Ordinary Synesthesia

For the last fourteen years or so, I have privately described some of my sensory experiences as a phenomenon called synesthesia. I don’t talk about it much because I am not sure whether synesthesia is an accurate description. Over the years, though, I find that term still feels appropriate in many ways. Maybe it fits something you experience, too.

To talk meaningfully about what synesthesia is, I’m drawing from the first paper I read on the subject, one called “Synesthesia: Phenomenology and Neuropsychology” by a man named Richard E. Cytowic. Later research has appeared since 1995, so I’ve looked some of that up as well—much of that by Cytowic as well.

What is synesthesia? It’s an inextricable linking of distinct senses, such as sight and sound. Cytowic says this more with more academic language: “[T]he stimulation of one sensory modality reliably causes a perception in one or more different senses.” It’s not symbolic or metaphorical. It’s a literal, sensory experience that happens reliably.

Importantly, though, it’s not a mental disorder. It cannot be diagnosed using the ICD or DSM. There’s no hallucinatory aspect to synesthesia, and it does not impair those affected by it.

What do I mean by “linking of distinct senses”? There are numerous forms of synesthesia, but as an example, consider the form that associates sounds with visual experiences (like color). When a person who experiences synesthesia (a synesthete) hears a sound which triggers an association, that sound itself is perceived both as the sound and as the visual event (such as the color green). This isn’t to say that the synesthete has a hallucination in which the color green appears literally and visually before their eyes—a phenomenon that would only be described as a hallucination. What I mean instead is that the sound is itself the color green in their brain. By hearing it, they have experienced the color green, with all its appertaining associations.

There is a certain ineffable quality to that mixture of sensory experiences. Consider it for a moment. How would I know, as an unaware synesthete, that the color green is the correct association? I haven’t seen the color green in any literally visual sense.

I might make sense of this by working backwards from the associations green has in my mind—each tied both to the sound and to the color. Or else, I might find the color linked rather directly to the sound, working backwards from what associations the sound has in my mind. Stranger still, I might find associations between sounds and colors I haven’t even seen in reality.

Synesthesia seems to glom things together until the experiences occur not only simultaneously but literally as a unified sensory experience. To experience the trigger is to experience its association.

I believe this causes synesthesia to go under-observed and misunderstood. Many of us experience synesthesia without understanding it for what it is or how common it is, how subtle and integrated into our sensory experience. I don’t believe it’s universal, but I believe it’s possibly a widespread feature that exists on a spectrum.

I believe synesthesia-like phenomena underlie certain kinds of universal sound symbolism, such as the bouba/kiki effect, which has been found across different ages and cultures across time. Ramachandran and Hubbard did some influential experiments in this area.

So as for me? I experience compelling visual sensations brought on by specific auditory experiences—in particular, music at certain frequencies. I didn’t have much breadth of exposure to music growing up (only hearing country music on radios around me until I was a teenager), so I didn’t really understand much about myself and music until I was nearly an adult.

I began to put it together when I was in a college class for music (with a powerful sound system), and I found myself instinctively blinking and averting my eyes while listening to some baroque music, and for the first time I realized how forcefully visual the music became for me. I started reading more about synesthesia and thought maybe this was a reality for me. Since then, I’ve learned some of the details of how music affects me.

My experiences have some color components, but I struggle to describe what those colors are, beyond cool or warm. They often have textural or spatial components, disjointed in space nearby.

Percussive sounds cause white or otherwise desaturated interruptions in the visual experience. They are like visual noise—snow, static, walls. I tend to seek out music which avoids or minimizes percussion.

Vocal accompaniment causes almost no visual sensation whatsoever. I tend to ignore vocals in music or seek out purely instrumental music. Highly distorted, distinctly stylistic, or highly polyphonic vocals are an exception.

Higher pitched sounds tend to have stronger associations, but I get fuller, more textured experiences from richer musical arrangements. These can be classical, electronic, guitar bands, or whatever.

Sounds of different pitches or timbres tend to make themselves more or less visually salient. Usually higher pitches layer over or through lower ones and have more compact visual representations, warmer colors. The progressions of melodies and overall chord progressions tend to lead to eddies and swirls.

Chromaticism from modernist compositions cause some of the most interesting visuals. “Clair de lune” starts with such rich, variegated lavenders, which yield then to legato scintillations of all colors, covered with lots of warm notes, like stars embedded in a cool sky. The Tristan chord from Tristan und Isolde felt like a greenish-yellowish blight melting into a veil billowing in the wind as the prelude carried into further dissonances—while the final “Liebestod” glowed like a hot, clean pink for me. “Aquarium” from Le carnaval des animaux by Camille Saint-Saëns (you probably know it as “that music that plays in cartoons when someone is underwater”) has all these piano glissandos riding over top which cause indescribable motes of light to flit away.

