Wandering through Colours: Theories in Synaesthesia

Synaesthesia is not a product of conscious thought. Though it is possible to induce a short-term effect in the minds of test subjects, via hypnosis, mnemonic-training and drugs, the truth lies in the lack of consistency and prolonged reaction times between the inducer (trigger) and the concurrent (synaesthetic response.) To put it another way, regarding the more commonly known grapheme-colour type, the identification of colour in a letter will differ each time, with an “a” seen as red in one instance, blue the next. Synaesthesia is closer to the involuntary actions of a cardiac muscle; we don’t tell our hearts to beat or blood to flow, yet these will occur even as we sleep, and we are aware of them through the feel of our pulse and in our conscious state.

The Stroop Effect is used by researchers to “see if the reactions within a person’s brain are consistent with those standard in a brain altered by synesthesia.” Typically, a longer reaction time will be seen in the mind of a non-synaesthete (imagine a kick as opposed to a blink.) The Test-Retest measures consistency between inducer—>concurrent: subjects are presented with a set of objects, flashcards bearing numbers and letters/words, or an audio programme without visuals, and asked to attribute these with a synaesthetic response of colour, shapes/patterns, textures, taste, personality traits, moods etc. After a set period of time, the test is reissued, with a synaesthete producing replicate results, “as they’ve already made neural associations which are automatic and consistent.”

The answer then lies not in preference, but in a reflexive response. It’s also true of synaesthesia that, with increased awareness, its strength can be intensified. This was my experience last year, when I could finally put a name to what was causing all of the colours and shapes in my mind, in relation to sounds, letters, numbers and – more recently discovered – moods. I had experienced flecks of synaesthesia, in conjunction with sounds and some written words, since childhood, and had assumed everyone saw the world as I did. Now, it’s possible to distinguish one particular “mood” from another by the colour that defines it, like strata-nimbus layering up the sky as forewarning of storms, or wispy cirrus on brighter days. This is most likely through an increased awareness of what I’m “looking” at.

I did at first attribute every reaction to grapheme/tonal synaesthesia, but this couldn’t explain how I was also able to perceive moods in colour, independent of text or sounds. Further research showed that an emotion-based type does indeed exist. It’s possible for a synaesthete to present more than one type, often without realizing it, much as we experience crossmodal correspondences to enhance our awareness of surroundings (think of a cat phlegming the air, using both taste and smell, as well as sight, to map out relevant features of its territory.)

On top of all this are the actual means of manifestation, through internal or external perception. An associator-synaesthete will find their concurrent is based in the mind, as of an awareness, like ink sifting through water, while a projector will find synaesthesia in the world around them, as colours in letters or shapes moving around their body in connection with sound.

For my part, synaesthesia presents itself in indistinct form behind my eyes – I’m an associator. A grapheme won’t be defined in clear-cut lines, but I am aware of its inherent colour all the same; just as I know that singer Cat Power has a smoky-purple voice, and the colour of loss is milky-violet. It is an awareness of changes in light and darkness, a shape seen out of the corner of the eye. A sun-dial shadow moving silently over the plate. A painting in Tonalism.

nocturne
James McNeill Whistler, “Nocturne – Blue and Silver – Battersea Reach.”

I’m certainly no expert in neuroscience, but curiosity about the syndrome has led me to wander from one theoretical idea to another, linking proven facts relative to the brain, to what is known of synaesthesia through objective tests, research and subjective reports. Of particular interest is the chance of there being a deeper interaction between sensory modalities for a heightened synaesthetic response, like weaving orchestral instruments into a symphony. In my experience, reading aloud from a book can stimulate colours in sight and hearing, as well as evoke colouration in a mood. Do these always stand independently of one another, or can they mingle to create a stronger impression?

