Thursday, January 5, 2012

What do you see in 583?

The photo to the right shows you the colors that appear in my head when I think about the number 583.

Nabokov called it "colored hearing."
Most people nowadays call it synaesthesia,
which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as the
"production, from a sense-impression of one kind,
of an associated mental image of a sense-impression of another kind." Right.

This is how I would explain it:

When I hear a sound, I see a color.
When I do mental math, I add colors together to get other colors.
When I smell cinnamon sticks, I see swirls of peacock blue and violet. (If you are wondering, cinnamon powder is paler; it includes terra cotta, yellow, and peach tones.)
When I taste a rice cake, it is pale blue marbled with pink and gray.

My synaesthesia is particularly strong when it comes to words. To spell the word "house" I do not think "h-o-u-s-e," I see, "fir green-transparent-pale gray-yellow-pale orange," and write that down.
But I don't like the word "house" much, since that color combination isn't too attractive. Furthermore, since my synaesthesia includes scent and texture, the word "house" trails an unpleasant smell produced by the combination of the yellow "s" and the green "h" - a musty, slightly acidic tang, like a lunchbox you left in the trunk overnight. For look and smell I prefer the scent and color of the French "maison." But for texture, "house" is smoother and more pleasant than "maison," which is warm and sticky.

I therefore find certain words totally intolerable, and others irrationally pleasing. The word "chalumeau" (French for blowtorch) makes me quite giddy, the way you might react to tasting an ethereal bonbon (see illustration). The word "stagflation," on the other hand, evokes in me the same nausea you might feel when scraping something putrid off the bottom of your shoe (I will spare you an illustration). I can barely stand to look at it on the page.

I only realized synaesthesia was a "condition" after stumbling on an article about it in a magazine - before that I thought that everyone's brains worked that way. To be honest, I still have trouble believing that they don't. So you tell me: does your brain work like mine? What does the number 583 evoke to you?

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