I don’t believe I’d call synesthesia (if that’s what this is) a blessing or a curse. They simply shape the way I enjoy music. I find them vivid, memorable, and affecting—they add a substance. I’m glad it’s there, but I don’t really have any explanation for it, and I enjoy plenty of things without it. I’ve found it gives me a better sensory recollection for things that happen while I’m listening to music, but that might be the only benefit.

I don’t really talk about synesthesia. (I searched my Twitter account for mentions, and I see I’ve only ever mentioned the word once before today.) It’s an extremely personal, subjective experience, and part of it is ineffable. It’s like describing a dream—no one really cares but you.

Since there’s no way to convey the affect portion of the experience, it’s hard to communicate your intentions. It sounds like an attempt to make yourself seem special or gifted in some way. Synesthesia has been associated with artists and art since the 1800s, especially musical composers. It became faddish enough for a time that it was even popular to fake aspects of it.

I want to emphasize again that I believe there is a universal quality to sensory crossover. My personal belief is that synesthesia-like experiences exist on a spectrum in many people—some more than others. The more we talk about it for what it is and how it actually is experienced, the more readily others will recognize the experience in themselves and normalize it.

For this reason, I don’t want to state definitively I have synesthesia. I’m not saying that. I will say that I have experiences that feel could be appropriately described by the term, so I wouldn’t rule it out. I imagine that many people feel like I do or have some similar quality to their sensorium. I just want to open us up to the possibility of synesthesia being ordinary.

Thematic Rewriting

I have been revisiting On Thematic Storytelling in my thoughts lately. Part of it is because I’ve been helping a friend story-doctor their writing a little. It’s also because I’ve been dwelling on my own story notes and refining them.

This has led me to questions I had not considered before. First of all, why do we write in symbolic, allegorical ways in the first place? Secondly, how do these themes end up in our stories at all, ready to develop, even if we don’t set out to use those themes at first? I think the answers to these questions are linked.

People have a long history of telling fables and parables to relate messages to one another, using figurative, allusive language. I believe this works because humans are designed to learn by example. We have wiring which internalizes vicarious experiences and reifies them as personal ones. Allegorical stories, like fables, adapt our ability to learn through example by employing our imagination.

We respond to fables well because of their indirection. On the one hand, it may be easier just to state the moral of a story outright and not even bother with telling “The Grasshopper and the Ant” or “The Tortoise and the Hare.” However, a moral without its fable is only a command. By telling the stories, the storyteller guides the listener through the journey. Figurative language and characters who represent ideas help to involve the listener and keep them engaged. The moral comes through naturally by the end as a result of the listener following the internal logic of the narrative, so the storyteller’s intended meaning does not need to be inculcated extrinsically.

In this way, indirect stories use symbolic language to draw in listeners. We, listening to the story, relate to the figures and characters because they allow us to involve ourselves. In turn, because we get invested, we take parts of the story and make them about ourselves. We care about what happens and empathize with the characters because we care about ourselves. This is what I actually mean when I say fables work well because of their indirection. We’re not actually interested in grasshoppers and ants, tortoises and hares, but we are interested in representations of our own values, our setbacks, and our triumphs. We put parts of ourselves into the story and get something else back.

And this is why I believe fables and parables have such staying power. Mythologies endure for similar reasons: their pantheons, even if filled with otherworldly gods or spirits, explain the ordinary—the sun, the night, the ocean, the sky—and embody our own better and worser natures—love, anger, and so on. In these myths we see ourselves, our friends, our enemies, and our histories.

So on the one hand, highly figurative language involves the audience in the way that literal language does not. How do we write like this in the first place?

Fables, parables, myths, allegories—they all use symbols that have endured over the centuries and been recapitulated in various ways, but in one way or another, they’re told using a long-lived cultural language. When we tell stories, when we write, we use the basic words of our native language, and with those come the building blocks of our cultural language as well. It is as difficult to avoid using these as it is to write a novel without the letter “e.”

We may not often think about the kinds of cultural language we use because we’re unaware of where it comes from. This is one of the primary goals of studying literature, to learn about the breadth of prior influences so we can study our “cultural language” (I am not sure what a better word for this is, but I am sure there is one). Even when we don’t intend to dwell on influences and allusions, we write with the language of symbols that surrounds us.

What’s interesting to consider is what we’re saying without always thinking about it. Just as we grew up with stories that drew us in using powerful symbolic language, we imbue our original stories with ourselves, using similar symbols.