One theory holds that “synaesthetes have unusual connections between different sensory regions of the cerebral cortex, perhaps because of a failure to prune improper, under-used or redundant synaptic connections during development of the nervous system.” If what has come before sounded like gobbledigook, this one’s a clanger. It basically means that, in the creation of synaesthetic brains, some wires were leftover between important sensory regions; this allows unusual crossovers to occur between sight and sound, smell and memory, mood and touch. The cerebral cortex is responsible for information processing – everything from thinking, perceiving, producing and understanding language – and is divided into lobes, each of which has a specific function for governing areas of response and interpretation. These are the important regions, while the synaptic connections are the wires.

cerebral cortex

This rather brilliant study of emotional-synaesthesia, goes some way towards supporting the theory of a “candidate region… implicated in both emotion and memory,” playing host to my own colour-associative experiences of mood, and certain letters/numbers. The retrosplenial cortex is “known to respond both to personally familiar people relative to unfamiliar people, and to emotional words relative to neutral words… Its location in the medial-posterior region of the brain also makes it an attractive candidate to interface with visual regions.” Which would explain how I am able to sense an internal response, while filtering out “neutral words” (and presumably sounds) with no emotional salience – could this be the reason that I have a strong reaction to letters “a” and “e”, because they happen to make up my own name – Rachael?

A study conducted in 2010 by Romke Rouwe and H. Steven Scholte of the University of Amsterdam, saw the recruitment of “16 projector and 26 associator grapheme-colour synaesthetes”, who were each placed in a brain scanner and “shown letters and numbers to evoke synaesthetic experiences.” Of the structural and functional aspects tested, one striking difference between the brains of the two types lay in the volume of grey matter density of particular areas. Projectors were seen to have increased levels in the visual and auditory regions, the activation of which caused the perception of “real objects… letters and numbers, to evoke the vivid experience of colours in external space.”

Associators, on the other hand, were seen to have increased grey matter in the hippocampus and surrounding areas known to be “critical for the formation of autobiographical, semantic and spatial memories.” The hippocampus is involved in connecting “emotions and senses, such as smell and sound, to memories” – that’s the wonderful nostalgia found in the smell of frying bacon on a golden morning, or the wind-rush excitement that spikes up the skin, evoked by the spice of pine needles. The location of the hippocampus, in the temporal lobe – itself responsible for the interpretation of sounds and language -gives a boost to the possibility of a crossover occurring via “unpruned” synaptic connections, in the brain of an Associator. Furthermore, it would allow for a range of synaesthetic experiences, perhaps activated simultaneously by the same stimuli, for that “symphonic” effect. It would certainly help to explain how I am able to experience writing, music and other inducers, on a multi-sensual level.

It is noted in the study that this region, with its wholly internal perceptions, would resemble “memory retrieval”, in that letters and numbers would only evoke “recollections of the experience of colours, rather than vivid impressions of the colours themselves.” This goes back to the issue of recall v.s. actual sense-crossovers, and would lead me to question the validity of my own experiences … were it not for the undeniable presence of colours in relation to moods, as well as the additional (and consistent) features found in inducers, such as texture, personality traits and spatial awareness. These are all experienced on such a unique, nuanced and involuntary level, especially where there is strong emotional resonance, that I find it difficult to attribute each one only to memory-recall. But the study does serve to highlight the crucial differences in construct, for understanding how one synaesthetic mind will differ from another in practise. Variations between regions of the brain that are stimulated, will dictate whether an internal or external effect is produced.

Timing will also differ between the two types, based on interference between actual visual perceptions, and the external synaesthetic responses of a projector. While a grapheme-colour associator would read a coloured letter and find their concurrent “in the mind’s eye”, a projector would take longer to identify what they are seeing in the external world, as evidenced in Stroop tests, when a “colour word is printed in a colour that differs from the meaning of the word… When asked to name the printed colour, the discrepancy causes longer response times and more errors, because we can read words more quickly than we can name colours.”

