Throwback Tuesday: Synesthesia and the Taste of Purple

I hope you guys will indulge me, as I’ve decided from time to time I’m going to share old non-fiction writings of mine. These “Throwback Tuesdays” will feature essays and articles I’ve written over the years from various sources. It won’t be every week, because let’s be honest, when it comes to regular blogging, I am as flaky as a gluten free biscuit.

About five years ago, I wrote freelance for a few different feminist magazines and publications (under a different name). One article in particular garnered a lot of views and was actually picked up by NBC’s “The Body Odd” blog. I was kind of surprised by how many people shared it and offered me feedback – after all, synesthesia is by no means a new thing, and as far as groundbreaking viral articles go, mine was hardly anything special. Of course, I’m looking at it from a different perspective, five years on, where we now have fascinating sciencey posts regularly shared on our Facebook feed thanks to pages like “I Fucking Love Science” and the like.

convergence-1952-jpglarge

Convergence, 1952 by Jackson Pollock

This article was also my first case of actual, real-live plagiarism. At one point I had to send a cease and desist letter to a blogger who had posted it on her site as her own work. That was surreal. For a writer with imposter syndrome (where y’all at?), being plagiarized is a whole other level of weirdness.

Anyway. I am posting this as my contribution for Throwback Tuesday this week, simply because it’s an old article and I don’t want it to disappear from the ether. It’s not my best work, but it was a cute little essay I wrote once that details how my strange brain works. I’ve always been proud of it, and people seem to like it. One day I may write a follow up and explore it further; for instance, I am now very curious about how synesthesia and other brain disorders relate to things like Autism Spectrum Disorder and ADHD. I’d also like to delve into the correlation between those who choose writing or other creative arts outlets and synesthesia. Basically, I still have a lot of thoughts and I’m nowhere near done yet.

(And in case you’re wondering, yes, I did choose the color scheme for both the covers of Aroha and Ka Kite based on my synesthesia and how the stories “appeared” in my head.)

can-i-give-my-cat-dimetapp-300x300

I stumbled upon a blog that had referenced my article, where people were complaining about my choice of title: “Your Name Tastes Like Purple”. They complained that to them purple tastes like Dimetapp so it was a bad association. I cackled, because purple tastes like Dimetapp to me, too.

Previously, this article has appeared on both Persephone Magazine (who published it originally) and MSNBC’s “The Body Odd” blog.

Your Name Tastes Like Purple

In my head, the letter “N” is green. The number 5 is blackish gray, and in his early 20s. The month of February is lavender colored and covered in ice.

So in case you haven’t guessed, I have synesthesia.

I’ve had it all my life, I suppose. People who are experts on such things say that we are born with it, that it is a brain disorder. The wires in your brain get crossed, and you experience all five senses simultaneously. They overlap where they should be separate.

Everybody who has it has a different form of synesthesia with minor undertones of other kinds. Mine mainly exists with letters and numbers. I see numbers, letters, words, etc in color. All of my letters and numbers have different colors, personalities, textures, ages and gender. I literally see them as living beings. Colors themselves also have gender. When I was a child often I’d play ‘house’ with my crayons instead of dolls. Seriously, I’d have red and blue get married or green and orange have a sordid affair. My grandma used to think it was so funny. It was just normal to me. Words have colors – for instance, my son’s name is a bright, sunny yellow with flecks of baby blue, particularly in the L’s.

The inside of my head kind of feels like a Jackson Pollock painting. All splotches and globs of brightly colored paint, roads leading nowhere, just an explosion of thick, goopy color with a nonsensical message. Convergence, 1952 by Jackson Pollock is my favorite painting. Probably because it’s the colors of my name. Yellows, a hint of orange, lots of black, and a little fleck of blue peeking out; all of it streaked into oblivion. My name looks just like that; it did long before I ever saw a Pollock painting.

I also have synesthesia with regard to music. Certain songs bring vivid colors into my head. If I listen to “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” by the Beatles, my head fills with alternating flashes of mustard-yellow and bright, silvery white. It has a distinct pulse and a gritty, sandpapery feel. David Bowie’s voice always invokes a bright sky blue that sometimes turns darker, or has shades of gray, depending on the mood of the song. Rap music invokes a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes all spiraling through my head at warp speed. I prefer one sole theme, which is why I think I don’t usually care for rap music unless it’s really unique or exceptional (for instance, Lil Wayne’s voice is a silvery gray with purple undertones that I find really pleasing). Classical music takes me through a landscape of color, shape and feeling. Usually I close my eyes when listening. It’s like having my own personal DVD of “Fantasia” playing through my head whenever I listen.

Usually when I tell people about my synesthestic experiences they look at me like I’m some crazed hippie. I probably am a crazed hippie in reality, but what I experience is more than just psychedelic. It’s spiritual. My synesthesia is so ingrained into me that if I lost my ability tomorrow, I would feel as if I’d been blinded or deafened.

Occasionally I experience the other types of synesthesia that have to do with taste, sensation and smell, but only occasionally. Smells and tastes definitely invoke a distinct color in my brain. For instance, the smell and taste of fresh garlic makes my head fill with bright, vibrant green. Diet drinks with their saccharine sweetness always appear in my head as being a shimmering, blinding silver.

It can be strange, having synesthesia. If I’m out to dinner with a friend, and they scrape their fork on their teeth, my brain fills with unnamed metallic colors, and my ears roar with the sound of it. I can’t stand it. I can taste the metal on my own tongue and it is unbearable. It can cause obsessive compulsive behavior sometimes. Occasionally the sound and taste of silverware is so loud in my brain that I have to use plastic cutlery when I eat.

Synesthesia certainly enriches my life as an avid reader and a writer. It always helped my poetry and as I become better at essays and stories I find that it enriches them, too. Certainly F. Scott Fitzgerald was synesthetic. No one can read “The Great Gatsby” and tell me that he wasn’t. I think that is why I feel so decadent and wistful when I read his books. I’ve read “Gatsby” dozens of times and never tire of the language and the way his words flow in an endless barrage of color. Many artists and celebrities are synesthestes, including Tori Amos, Eddie Van Halen, Friedrich Nietzsche, Stevie Wonder, Vladimir Nabokov and many, many others.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t grateful to have synesthesia. I have had it so long that it is like second nature to me now. I often forget that I do have it, and just go through life assuming that people are experiencing the same sensations as I do. I see the months of the year like a giant Rolodex, spiraling through an open space. They all have colors, genders, ages and personalities. I also benefit from having a somewhat photographic memory with directions, phone numbers, addresses and names, because I see them as a pattern of colors.

It all tastes blue to me.

Copyright  ©TDF/Lillah Lawson 2011/2016 

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