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Image / Editorial

Synaesthesia: When I meet someone, I immediately see their colour, number, letter and day


by Aisling Keenan
14th Aug 2018
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My mam is blue, my best friend is purple and the lady who served me in the pharmacy earlier today was green.

I haven’t accidentally taken hallucinogenics, although to talk to me (or someone with my particular condition) you might think I have. Synaesthesia isn’t something I talked about outside close friends and family until recently. It’s a neurological condition that is fairly tricky to explain, but essentially involves a cross-wiring of the five senses.

A subtle but important difference in the way my brain processes things. I see numbers, letters, words, days of the week and months of the year almost like a rainbow. Each letter has a different shade, never changing, to the point that during the study I could pinpoint exact shades from a selection of hundreds. What was somewhat unique about my form of Synaesthesia (of which there are five or six – Kanye West, Pharrell Williams and Stevie Wonder are all reported to have the musical version where music is seen in the minds eye as colour) is that I also see people in colour.

I don’t claim to be psychic (although my mother thinks I am) and I don’t physically see blue and red and yellow people walking around. But when I meet someone, immediately I get a sort of ‘minds-eye’ view of their ‘set’ as I call it. A unique shade of a colour, matched with a corresponding letter, number and day of the week. Every single person I’ve ever met or been in the physical presence of has elicited this reaction – concerts and festivals are a very colourful (and often tiring) experience as a result. Mind you, I’ve often been told I should set up a tent at Electric Picnic and charge people for a ‘reading’ – I’m not planning to turn myself into Mystic Meg any time soon.

When I was a child, I thought this was exactly the way everyone saw things. It wasn’t until I accidentally came across a Trinity College study on Synaesthesia when I was a teenager that I realised that wasn’t the case. The neurology professors there scanned my brain through MRI, tested, prodded and questioned me and other Irish synaesthetes over the course of years to find out more about the condition, having determined I had it via a number of consistency tests.

The benefits of having it include being able to remember people’s names, their middle names, their last names, their mother’s names and linking it all back to what colour they were. I can also spell pretty much any word I’ve ever seen written down because I remember the how the colours look as opposed to the letters themselves. Even after being studied, I was still reluctant to make a big deal of having it, at least outside of my family, where every Christmas we would inevitably have the “and what colour am I?” chats. Not because I was ashamed, rather that I just found it hard to explain and occasionally it was met with misunderstanding. Telling someone they’re “navy, nine, Q, because you’re quite late on a Monday evening” can cause confusion.

There’s only two ways my Synaesthesia has ever really worked against me. The first is when it comes to maths. Doing anything from simple calculations up to complicated algebra is a slow and painful process. I can’t bear to look at certain number combinations, let alone to try to work out answers. Because for me, ‘a’ absolutely has to equal 4, there is literally no other choice. And apply that to ALL the numbers. You get the idea. Also, 4 is a lovely pink number, so when placed beside 5, which is green, it doesn’t feel good to me. I hate 99 per cent of all car registration plates, and at the moment I’m happy with the colour of my age (30) but I hated being 29 – not a nice colour combo.

Then there’s personal relationships. If someone’s ‘set’ doesn’t work for me, if I get a bad ‘vibe’ from it, I feel really uncomfortable in that person’s presence and find it next to impossible to form any sort of connection with them. I would never be rude about it, of course, or ever tell someone I have that reaction, but it has made working relationships difficult in the past. Once, while standing on Henry Street as a teenager, a man stood beside me whose ‘set’ was so mismatched and distorted I almost threw up – he was a deep maroon colour, but yet was a ‘Sunday’ – Sunday people should be yellow. I was shook! Luckily, the reaction isn’t always as visceral. My mother reckons I instinctively ‘knew’ that man was a criminal of some sort – I personally disagree.

Lots of people have recently described Synaesthesia as akin to a superpower and again, I disagree. I can’t use it to fight crime. In fact, I can’t make use of it at all. I believe it gives me a really unique gut instinct about people and gives me a heightened interpersonal ability, but that hasn’t been proven by science. What I know for sure though, is that it makes my life exceptionally colourful.

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