This is not to say that I don’t have my fair share of distractions and crossover-confusions. The colours of individual graphemes can be altered by the presence of a ‘dominant’ colour in one letter (“i” is white, and has a tendency to “bleach out” other letters around it; the word “institutionalized” appears as a blind man’s stick, tall and upright), while a mood-concurrent may overwhelm a song, cancelling out the colours inherent of vocals and music. The National’s “Slipped” appears in the silver-lilac of an evening sky; these are the colours of loss and longing. No instrument stands out, and vocalist Matt Berninger’s chocolate-baritone is obscured in the haze.

Lake heart 1

Some prominent grapheme-colour features:
a = navy blue
ae = blue-green
c = canary yellow
ch = canary yellow
e = green
h = kelly green
i = white
m = red
o = ultramarine
oo = teal / turquoise
s = mint green, silver
t = black
u = yellow
x = grey

3 holds very favourable connections, as its turquoise appearance has a silky sheen reminiscent of sunlight twinkling in a thousand sparkles on the ocean, or a beautiful ball gown cunningly sewn through with glitter. It is also of moderate size, neat and compact, with positive traits of independence and intelligence. 6, on the other hand, is little and silly; light green, and quite youthful. 9 is enigmatic and purple, towering-tall as a solemn older lady in heels; while 7 is brown and cheerful. 3 also runs concurrently with the letter C, which begins many of my favourite words; but in this case, the colour-perception is far less appealing, in solid canary-yellow (think of a child’s box of poster paints, or a piece of plastic.) Again, this points towards a reflexive, rather than a preferential reaction.

0 = no colour
1 = red
2 = yellow
3 = turquoise
4 = dark green
5 = yellow
6 = orange
7 = brown
8 = pink
9 = purple
10 = no colour

The name of my friend, Carlotta, is dark blue (“o”) and pale pink (“a”). There is no sign of canary-yellow “c”, and “a” is normally blue when beginning the alphabet; it also stands at odds with her Twitter handle, @1chae, with the consonant diagraph “ch” appearing in yellow, while somehow lightening the blue-green of “ae” into turquoise.

The presence of “name colours” has a mnemonic effect that’s handy for social situations – I can pin a colour/colours to people, as you would bookmark a page. Similarly, synaesthetes who experience sequence-space and colours in relation to time, are able to create an internal diary or an external calendar; in a projector type, the latter is known to appear around their bodies, with more recent dates featuring large and prominent, and later dates “further away”.

“For me, the days of the week go from left to right, and the months go round in a wheel, with January meeting December in the bottom centre. Oddly, I don’t have this for numbers. So when I think “I’m meeting Lizzie on Thursday”, my mind jumps to a low space in front of my torso, towards my right. (Thursday is brown; Lizzie is blue).” – Holly Williams, “I can smell a Rainbow.”

cartographiesoftime2
Brainpickings, “Cartographies of Time: A Visual History of the Timeline.”

The texture of a letter can be altered between its written and spoken forms, with certain phonemes silvering-up words that would otherwise have a matte or solid appearance. The sibilance found in “city”, “cerulean” and “strata”, for example, whittles their shape down to something delicate, like a crystal glass or fine-link chain; at odds with the boldness of phoneme /k/ in “cat”, “clover” and “kill.” It’s for this reason that I consider words based in Old French to be of paler hue and lighter substance than those of Germanic origin, which appear more jagged.

While a lower pitch equates a darker tone, the colour of a voice or instrument will not change; a swift climb up the scales produces a narrowed effect and lighter shade. Should one instrument take precedence over others, an overlay of colours may appear, as with the ostrich guitar in the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs” – those brass flares claw at the smoky teal background like forked lightning over a midnight sky. The two colours stand out, distinct from one another, yet the image is still wholly internal; there are no external projections onto the world around me.