I’ve realized that different writers tend to perseverate on different kinds of questions and beliefs as their experiences allow, and these emerge as common themes in their writing, the same way certain stock characters persist in an author’s repertoire. If, for example, I find myself primarily concerned with questions of faith, my stories may spontaneously concenter themselves around themes of faith, through no real intentional process. In the process, I might even embed symbols which convey the theme without meaning it (for example, religious trappings such as lambs, crosses, or even clergy).

I have come to identify themes and symbols which are either inherent to the story itself or accidentally embedded by my execution as part of the planning and editing process in my writing. Once I understand them, then decide whether to keep those and how to refine and harmonize them. For example, if I do have religious symbols within a story, there are unavoidable allusions this implies, and I have to work through how to harmonize those with my story or cut them out. As another example, if I have a character who is alone on a desert island, the themes of isolation and survival are both inherent parts of the story structure which cannot be avoided and will be addressed in some way or another. If I write about political conflict, then cooperation-versus-competition is lurking behind nearly every character’s motivation.

In a practical sense, how do I develop themes and work in symbols? Generally, editing first occurs at a larger scale and then moves to a smaller scale, so I tend to think in similar terms with themes. I identify whether broader themes already exist and ask myself if they carry through the entire narrative. If there is an inchoate message buried in the subtext that I didn’t intend to put there, I should decide if it belongs or not. If I want to keep it, then I need to clarify what it is and how it works as a theme.

I examine the narrative through the point of view of this theme and see which elements fit and which don’t. I see how I can adapt it better to fit the theme—a process I actually love because it often burnishes rough narrative ideas.

To give an idea of what I mean, I’ve been writing a story whose central theme has to do with disintegrity of mind and body—the feeling of being not only under a microscope but flayed open at the same time. I began with a premise that didn’t really involve this theme, but I synthesized ideas from elsewhere that really pushed the story in that direction. When I began considering reworking the style and ending, I realized I needed more narrative disorientation and ambiguity to convey the protagonist’s feeling of disintegrity. The changes I had to make involved researching certain plays and removing dialogue tags to make it uncertain who’s speaking (implying that the protagonist could be speaking when she believes her interrogator to be speaking).

Before I go on, I also ask myself what the theme means for me. If I were making a statement about the theme, what would I want to say? More to the point, what does the story have to say? Sometimes, there are even multiple themes in conflict—hints at determinism here, others at fatalism there—so that the overall picture gets confused. The most important thing is that the narrative contains an internal logic that works at every scale, from the broadest thematic sense to the word-by-word meaning. I consider—at least at some point, even if it’s only after a draft is done—what the overall story is saying and then ensure no smaller element of the story contradicts itself.

After I’ve made some large-scale changes, there may be smaller narrative gaps to fill, and I find I can also add certain ornamentations to settings or characters based on theme. This is where I can use the language of symbolism. I try to be somewhat coy. Like I said, indirect, allegorical language allows for stories that are more interesting because they’re more relatable and let the reader insert themselves. The illusion falls apart if the allegory is naked and obvious.

I don’t mean that I necessarily want to make symbols which are obscure allusions, either. I personally like symbols which have a logic within the narrative. I believe it’s possible both ways. The Lord of the Flies is an example of an highly allegorical novel which uses symbols this way. The conch shell symbolizes civilization because it’s used as a rallying point for the boys who remain faithful to the rules. Golding embeds its symbolism completely within the narrative logic—expressed in terms of the story—and the idea it represents erodes as the physical item is neglected and then destroyed.

Sometimes I’m not working with a story but just a premise, and it’s one to which many themes could attach. I could choose a theme, and that choice would influence the direction in which I take the premise. A lot of the ideas I decide to develop end up being conglomerations of ideas, and I’m never quite sure which ones should go together. Themes can sometimes be links which join disparate ideas into a framework, allowing me to decide what to synthesize and how. This way, a premise and a theme determines how a story grows and what characters, settings, and events I place into it.

It may seem like a lot of effort to run through this exercise for a story which is purely fanciful entertainment, which sets out not to say anything in the first place. Not everyone sets out to write an allegory. However, like I said, I think to some extent it’s not possible to avoid planting some subtextual themes because we all speak with a shared cultural language. My goal is to consider what I say between the lines and harmonize that thematic content. Hopefully, I end up with a story with a wider meaning running through it, giving it some backbone. I never set out to make a moral—maybe at most a statement?—but I do at least try to structure my narrative ideas to make the most impact.

I am extraordinarily grateful to Zuzu O. for the time and care she put into editing this post.