Story by Ashley Mitchell
When James took a simple online psychology quiz her freshman year, she had no reason to believe she viewed the world any differently than her friends and family.
The quiz seemed simple: identify the color of a letter that flashed on the screen. James identified the color of the same letter, which flashed three different times. The end of the quiz introduced her to a word she had never heard before: synesthesia.
Synesthesia, a condition in which the brain automatically joins at least two of the five senses together, causes those affected by it to have once sense cause another sense to react in a seemingly abnormal way. In James' case, she always sees a color in response to letters and numbers.
"The way I see it, every number and letter is a color. I can't remember if punctuation has color. Do they have colors?" James asked out loud, almost as if she's asking herself. She peers over to a keyboard resting on her desk, scanning over the symbols on the keys and shakes her head. "No, punctuation doesn't have colors."
James has color grapheme synesthesia, which has two different types: projective and associative. Projective synesthetes literally project the colors from their brain onto tangible items. Every time they physically see a particular letter, it is always the same color.
Associative synesthetes are a bit more complicated. James is an associative synesthete and she admits it has always been difficult to explain to other people the legitimacy behind the way she views things.
"The best way I can explain it is to compare it to a random tune stuck in your head," James says. "You, yourself, can hear the tune and repeat it in your head. But when someone asks you to sing it out loud, you can't express it in the same way. No one completely understands what you're hearing."
In other words, James doesn't project the colors she sees in her mind into the real world. All the action occurs in her mind, and hers alone.
For example, if James saw a poster with the word "school" in bright, white letters, she could physically see the word was white, only in her mind the S would be black, C a sky blue, H a muddy pink, the O's a whitish color, and the L a light green.
"It's in no way a burden, or something that needs to get fixed," James says. "It's very subconscious. Unless I'm paying attention to it, I don't notice it. It's like a tick, I can ignore it, but it's still there."
Synesthesia is considered a condition, although the lack of research has worked against its legitimacy, says Melissa Lee Phillips, a Seattle-based freelance science writer who covers numerous neuroscience conditions. It is not considered a disability or disease because, for most people, it does not hinder their daily lives, she says.
For most synesthetes the pairing of sensations never changes throughout their lives. This stability can allow them to enhance a talent or leads to solid memory skills- that is if synesthetes can learn to manipulate their cross-sensory reactions, Phillips says.
James says her individual synesthesia helps with memorization because every word looks a bit different than the next. Individual letters are different colors, but words appear as a collage of the numerous colors within them. The separate colors represent a whole picture and the colors can enhance the overall appearance or not.
"I really don't like some words," James says. "It happens if the colors don't compliment each other. I don't like words with W and M because they're both very muddy colors, although I tend to like words with A (red) and S (black) because those are my favorite."
It seems synesthesia could get in the way of work by a graphic design major, but she says the best word to describe it would be distracting. The only trouble she has involves word choices on projects she works on.
For example, James says while working on a poster layout she has to choose words to go along with the design. She has to remind herself not to get too picky and ignore words whose color schemes don't sit well with her.
James says she often wonders if she saw colors in her mind when she read books as a child. Because she wasn't aware of her synesthesia until she was in college, she can't pinpoint when it may have started affecting her.
Her earliest childhood memory involving a realization of her personal color scheme was in elementary school. James says she remembers an assignment where she was supposed to write her name over and over, in a pattern, on a 10-by-10-grid sheet of paper. They were supposed to make each letter the same and keep the pattern throughout the assignment. James unconsciously colored the letters exactly how she sees them now, perhaps as she's always seen them.
"My mom can't recall me ever talking about it as a child, but I think that's because I didn't think I was any different. No one ever asks you what color you see a certain letter," James says.
James has also never personally met anyone else with synesthesia. This condition affects roughly one in 2,000 people in varying degrees. Currently 61 types of synesthesia have been identified and they range from tasting sounds, smelling words and seeing shapes when listening to music, Phillips says. Color grapheme synesthesia is the most common form.
"It took me a while to accept that I probably had synesthesia, and once I did I started looking into it," James says. "I read about a strong genetic component tied to it, but no one in my family had any idea what I was talking about."
Phillips says until recently the condition has not received serious attention. Although, thanks to the technology of PET scans, MRIs, and other equipment capable of showing vivid scans of brain activity, researchers have been able to nail down the location of synesthesia activity in certain synesthesia case studies.
Scans of the fusiform gyrus, which is part of the temporal lobe and involved in color processing, have shown activity in color grapheme synesthetes. Specific parts of this region responsibly for processing color, V4/V8, have shown activity when color grapheme synesthetes see or hear a word. No activity in earlier visual areas such as V1 or V2 occurred, which would happen in someone without synesthesia.
Researchers have many theories as to why this cross-activation is taking place, but what these tests have proven is synesthetes are really using their color processing fields in connection to seeing or hearing words. The reaction isn't a delusion or a hallucination.
James admits she has not really looked into much information since she realized what was affecting her mind five years ago, but she remembers the amount of speculation surrounding the condition.
"Obviously there will always be speculation. Plus it's not really a problem that needs fixing," James says. "I can understand why there isn't much research, because big money isn't going to be readily fueled into researching something that doesn't need fixing."
With no one to talk to and the lack of local research and knowledge available, James has developed her own theories regarding her personal synesthesia.
She thinks her synesthesia is more about shape then the actual letters. Particular letters that are similarly shaped have similar colors. For example, to James, E and F are different shades of yellow; E is a school bus yellow and F is a calmer yellow. P and R are both different shades of pinks.
"Zero, the letter O, lower case L and 1 don't have any color, and I think maybe it's because instead of resembling letters, they more closely resemble existing shapes, like lines and circles." James says.
As a requirement within her major, James had to take a sequence of History of Graphic Design courses where they went through the transformation of the Roman alphabet. James says when the class started learning about cuneiform, which uses strokes barely resembling today's alphabet, nothing had any color. But as the class carried on and the letters started taking similar shape to our current alphabet, she noticed the colors appearing.
James says the clearer the letter, the better the color, but even if a shape abstractly resembles a letter, she can sort of see a color, further guiding her theory along.
"The problem is there is some visual cross-wiring happening in my brain," James says. "Two senses are supposedly combined, but with me, I can't quite figure out what could be going on. It's clearly visual, and color is one of the components, but what is the other thing, the other cross-wiring?"
One last issue James jokes about in regards to her synesthesia is that most of her letters and numbers are "muddy-ish, pale" colors. Some letters, such as A,B and C are very saturate and pure- those tend to be her favorites. She says she wishes all of her letters and numbers were brighter and purer. She also admits her likes and dislikes for letters, numbers and words come from a personal color preference.
James' lack of supporting evidence concerning her own personal condition is a direct result of the little substantial knowledge surrounding the condition in general. Those without synesthesia may wonder if it is simply delusional, but it seems almost impossible to understand synesthesia unless affected by it.
Information is out there, but synesthetes are the ones in control of their condition. James says she will probably always look further into the condition as more research becomes available, but until then her own theories will have to suffice. But there is one thing she is sure about; she'll never like the way her name looks.