Timbre dictates shape, with folk singer Nick Drake’s voice appearing in the rounded fluidity of an oboe, rippling green as river water, occasionally gritty with oak bark. Canadian singer Leslie Feist appears in pale mint-green, woven through with striations of darker and lighter shades, in a texture best described as “tethered” – a matte, frayed-edge appearance, as of a strip of papyrus or woven cloth. A broader stroke (e.g. a guitar chord or throaty voice) produces a wider sweep of the brush in a range of shades, while a single monotonous note or thin/quiet voice appears in the trail of a fine-tipped watercolour pencil.

As a general rule, music I would file under “wandering / nostalgic” – almost invariably in minor key – will appear in colours evocative of the bittersweet tang found in a sunset, regardless of unique instrumental and vocal features. Gold, brass, copper, cream, honey, fawn: twisted scrap metal, the jagged hues of a landlocked barge; the haze of an early autumn sky, the sepia tones of an old photograph. Mogwai’s “Too Raging to Cheers” is one such song, reminscent of a fiery day’s end, wandering an abandoned railway line, smelling the thick richness of oil leaking from heat-baked sleepers, listening to the scrunch of gravel underfoot, the bony clatter of weeds in the wind.

abadn
Flickr, “The Disused Railways Pool.”

Kensquarrycar1-1

When depression begins its slow creep-crawl through my head, I know of its presence through the gradual fading-out of all colours. While this can happen in connection with weariness or low blood sugar, a prolonged state of “pale mind” is a signal for me to look around at circumstances, experiences; if I’m not pushing the buck with excessive exercise or lack of rest, something else is at work. In similar fashion, a stark “whiteout” represents real fear and/or shock, caught in the camera flash of a moment. This reaction has been known to intrude on actual visual perceptions, much as someone suffering with a migraine would find it difficult to see properly. Other synaesthetes have reported similar instances of their concurrent producing a warning signal:

“Since I was a child I have had vivid visual images in response to fearful or uncomfortable thoughts. Intense ones, that is. The fear-induced images take the form of highly wrinkled bluish-greenish paper moving around in an irregular pattern. It’s a whole landscape. Sometimes the images consist in large quantities of quickly presented irregular and wrinkled pieces of bluish-greenish cloth moving around very quickly. Not all of my uncomfortable or fearful thoughts are associated with this sort of phenomenology but the occurrence of this kind of phenomenology is a sure sign of uncomfortable or scary thoughts.” – Berit Brogaard, DMSci, PhD and Kristian Marlow, “The Superhuman Mind: Cases of extraordinary mental ability.”

I always know when a feral mood is coming on. It’s in the glossiness of a raven’s wing or a beetle’s back; the purple-blackness of a forest full of thorns and silent trees, all shot through with the pale claws of the moon that lick off dark eyes. It’s the wilder side we try to conceal from the grey reality of Everyday. It’s an amalgamation of those raw emotions that are rich as soil and hard to deny. It’s the source of my insomniac nights, spent wandering the orange-splintered lamplight haven, kicking up old leaves. It’s the hot hard feeling in the back of the throat, the burning eyes and iron-grin, when reading something that fills you with a sudden savage desire to act – to run, fuck, claw the walls. Sometimes it appears without any prompting at all. When I’m at work, it’s best to keep my head down. Left unfulfilled, it can fall into a nimbus-mood, which is closer to repressed anger and a bad mood.

beetle black

For all of these words and theories, I still have no clear idea as to the origins of the synaesthesia that colours up my mind. Perhaps it’s better this way, wandering through the half-light, in unfinished lines of what-might-be. All I can be sure of is the consistency. Even when talking with another chromosthete (sound—>colour), I would find discrepancies between our reactions; particularly if they happen to be a projector-type, able to watch the flux-flow of colours and patterns externally. My internal perceptions are as much a focus of life as the normal five senses, and – as a writer – it’s priceless in figurative language. I can simulate (and stimulate) versions of what I perceive, through sensory crossovers that will allow a non-synaesthete to know how a word relative to cold may appear blue, how a situation full of tension can be tasted in the iron-tang air.

I’ll cover my own influences in the next blog post.

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