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Synesthesia and the Artist

By Ora Sorensen

First Printed in Professional Artist Magazine

As far back as I can remember, when I think of numbers, my mind converts them to colors. My brain has always assigned a color to a number, and that color has remained consistently paired with that same number over my lifetime. I never thought this was odd or unusual and the number/color association has served me well, especially in my college accounting courses. I would see colors organizing themselves instead of numbers, and that made following the mathematical computations much easier to learn.

I only realized this was an uncommon way of thinking a few years ago when I read an article that revealed not only is this an atypical thought process, but it is something that scientists study, it is called a “condition”, and it has a name: synesthesia.

Scientists have been aware of synesthesia for centuries as condition where certain sensory stimuli involuntarily pair with seemingly unrelated sensations. For me each single digit number is perceived as a color. For others certain musical notes or sounds are associated with colors, or smells or even tastes. Synesthesia is known to be hereditary, genetically passed from parent to child. It is estimated that this syndrome is experienced by only four percent of the population, but by twenty five percent of artists and it is linked to high levels of creativity. That means that a significant number of you reading this article may be synesthetic.

The form of synesthesia I experience is a common form known as Grapheme Color Synesthesia, where numbers or letters are experienced as colors. Each synesthetic has their own unique palette of complex colors they assign to numbers or letters. Some may see a six as an icy blue, but others may see it as turquoise or red-violet. Some of the colors I experience even have a texture to them. But the colors synesthetics assign to each letter or number remains constant, always.

I have read scientific research on grapheme color synesthesia that has attempted to explain the phenomenon as a cross wiring between different areas of the brain, or as a faulty pruning of brain cells in early development. Past studies refer to synesthesia as a joining of unrelated senses, and it has been labeled it as a neurological disorder. More recent studies argue that synesthesia is not related to any neurological malfunctions in the brain, but is a phenomenon that can be traced back to early childhood constructs and memories.

When reading the conflicting research studies on synesthesia, which are certainly interesting, I was both amused and confused and not everything scientists surmise is compatible with my own experiences. For me synesthesia is more like a language translation. It is similar to how we hear or see a word in a foreign language and we automatically translate it into our first language. I feel, especially as artists, the first language we developed on our own, in the crib, was the language of color. A unique, self-taught inner language we needed to sort our newly formed thoughts relating to the world around us. When my brain automatically translates numbers into colors, it just feels like it’s recalling the remnants of my first language. So, I like to think that the synesthetic experience is just that, a memory of our first language, the language of color, and what a lovely language it is!

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