By Erin Kedzie. Photos by Brenda Lopez. Video by Nate Jackson.
“[The cloak] was still warm from him, and smelled of the way brick feels when it has been baked by the sun.”
Tracy Chevalier, “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” p. 57.
Read the above carefully, and imagine a cloak smelling the way brick feels. Or birdsong sounding the way purple looks. Or the word “Tuesday” tasting like dark roast coffee when it rolls off the tongue.
For most of the population, these are the fumes of fancy. But for a small fraction, it’s a concrete and perennial experience. Inter-sensory associations like these are not the makings of a disorder – but of a neurological phenomenon known as synesthesia.
According to research done at the University of Washington, synesthesia affects less than one percent of the population, and is a result of “cross-wiring” in the brain. Neurons and electrical signals that are supposed to be restricted to one sensory area cross over into others.
Maureen Seaberg, guest on PBS and author of “Tasting the Universe: People Who See Colors in Words and Rainbows in Symphonies,” said that brain scanning solidified research in the field.
“For the first time, it was provable and real,” Seaberg said. “Early pioneers like Dr. Larry Marks and Dr. Richard Cytowic deserve much credit here.”
Dr. Cytowic, known for bringing synesthesia into mainstream science in 1980, said that synesthetic experiences are: involuntary, long-lasting, memorable, and emotional.
But these experiences are unique to each person. For writing coach Steve Adams, certain numbers manifest themselves in bursts of color and personality.
As a pursuant of words, Adams spends much of his time in bookstores and coffee shops. He works one-on-one with published writers to improve their skills when he’s not submitting his own work to literary magazines across the country.
A winner of the 2014 Pushcart Prize for his memoir, “Touch,” Adams can’t think of the numbers one through 10 without some heady associations.
For example, the number two is red and as feminine as Scarlet Johansson. Ten is white and male.
“It feels like I’m seeing them on a stage,” he said. “It’s like they have this persona they present to me, and then they go backstage and have their own private lives.”
Adams wasn’t aware that his loaded perceptions had anything to do with cranial cross-wiring, until somebody on Facebook commented that their number six was red.
“That seemed horribly wrong, and I said, ‘No, it’s green!’”
It was at this point that Seaberg, whom he met in a writers’ residency program, called Adams out as a synesthete.
Studies show that the trait is often hereditary, and Adams handed the label to his mother, Jo Adams, who had also dealt with lively numbers since she was a child – but never knew that there was a name for her experience.
“I didn’t know. I just sort of knew I had a play-thing with the numbers. They were little people to me,” Jo said. “But Steve is just so creative. I think that has something to do with it.”
This creativity is a part of Adams’ identity.
Day in the Life
Adams refers to himself first as a writer. The synesthesia is secondary in importance, because a day in the life of a synesthete is like a day in the life of a left-handed person; it just is.
But as he furthers his writing career, Adams discovers new facets of his life that might have to do with his heightened perception.
For example, tutoring.
“If I’m working on someone’s novel that’s in three acts, I can visualize the shape of it, I can see where it’s moving and maybe where there’s a gap.”
Or jazz music.
“I see the notes popping out in front of me, in the pattern of a staff, like, pow! pow! pow!”
And birds flying through the air.
“I have this thing with birds now. I had a parrot for 16 years and I hunted birds as a kid. So I see how they move through space and the patterns they make. It’s incredible.”
In the digital age, there are ways to find others sharing similar experiences.
A Joint Effort
Since synesthesia is a newer branch of study, interest groups and communities are also on the green side. There are a number of websites and Facebook pages that synesthetes can communicate with each other through, as well as a subReddit for “Synesthetes Unite!”
A more prominent society, however, is the American Synesthesia Association, established in 1995. The association puts on conferences, and provides the latest news and discoveries on its website.
The group’s mission is to foster and promote research on synesthesia, and to provide a means for synesthetes to be in contact with each other.
Seaberg said that more organizations like these are needed, especially to focus on the education of young people with the condition.
On a similar note, Adams said that synesthetic experiences are like doorways of perception that could be used to help children find that they have other ways of thinking.
But while there may be future implications for synesthesia in society, research is ongoing. Even Cytowic himself first referred to the phenomenon as a “disorder” – now a disproven term.
And while the origins of synesthesia are still in debate (Adams feels that it can be taught to an extent, while Seaberg is on team “Born That Way”), the desire for community is still present.
Jo Adams said that mutuality between synesthetes is beautiful and important for those who feel alone in the world.
“And now I’m just sort of a free spirit,” Jo said, a lady in her 80s. “Now I know what it is, and that it’s okay, and I’m not trying to hide it.”