I realized I had synesthesia about 6-7 years ago. I first heard about the condition in a college psychology class, but they mostly focused on the more exotic types – like people who taste shapes or touch colours – so I didn’t connect the dots immediately.
Some time after that, I was talking music with friends and realized that I kept describing sounds as shapes and colours. “You know, that guitar tone, kind of red-sounding…” I would also gesticulate to describe some passages, and not just to mark the rhythm. That’s when it clicked. When I realized that others didn’t “see” guitar solos as lines of different colours and thickness, and that their experience with music wasn’t similar to the “visualization” plugin of a software music player.
I didn’t just see visual metaphors that moved along with the music, I saw the music.
After a bit of research, I found a piece by Vladimir Nabokov about his experience. This was the real “eureka” moment.
By paying more attention to it, I found out that I also associated numbers, letters, days of the week and months with certain colours and shapes. Unlike certain other synesthetes, I only see those in my mind’s eye; not on the printed page* or elsewhere. For music, the album artwork usually has a big influence on the colours that I will associate with the sound of the album. It’s not the only factor, but it’s a big one.
Melanie, my girlfriend, also has colours for numbers, letters, days of the week and months, but they are different from mine (which is expected) and she doesn’t have any synesthesia with music.
Being fairly tone-deaf and having very little sense of rhythm, I sometimes wonder if I would enjoy music as much without synesthesia. I’ve tried and it’s impossible for me to turn it off, so I can’t know how others hear music. It’s a bit frustrating, but I’m sure it’s just as frustrating for someone who doesn’t have synesthesia to try to understand what it’s really like (the picture at the top of this post is not what I see).
I don’t really consider it like a medical condition (or at least, not an handicap) since it doesn’t keep me from doing anything, and it might actually be adding to my life. I’m sure some forms of synesthesia could be unpleasant – touching certain textures leaving a bad taste in your mouth, hearing certain noise generating unpleasant smells – so I’m glad I have the types that I have. I could say I won a decent prize at the synesthesia lottery.
*Some synesthetes who actually see colours on the page could look at the picture on the left and actually see it as it is shown on the right, so at a glance they could see which are the 2s and which are the 5s.
Update: I found an interesting post about synesthesia over at Cosmic Variance.