Synesthesia and the Synesthetic Experience

** Colored Letters **


This interactive demonstration simulates some aspects of synesthesia, specifically, colored letters. Nothing's quite the same as having it yourself, but the web and multimedia make close approximations possible.

As you read the first sentence of the essay below (the text against the white background), put your mouse-pointer over a particular letter and watch it change color. (How long will it take before seeing a letter in any other color but the one you prefer will look wrong?)


An Extra Way of Perceiving the World

by Karen Chenausky

NOTE: This interactive demonstration requires Java. If you are reading this note it means your browser either does not support or is not configured for Java. We have developed a partial listing of browsers which support this capability with links for downloading the applications.

My synesthesia doesn't intrude upon or overwhelm me as it does some; it's at a fairly low signal-to-noise ratio.

In my quiet moments, sitting at my desk writing in the small pool of yellow light from my desk lamp, my letters' colors leap to mind most vividly. Some letters have colors I like, some have colors I don't; but I love that all my letters have a color.

Carol Steen and I can describe our synesthesiae; we can make lists of our colors and letters -- but what we can't convey with immediacy is the pleasure we feel when we experience it. The perceptual richness of words is for me not just pedantry. Each is unique, and saliently so. They all have different shapes and colors. And even though each letter of a word is colored differently, a word's color isn't simply made up of the colors of its component letters. The shades combine, bleed into each other, change slightly depending on their neighbors. A word's color is more influenced by the colors of its initial letters than the colors of its final letters. Speech researchers should not find this surprising: we have long known that the beginning of a word is more important than the end for storage and access.

But the sensations I get from my synesthesiae are not topics of discussion in my lab. I'm afraid my colleagues would find them frivolous, at best; at worst, exhibitionistic. And yet they are part of my love for speech and language, my admiration of their intricacy, and my lifelong passion for working with them and uncovering their details.

If you've looked at Carol's page you've noticed that her color-to-letter mapping is different from mine. Everyone's is: synesthesiae are not constant across people (but see Sean Day's survey). That's another part of the synesthetic experience that's hard to communicate in a compelling way -- the feeling that *my* colors are right and other people's are wrong. It's not self-righteousness; it's much less elaborated than that. The sensation, almost of outrage, comes out of me like a little yelp when Carol tells me she likes my name because the 'k' is green. Green?! No way! It's *lavender*!

This demo parallels some of these aspects of synesthesia. Just as I've got to concentrate a bit to see my colors better, so you have to put your mouse-pointer on a particular letter for it to change color.

What synesthesia is about for me is an extra way of perceiving the world. Because of that additional dimension, the parts of the world that I perceive in this special way are parts I hold most dear. With this website, I hope to give viewers a sense of my personal perceptual experience. Equally important, however, is the idea that the creative person is able to use her unique abilities, ridiculed though they may be (as Carol's were), to make not only a living but also a significant contribution to the world. This is what Carol's story brings to the site. And while the Music Animation Machine (MAM) is not about synesthesia per se, still I see it as a reflection of the human ability to create for ourselves devices which can do for us what we cannot do unaided. In the world of synesthesia, the MAM is what a wheelchair is to those of us who walk: a way of allowing the synesthetically-deprived to perceive as we do.


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