Synesthesia and the Synesthetic Experience

** Synesthete Perspectives - Karen **


Karen is a language researcher and project manager living in Boston. Her synesthesia also dates back to childhood and involves the perception of colors when viewing text or hearing spoken words. A meeting she had with Professor Rosalyn Picard of the MIT Media Lab led to the effort culminating in this web site. Karen has written an essay about her experiences which also serves as the text for a demonstration on colored letter synesthesia.

[Karen's colored letters]
Karen's synesthetic alphabet

These excerpts come from a conversation she had with Carol, a fellow synesthete, in May 1996. For a full sense of the power of this phemomenon, listen to the recordings in Karen's own voice.


"That's just the way my letters are"

Audio Recording (537kB 8 bit/11kHz .au file)

So my idea of an object -- any object -- has, maybe, a list of all possible features this object could have. You know, like if I were to give you a list of features that a chair would have -- you know, four legs, a back, a seat -- but not all chairs have these things. But there are these things -- there are those chairs that you kind of kneel on, you have your butt on something and your knees are on... That's a kind of chair, but it certainly doesn't have a back. So, when I think of -- when I think of The Chair Itself, to put it in Platonic terms, it's kind of an overlay of all of these different things. And some things are optional, and some things are not so optional.

So it's the same way with my letters -- you know, a color is optional; a letter certainly doesn't *have* to have a color -- but that's just the way my letters are. And it's something that makes them memorable, and interesting, and enjoyable to me.


"Linguistics is a grayish-purple-blue word"

Audio Recording (666kB 8 bit/11kHz .au file)

Well, when I was first doing science, when I was first in graduate school right out of college, I had a really hard time deciding what kind of project to work on within linguistics. But I knew that I liked linguistics because it's sort of a grayish-purple-blue word. And I really didn't think that I wanted to work in speech at all, because 'speech' is so yellowy and orange, and I don't really like those colors as much.

And what's funny is that I work in speech now, and I find it very interesting -- but I also know that I've come to like yellows and oranges better. You know, I like a kind of a goldenrod, let's say, or a -- you know, those sort of Mediterranean oranges and yellows.


"I first realized it when I was about 11"

Audio Recording (259kB 8 bit/11kHz .au file)

I was telling Carol that it's kind of like figuring out that you have a belly-button. You know, at some point you just notice, and start playing with it! [laughs] Then, for a while, you get *really* into it: "Wow, a belly-button! Ooh, this is cool!" And after a while you get bored with it, because, after all, it's still there, and then you realize everyone has one. Except that not everyone has synesthesia.


Perspectives: [ Carol ] [ Karen ]

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