. If I’m in an office and I hear murmured conversation behind me, it’s as if I’m seeing that murmur emanating upwards in a hazy brown (if I can’t make out words) or in coloured subtitles behind me (in my inner eye) at the point where that noise is occurring.
The same goes for all my senses, all the time. For example when I’m cycling and the wind is brushing against my cheeks, I “see” that wind in shades of blue. I also “see” the pressure made by my hands against the handlebars, my heart pulsing, the red into black stripey noise made by cars passing, etc.
Come and talk to me. I’ll be seeing everything you say in subtitled, coloured questions as if moving across a screen in my mind. And all my answers, in turn, will be subtitled back. The timbre of your voice, the warm press of your hand if you shake mine, the particular strain of perfume or aftershave I get from your presence; all that will be beautifully coloured for me too.