Living in color: what it’s like to have synesthesia

Rebeccah Glaser, News Editor

For as long as I can remember, Mondays have been pink and shaped like crescent moons. Thursdays are more of a burgundy rectangle. Units of time – like days of the week, months and years – appear in front of me and wrap around me in a circular ring. Letters and numbers also have their own colors. Think virtual reality, but without the glasses.

Does this sound weird to you? That’s because it kind of is. I have something known as synesthesia, a neurological condition thought to affect about one in 2,000 people, according to the American Psychological Association. People with synesthesia experience associations between different senses – the word itself is derived from Greek and literally means “to perceive together.” Some people with synesthesia can see music or taste color. George Gershwin and Vincent Van Gogh are among the laundry list of famous artists thought to have synesthesia.

Now, I don’t really consider myself an artist. I’m not an art major and I don’t really do anything too creative these days, although I used to draw, paint and was a dancer for 15 years. But looking back, this somewhat odd condition helped me nurture my artistic abilities in a way that shaped who I am today.

Painting was always easy for me because I never lacked inspiration. I would spend hours doing intricate brushwork that mimicked what I saw in my head when I listened to music. Whenever I couldn’t focus on my homework or I felt stressed out, I’d listen to music and paint. Even today, putting a pen or a brush to paper is one of the most relaxing things I can imagine.

If I hadn’t been compelled by wondering what my synesthesia would look like on a canvas, I might never have picked up a brush.

Dancing was just as easy for me as painting because of how logically the songs were laid out in my head. I could always see the beat in the music right before it happened, so it was never difficult to stay on tempo. One of the main reasons I kept dancing for 15 years was because I loved the way the music looked in my head.

I guess the moral of this story is that artistic ability isn’t always packaged the way you might expect it to be. Your form of personal expression doesn’t have to fit other people’s expectations for it to be considered art. Maybe for you, art looks like colorful graffiti on a freeway underpass. Maybe it looks like Japanese calligraphy, photography or singing. For me, it looks like the colors I see when my favorite song plays on the radio, or how seven is my favorite number because it’s emerald green. It looks like the fact that I’ve always seen the world in a slightly different way, and to me – that’s what art really is.

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