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The Guardian
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I can hear a rainbow

Laura Barton explains what it's like to suffer from synaesthesia

Tuesday September 23, 2003
The Guardian

After the trip to the Little Chef, and the half-hearted round of I Spy, the Barton family car journeys of my childhood would invariably dissolve into a game of What Colour Is Wednesday? This was a riveting pastime which went a little like this:

Mum: "It's a very yellowy yellow."

My brother: "Greyish green. The same colour as two."

Me: "No. It's bottle green."

Dad: "You are all bonkers."

Clare Morrall's Booker-nominated Astonishing Splashes of Colour has brought synaesthesia to the public's attention this past week. Morrall's book features a character with "emotional synaesthesia", meaning that she sees her emotions as colours. Synaesthesia affects anything between one in 2,000 and one in 25,000 people, and can manifest itself in a variety of ways - for some synaesthetes, smells or tastes will have colours, or they might experience coloured sounds. Alternatively, a sound might have a texture or a taste. At one time, synaesthesia was regarded as a sign of schizophrenia, or an overactive imagination, but more recent research has suggested that the condition may simply be a sort of genetically inherited miswiring of the brain, so that two parts of the brain connect and two functions consequently entwine. For me, it is colours and words.

The crucial thing is that you actually see the colour. If I am, for example, reading a newspaper article printed in black ink, I will also see colours, sort of floating between me and the page. The colours themselves are arbitrary - the word pink, for example, is not, to my mind, pink. It's green. Each synaesthete is born with their own set of colours - my mum's range of colours is totally different to mine and, when she tells me how the letter N is a sort of flat, dull brown, as opposed to the blue-black beetle colour it is in my head, it makes me feel faintly nauseous, as if someone has tipped me upside down and everything has fallen out of my pockets.

Morrall is not the first writer to mention synaesthesia - the condition has attracted the attentions of everyone from Aristotle and Pythagoras to Sir Isaac Newton. Scriabin once composed a work called Prometheus, which incorporated light and music to attempt a sort of synaesthetic effect. Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Locke have all mentioned synaesthesia, and artists such as Kandinsky and Hockney are believed to have the condition. Early in the 20th century, the Russian psychologist Aleksandr R Luria published The Mind of a Mnemonist, a study of a man, referred to as S, who experienced an extraordinary level of synaesthesia. Exposed to a high-pitched tone, S responded, "It looks something like fireworks tinged with a pink-red hue. The strip of colour feels rough and unpleasant, and it has an ugly taste - rather like that of a briny pickle. You could hurt your hand on this." My favourite description comes in Vladimir Nabokov's autobiography, Speak, Memory, in which he refers to "alder-leaf F, the unripe apple of P, and pistachio T. Dull green, combined somehow with violet, is the best I can do for W."

It's a bit of a misnomer to say that one "suffers" from synaesthesia. Indeed, it's a rather nice thing to have about the place. In my late teens, I fell into a bout of depression, and one of the gloomiest things about it was that all my colours acquired the greyish tinge of sodden cardboard. I knew I was better when everything was restored to full Technicolor brilliance. For the most part, the only disadvantage is that when someone is speaking, it's easy to become distracted by the colours of their sentences, or sometimes if I'm reading a book, and I come across a pleasurable combination of colours, I might read the sentence again, much as you might take a long time chewing a mouthful of food you are particularly enjoying.

Despite its official definition, when I tell people about my synaesthesia, they do tend to suspect that I am making it all up. This usually results in them testing me repeatedly to see if my colours change. They don't, of course. To me, H, for example, is always an orangey russet, while L is sort of the same shade the milk turns in a bowl of Coco Pops.

It was years before my family and I had a name for what we experienced. One afternoon I came home from school to find my mum garbling excitedly about the fact that she had heard it described on the radio. She had written the word down on a scrap of paper. The word "synaesthesia" scrawled in blue biro looked, strangely enough, overarchingly red.

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