This post is also available in Dutch.
Laura has synesthesia. Whenever she reads words, names, numbers, months and days she sees them in color. She explains what it’s like having synesthesia…
“Colors! Everywhere!” Image source: Pexels
Synesthesia is a phenomenon that occurs in about 5% of the population. When a person has synesthesia, the senses interweave with one another. The brain interprets this intermixing of the senses as reality. For example, while listening to music you would see colors, or while having dinner you would see shapes. This occurs when the environment (i.e. light, noise, words) triggers a particular sensory response, but automatically retrieves an alternative sensory experience that is not related to that environment.
Although each person with synesthesia forms unique associations between their senses, the most common form is grapheme-color synesthesia, wherein letters, words, and numbers are seen in color. Laura has this form of synesthesia and tells us about her experience.
How did you come to find out you had synesthesia?
Laura: “The letter ‘B’ is blue, and that’s been the case since as long as I’ve known what a ‘B’ was. At first I thought that everyone made such associations. However, when I had asked amongst friends what colors they saw for particular numbers, they turned and gave me a strange look. Hereafter, I thought I was the only one with these kinds of associations. Only after reading an article on synesthesia, did I understand what was really happening, and that I wasn’t the only one. Paul Witteman (journalist and television presenter, known for Pauw & Witteman – red.) and many well-known composers also have it.”
What did you do with this discovery?
“After my discovery, I had taken the article with me to work. A colleague thought I had made it up and thought it was nonsense. This didn’t really worry me. I can see that this kind of thing can especially sound strange to those who have never heard of it before. I had asked my family if any other relatives may have had synesthesia. It’s quite possible that synesthesia is inheritable, but it turned out that no one in my family had had it.”
What are some disadvantages to having synesthesia?
“If you ask me, there are more advantages than disadvantage. Take for instance, I think I have a better memory. For example, I remember birthdates quite well, and I also remember a lot before even turning three-years old. Unfortunately, my memory only seems to be better in remembering unimportant and rather stupid details, and never anything for my studies or exams. I know exactly when and where my courses take place because my strongest associations are for numbers and for the days of the week. For example, the 12th is black and green, and Saturdays are blue. In one way or another, these colors help me to remember. If only I could remember the course material as well…”
If you could get rid of your synesthesia, would you want that?
“No, I don’t really know any better; it’s a fact of life for me, and it absolutely does not stand in my way. In the article where I first read about synesthesia, they referred to it as an ‘enjoyable abnormality of the brain’. That sums it up about right!”
The phenomenon of synesthesia gives us an idea of the kinds of abnormalities that can occur within the brain. And we can see, given Laura’s story, some of these abnormalities can also have their advantages!
We would like to thank Laura for letting Donders Wonders interview her.