A couple of days ago I was working the check-in counter at the airport, asking the eternal question; “Window or aisle?” in both official languages – “Hublot ou allée?” A woman was checking in with her young son, and trying to humour him asked him what his favourite number was. He responded, “Seven.” Then he said something peculiar, something that most people would let pass by without a second thought, “Seven is yellow.”
I’m sure the woman failed to notice it, but I did. Her son is quite possibly syntesthetic, that is he has multi-sensory perceptions whereas most of us have only one to one sensory relationships. To me seven is a number, and that’s all, but to this boy numbers are more than just abstract concepts, they also posses colour, possibly even tones and hues. Say a number and it will instantly conjure up a colour in his mind, consistently, involuntarily and without fail.
Scientists estimate that about X in Y people are synesthetic and it comes in various flavours, not just numbers and colours. Tastes can be associated with textures, feeling with colour and so forth. Almost any set of senses can be combined in a synesthetic s brain, entwined and natural as you or I find our singular senses of sight, smell, hearing and touch. Richard Cytowic has published an excellent book on the subject entitled The Man Who Tasted Shapes.
Personally I think that synesthesia is much more widespread than scientists would have us believe. That child I met two days ago probably has no idea that others don’t see colours in numbers. A good friend of mine I found out only a few months ago attaches colours to words, something which helps him in memorization. Until I heard him casually mention that my name was brown I had no idea, and until I mentioned it to him he’d just assumed that everyone was that way.
Personally I find it fascinating that our minds can do such things, and it proves that there’s much still to learn about perception and the human brain. As I think about synesthesia and my two recent encounters with it in others I find myself thinking about music videos and VJing. Afterall, what else is the projector screen in a club but an attempt at creating a synesthetic experience for the viewers? It’s a chance to meld the senses, to combine them and create an experience that s greater than the individual elements.
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons that the relationship between music and light is so special to me. It’s a way to touch a perceptive experience that I will never experience inside my own brain aside from a few psychedelic experiments. I wonder, maybe, just maybe if we bring our senses together, these things that seem so different and unrelated, perhaps we can bring ourselves closer to the universe and the meaning of it all. Or maybe I’m just another damn hippy.