June L. Laurenson | February 24, 2018
There is a phrase in the English language that is often used to express confusion and bafflement: ‘Understanding you is like smelling the colour nine’. You can’t smell a colour, let alone a number; and nine isn’t a colour. For most people, this chaotic multisensory phrase effectively conveys a deep incomprehension about a thing or a person. But to me the number nine does have a colour (although not a smell), and I am not alone in experiencing this; I am in very good company.
The ability to experience life through a form of sensory blending is known as synaesthesia, a phenomenon that affects approximately 4.4% of the UK population (1). It takes many forms: some people can taste words, others smell colours, some see words or letters as different points in space, while yet others have a more auditory-tactile experience. According to the UK Synaesthesia Association, it ‘isn’t a disease or illness and is not at all harmful. In fact, the vast majority of synaesthetes couldn’t imagine life without it’ (2). Personally, I see letters, words, and sounds as colours. The links between each element and the colour I associate with them have remained constant ever since childhood.
So, what are the pros and cons of this ‘extra sense’? Well, when I listen to classical music or electronica, I receive a personal son et lumière in my imagination which is great if I want to relax, but not so helpful when I’m driving along a motorway at speed and some triggering music comes on the radio. Letters and words also have this effect; days of the week have colours: I don’t like Wednesdays because they are olive green – a colour I don’t like. New Order’s pop song ‘Blue Monday’ has always annoyed me, as Mondays are yellow in my mind. As a literature scholar, my ability to see words as colours means that for me, my reading experience is an extremely pleasant multi-coloured light show; I am able to remember books I read years ago just through the ‘colour’ of the text within them, effectively enhancing my memory. Furthermore, it was actually through the colour-rich narrative of Anthony Powell which led me to choose his novels as the basis of my PhD; it was only after reading his journals for my research that I found he had grapheme-colour synaesthesia like me!
While it was previously believed that synaesthesia heightened creativity in individuals, a 2008 study by Ward, Thompson-Lake et al refuted this – a surprising conclusion given the abundance of musicians, artists, and authors whose names appear in a Wikipedia search of famous synaesthetes. In literature, writers expressed their synaesthetic experiences in different forms: in his poem ‘Voyelles’, Rimbaud doesn’t only ascribe colours to the vowels, but associates imagery with them as well, whilst Vladimir Nabokov, who discussed his ‘freakish gift’ of ‘colour hearing’ in a 1962 BBC interview, confers similar traits upon his fictional protagonists. And in the graphic novel series Top Ten by Alan Moore and Gene Ha, the super-hero detective Wanda Jackson (a.k.a.‘Synaesthesia’) owes all of her super-powers to her ability to combine smell and sound. In the music world, pop star Billy Joel describes hearing ‘pale blues and greens’ when listening to slow music, but ‘vivid reds, oranges, or golds’ when the rhythm was more animated. In addition, Pharrell claims that he is reliant on his synaesthesia in order to make music, saying he’d be ‘lost without [it]: ‘It’s my only reference for understanding […]
The ability to see and feel [this way] was a gift given to me that I did not have to have. And if it was taken from me suddenly I’m not sure that I could make music. I wouldn’t be able to keep up with it. I wouldn’t have a measure to understand” (3). Is it that those in the arts and creative industries are in contact more often with stimuli which trigger responses, thus being more aware of them than others who are based in more scientific, factual environments? And, in the arts, how is synaesthesia represented in other cultures and languages? Studies of synaesthesia, its aetiology, and effects in the arts are ongoing as researchers attempt to answer these and many other questions.
So, while this article may be as hard to understand as smelling the colour nine for some people, I am glad I have my ‘extra sense’ through which to perceive the world. And for the record, the colour nine is brown.
I am a PhD candidate in English Literature at the University of Edinburgh researching Anthony Powell’s use of Gothic strategies in his ‘Dance’ novels. My research interests include nineteenth and twentieth century literature, the links between literature and society, identity construction and alterity, spatial theory, and the Gothic. Twitter: @_Tattycoram_.
Article reviewed by Sini Eikonsalo, Mary Pura, and Christa Burgin.
- Jack Dutton, ‘The Surprising World of Synaesthesia’, The Psychologist, (2015), blog accessed via: <https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-28/february-2015/surprising-world-synaesthesia>
- UK Synaesthesia Association: < http://www.uksynaesthesia.com/>
- Jordan Bassett, ‘Meet The Famous Musicians With Synaesthesia, A Condition That Means You Hear Colours’ (2015), Blog accessed via: http://www.nme.com/blogs/nme-blogs/meet-the-famous-musicians-with-synaesthesia-a-condition-that-means-you-hear-colours-14511