This piece was taken from my final portfolio for my non-fiction class, at the University of Aberdeen.
Walking down past King’s College, library bound, a friend and I discussed word usage in writing.
“I never remember which is the right one, affect or effect.”
I opened my mouth to respond, then closed it. My answer would have been a non-sequitur to her: affect, the one that creates a change, is the red one; effect, the result, is the green one.
I grew up knowing my perception of the world—letters and numbers, words—differed from others. No one else seemed to know that the name Matthew sometimes tasted of mashed potatoes, or the letter E was green, or that 6 is often a proud number.
The line between the senses isn’t etched in stone, cordoned off by caution tape, or drawn in permanent marker. If anything, a thin line of graphite separates taste from hearing, from sight from touch, from smell. The boxes we were taught, as children, to place our physical experience of the world are not lead-lined after all. Not even locked. All the senses—whether you subscribe to the traditional five or include others—are in communication with each other. In the northern hemisphere, at least, ‘winter’ associates with ‘cold’. Someone mentions a sunset and memories surface of reds, pinks, and purples. Poets and prose writers intermix taste and colour, sound and touch, as a convention to evoke new thoughts and feelings. For some, this interplay goes deeper than the imagination, than experience alone. For those with synaesthesia—synaesthetes—the senses are in a natural, tangible communion.
A four year old version of myself knew that on some level, ‘thank you’ was a chocolate chip cookie. ‘You’re welcome’ was a fire hydrant. The image and ‘feel’ of the words and the objects were understated, associated but not overt. I might slightly taste a chocolate chip cookie, but not see it. Once, I tried explaining this to my mother. With a child’s understanding of the world, a child’s vocabulary, I confused her more than anything.
“You know what I mean?” I asked.
“No, not really…”
I read her confusion as a pronouncement that it wasn’t real, what came so naturally to me. After all, if my mom didn’t understand, then I must be wrong. I didn’t bring it up again, not to anyone, not for years. In that time, I learned to read, made friends, grew up. New associations formed. The phrase ‘you’re welcome’ no longer inspired that fire hydrant essence, so difficult to describe. Instead, numbers and letters came with a colour. Once in a while, a personality suggested itself in the back of my mind: a vague essence or feel or weight of something other than the symbol itself. I remember around age nine, the personalities helped me memorise some of my multiplication tables. More often, they would distract me in my timed math tests. Words and names can have tastes and colours, too. Scrutinised, these either fade away or grow more intense. Usually, these things live in the background, operating like white noise. I wonder whose association that was, white noise?
Now an adult, I recognised the colours, essence, and taste of words and numbers, letters and month names. I only had marginal awareness, however: a person is aware they’re breathing because they’re still alive. That changed at university, in my undergraduate studies. One day at lunch, looking for somewhere to sit in the crowded lunchroom, I happened to sit with a group of people I didn’t know. Munching happily away, I listened to their conversations.
The girl sitting directly opposite me at the round table said, “I hate my mail box number: the colours are so ugly together!”
I sat up straighter, my lunch immediately forgotten. I fought to keep my voice level. “Numbers have colours for you?”
She nodded, suspicion lurking in her eyes.
“Me too!” I grinned. “Letters, too.”
“Really? Letters have colours for me, too. I’ve never met anyone else who did that.”
No, neither had I. We spent the next twenty minutes eating and discussing our associations. We had some overlap: A and 3 are red to both of us. Most of the associations were quite different, though I don’t recall what the differences were. Then the moment was over, and we went our separate ways. I never saw her again.
Without context, or a name for our shared experience, I gave it little more thought, for years. Six years, in fact. I did eventually write down numbers and letters with their corresponding colours. Words, large numbers, and names are too complex, too shifty, to be pinned down. With them, much relies on context and various factors. By this time, my younger brother, ever the researcher, unearthed a term for me. Synaesthesia. I had hear the word before, in reference to people who see taste colours or see colour when they listen to music. I had never thought of the idea in relation to me. Neither of those things applied. With a little research, I discovered that ‘synaesthesia’ covers a broad range of experiences, including colour, personality, and taste associations. A certain section of synaesthetes even physically see things like colours projected or overlaid in the printed page or hanging in the air. Also, given its personal nature, and the early age it tends to manifest, synaesthesia often goes unnoticed, even by a synaesthete. The associations, projections, and tastes are so integral a part of the synaesthete’s life that unless something draws attention to it, the interplay of senses is largely ignored. It’s ‘just there’. Because of this, it’s difficult for researchers to quantify what percentage of the world’s population is synaesthetes.
Once I had a term, I had power. Web searches, YouTube videos, TED talks: researchers and non-academics all discussing synaesthesia. It was real. I couldn’t sleep, my mind feasting on the new information. As a writer, I immediately wanted to put to paper the discovery, to solidify this formerly unnamed piece of myself in fiction or essay.
But how to portray it accurately, without exaggeration or a scientific sort of detachment? The discovery was still raw: I wanted to work on it everywhere I could, but I didn’t want to bombard the people around me. Later, I broached the subject with a few others. Interestingly, two questions usually surface: “What colour is my name?” and “What colour is my phone number?” I enjoy explaining my answers. The discussion makes a nebulous concept more concrete, both for me and my friends. I get a chance to talk about a part of me that had long been unexplained.
If the line between the senses is drawn in pencil—easily erased—then the line between synaesthesia, imaginative writing, and personal tastes is written in invisible ink. The lines must be there, but you can’t see them with the naked eye. Whatever the interplay between them, there is certainly a dialogue among the senses themselves, even in people without synaesthesia.