Tag Archives: Synesthesia


I cannot stop thinking about some of the things people have written regarding pain or doing things that others perceive as painful, but that they perceive as relief or calm or being more present.  One person described it as feeling “organized.”  And then there are the people who described various types of synesthesia coupled with pain.  So I wanted to circle back to synesthesia specifically as this is something I know little about and I’m assuming many others may be unfamiliar with it as well.

*For those of you who are synesthetes, please jump in and comment or email me (emmashopeblog@gmail.com) privately.  Anything you tell me will be treated as confidential unless you give me permission to quote you, I will paraphrase and not use your name.

There are a number of interesting websites (these are just a few I found particularly interesting, but there are dozens more):  Neuroscience for Kids – Synesthesia,  American Synesthesia Association,  Brain Pickings, ScienceBlogs and Synesthete.org explains:  “Synesthesia is a perceptual condition of mixed sensations: a stimulus in one sensory modality (e.g., hearing) involuntarily elicits a sensation/experience in another modality (e.g. vision). Likewise, perception of a form (e.g., a letter) may induce an unusual perception in the same modality (e.g. a color).”  Synesthesia is thought to be inherited affecting 2-4% of the population, though there is no evidence to suggest a higher prevalence of synesthesia in Autistics and it seems women are more likely to experience it than men.  *It must be noted, everything I’ve written in this paragraph was gathered on the internet and almost all of the various articles are written by non-Autistic people.  I have added links to the original sources throughout.

Someone described how they can smell colors and another wrote about being able to smell people’s emotions.  They described being able to smell someone they saw from a distance or on television.  Another person wrote that when they meet someone they see color.  Someone else wrote about how a particular self-induced pain causes them to see the most beautiful flashes of colors, exquisite and unique and unlike anything they’ve ever experienced.  And still others talk about how numbers or letters have personalities, this is called, ordinal-linguistic personification. One person described it as a numeric “soap opera” and said, “2 and 4 are in love, but 3 hangs around and is like an annoying little brother, always wanting to be included, but nobody wants him around.”

I found a great post by Jessica Bagnall entitled, Synesthesia-Why My Numbers Have Personalities, she writes, “Five is a businessman that has a half-relationship with Eight, though he is unable to commit. He is flaky and often impossible to get hold of, though he tries to be more stable. He is the older brother of Seven.

And then I read this Autism and Synethesia (the mis-spelling is on the site):  “On a whim, I asked my son Tom, age 11, if he sees colors when he plays notes on the piano. Tom, who is diagnosed with high functioning autism, plays both piano and clarinet. Oh, yes, he said, he does! Here are the note/color correlations he gave me, right off the top of his head:

  • C=red
  • D=orange
  • E=yellow
  • F=green
  • G=blue
  • A=”pink”
  • B=violet

I drew a series of dots in the colors he gave me, and asked him to play them on the piano. He played Frere Jacques flawlessly.

I looked up synesthesia, and found that there’s a close link between synesthesia relative to music – and perfect pitch (which Tommy has).”

I have to wonder whether my daughter experiences some version of synesthesia and if most who are profoundly moved by music do as well.  Which then lead me to think about art, poetry, writing, painting, sculpture and dance.  Are all of us born with some degree of synesthesia, which we then lose as we mature?  Just as all of us are capable of learning many languages as young children, but as we grow older acquisition of other languages becomes increasingly difficult, is this true with synesthesia as well?  As with so much surrounding neurology, I find the more I learn, the more questions I have!

To all of you who have shared your stories – thank you.  Many of you have shared incredibly personal things and I’d like to acknowledge that and tell you how grateful I am.  So thank you, really, thank you for being willing to describe such personal things.  I am profoundly grateful to all who’ve reached out to me.  I hope I’m doing your experiences justice in these posts.

Em at dusk running through the sprinklers on the ranch – Summer 2011

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Different Neurology ~ Different Perception

When I began writing about the actions many take that are labeled “self-injurious behaviors” I had some ideas from my past of self harm (bulimia, anorexia, compulsively overeating, etc) about what that might be like.  When my daughter began biting her hand and arm, punching herself in the face or chest, I knew I was seeing something different, but there seemed to be enough of an overlap that I felt I had a small degree of insight into her experience.  But there is a difference between self harm and the actions many take to mitigate external pain such as cluster headaches and the pain brought on by a variety of sensory issues.  Others have described the action of biting, pinching, head banging as a way to center themselves, they describe the calm they feel afterwards and many describe a sense of relief as well as others who say they are able to make sense of space and where their bodies are.  Many described how when the underlying source was treated the desire to bang, punch, bite went away.

Anonymous 1 (who I quoted in yesterday’s post) said, ”When I bashed my head, though, the screaming stopped. It just cut off, and then the pain spread over my entire scalp, like a blanket over my brain.

I couldn’t stop thinking about this sentence.  So I reached out to ask for more about the “screaming”.   Anonymous 1 responded:

I can hear shapes and colors, and sometimes I feel music in a very literal way. Like, slow adult contemporary stuff my mom plays makes me start itching and it makes my clothes feel too tight. The scream in my head works the same way. When I’m having a sensory day, it starts wailing away and makes it hard for me to maintain emotional equilibrium, until I lash out (either through SIB or by becoming verbally abusive to people around me). Similarly, if I’m put off emotionally by something, like someone being selfish, then the scream will start up until I’m scratching at myself and teasing the broken bones in my hand just to give myself a pain-stim that will shut it down.

“If I had to describe it, I would say that emotions are a sense, in the way that sensory issues work for me. They mix with the other senses, bleed into them synesthetically, and the integration issues for both emotions and sensory input have exactly the same process in my head. The act of both of them happening at once, where I can’t focus on just one or the other, produces the scream. Some days, I can clamp down on it and keep it in my head. Other days… meltdown. SIBs. Crying. Fighting with family.”

Anonymous 4 wrote: “I like to bite my arm. I know. It sounds weird, but I love the feeling of the shimmery yellow and blue and white sensation that flows down my arm.  There is nothing like it.

When I read this I thought about how easy it is to assume we understand until someone describes their experience and it is very different from what we assumed.    It seems to me this is an important piece.  I know Anonymous 1 and 4 are not the only ones who have this experience with synesthesia.  Judy Endow discusses how she perceives words through the sound and movement of color.  I have heard others describe variations on this as well.  If ones neurology finds meaning in spoken words through movement, sound and color, it would stand to reason, emotions and sensation would be perceived this way as well leading them to do things that might cause those witnessing it as something to be stopped.  I have to wonder how many, who are in the field of Autism are hearing these kinds of experiences.  So much regarding autism comes from those witnessing it,  people who want to understand, but whose own neurology may make it very challenging, if not impossible, for them to do so.