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Synesthesia: Colour Through the Other Senses

(Image Credit: David Hockney’s ‘Winter Timber’, courtesy of The Daily Mail UK.)

If I divulged the fact that David Hockney, Wassily Kandinsky, Kanye West and myself all had something in common, you might be a little dubious. But we do. It’s a neurological phenomenon known as “synesthesia.” Synesthesia, from the ancient Greek words for “together” and “sensation”, is when the stimulation of one sensory (or cognitive) pathway leads to involuntary experiences in a second sensory pathway. People experience synesthesia in different ways, but it is a phenomenon that enables some people to experience colours with more than just one sense. So, in addition to seeing different colours, synesthesia means that people can also smell, taste or even hear colours. 

A lot of artists, including the aforementioned David Hockney and Wassily Kandinsky, as well as (it is thought) Vincent Van Gogh, are or were synesthetes. Also, many acclaimed composers and musicians experience synesthesia, and have the ability to “see” music in colours — including Itzhak Perlman, Leonard Bernstein, Duke Ellington, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, and yes, even the currently celebrated Kanye West.

In one common form, known as colour-graphemic synesthesia, letters or numbers are perceived as inherently coloured, with people seeing numbers and letters of the alphabet in the same colours whenever they appear.

Many synesthetes also associate each day of the week with a colour. Australian actor Geoffrey Rush has talked about this, as he once told an interviewer: “Friday is dark maroon, a type of sienna, and Saturday is definitely white. Monday is a cool blue…” Rush also experiences colour-graphemic synesesthesia, as he explained, “Since I was seven, when I first learnt counting, numbers had specific colours.”

Like many who experience this fascinating phenomenon, I had to be told that it was out of the ordinary. I had always experienced it, but it wasn’t until I was working in the fashion industry in my early twenties that I realized not everyone could “taste” or “hear” colours.  When I first started working in fashion, the textiles seemed to almost be “communicating” with me — the colours really did “speak to me”.

Naturally, my synesthesia is one of the reasons I became a colour consultant. It is sometimes difficult to explain, but I have a very multi-sensory response to colours. It’s almost as though different colours give off vibrations that I can see, hear and even taste. With the sense of taste, it’s not as straightforward as one might think. By that I mean that the colour yellow, for example, does not taste like lemons or bananas. It’s more of a chemical flavour, almost metallic. Whenever I am looking at fabrics or paints in different colours, I always click my tongue to the roof of my mouth. It sounds odd, I know — but when I get a certain metallic taste, I know I’ve picked the right shade.

As a colour consultant, my synesthesia helps me to ascertain what colours are right for certain clients. In some cases, it even enables me to identify underlying health issues a client may have, and allows me to choose colours that are the most healing and balancing for them. In some cases, when I meet people, I see bands of colour around them, which is known by many as seeing “auras”.

Partly because of my synesthesia, I have a special relationship with colour, and colour has always taken centre stage in my life. I always seem to just naturally identify everything by colour first. It’s not a bus — it’s a red bus. It’s not just a flower — it’s an orange flower. It’s not merely a book, it’s a green book, and so on.

Speaking of books, synesthesia has, of course, made its way into a lot of literature over the years. Renowned Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov created many characters who experienced the phenomenon, and in his autobiography, Speak Memory (1966), he wrote of his experiences with colour-graphemic synesthesia. Apparently Nabokov’s mother, wife and son also had experiences with synesthesia. Other notable synesthetes throughout history include inventor Nicholas Tesla, and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman.

There are many more artists, poets, writers, musicians and brilliant scientists whose synesthesia has allowed them to create amazing works or been the impetus behind incredible discoveries. Who knows if they would have created what they did without this fascinating sensory phenomenon? Personally, my synesthesia has expanded as I have gotten older — which makes me hopeful that I can look forward to a future filled with many more sensational experiences with colour that go behind plain sight.

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