Hearing in Color


By Franny Kiles and Blake Villanueva, Franny Kiles and Blake Villanueva, and Franny Kiles and Blake Villanueva

For Tam News reporter Morgan Pinney, the number three is green and adventurous. When paired with the wholesome, genuine number eight, it becomes 38, which has a distinct personality within her mind.

Pinney, along with senior Elodie Townsend and sophomore Lexi Stern, have synesthesia,  a neurological phenomenon where the boundaries between senses are blurred. For synesthetes, numbers and letters might have specific colors and personalities. Words might have individual tastes. Sounds might evoke a flourish of colors. The varieties of synesthesia are nearly endless, and every synesthete has a unique combination of crossed senses.

Synesthesia has aided the creativity of successful artists, musicians, and even scientists. For theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, equations would come to life in a swath of colors around him. Perhaps the most famous synesthete, Van Gogh, had technique-timbre synesthesia, which allowed him to paint not what he saw, but rather how he experienced a “Starry Night” in France.  Modern day musicians, including Stevie Wonder, Pharrell Williams, and Kanye West, have a form of synesthesia that interprets music as color.

Neon yellow will sometimes be an F Sharp.” -Senior Morgan Pinney

Pinney also experiences sound to color synesthesia. “If I close my eyes…any song will evoke an image,” Pinney said. “Generally it tends to be lighter colors with higher pitched sounds, but it also depends on the tone. Sharp notes will be with sort of brighter more vibrant colors, the colors that I find somewhat annoying. Neon yellow will be sometimes an F sharp.”

When Pinney listens to a song, the music will gradually create an image of colors as it progresses and take the form of an abstract painting. For some songs the sensation is especially strong. “The Velvet Underground’s song ‘Heroin’ builds in a way that is very easily replicated visually for me,” Pinney said. “If I were to think of it in the form of a painting, the brush strokes would start off cleaner…then it gets slightly more erratic, feathered almost. It evokes to me a lot of yellows and greens…It gets messier and messier, so the greens and the yellows are sharp but also melding into each other in places.”

Pinney’s interpretation of songs through color is like that of professional artist Melissa McCracken, a synesthete who paints abstract images that she sees in her head while listening to music. “She paints things similar to the way I see them,” Pinney said. “There are some [songs] where we disagree, but in looking at [the paintings] I can see exactly where we interpreted the sound differently.” Pinney can easily follow McCracken’s paintings because she can track the different trails of colors during the song. “Generally I see things left to right. Depending on the song the different layers will also contribute…the drum will set sort of the overall tone and that will be something going throughout the image and the little pieces that drift in and out will create different colors and textures occurring sporadically.”

“It’s kind of like a secret that only I can see.” -Sophomore Lexi Stern

Stern expresses her synesthesia through music and drawing, and enjoys painting what she hears when listening to music. “Something that people find kind of strange is I don’t use any color in my drawings. I just do black and white because for myself when I draw it, I can see all the colors that are meant to be there, and then it’s kind of like a secret that only I can see,” she said. Stern has projected synesthesia and can literally see shapes that look like light watercolor in the air around her. Stern recalled an instance where she saw a spread of colors on a white wall and asked her friend if she saw the same. “She just stared at me like I was crazy, and she was like, ‘No, it’s just a white wall,’” Stern said.

Although Stern’s synesthesia aids her artwork and music, she sometimes finds it distracting. “When I’m reading, sort of right after the word, I see a little block of the color of that word…You know those plastic jump ropes…with the plastic beads? Like the different colors? So it’s like a jump rope of colors, sort of going down the page, so it can get kind of distracting,” Stern said. This issue also surfaces while writing in cursive and doing math. “The different shape of the letter changes the color, so then I really only know the color of the letter when it’s in print or cursive. So I pretty much can’t really read cursive at all,” Stern said. “Also, it can be kind of an issue with stuff like algebra. Sometimes the color of the number and letter won’t get along and then it just makes it ten times harder to solve the equation.”

Townsend has had similar problems in math. She suspects it’s the result of her spatio-temporal, or space-time, synesthesia, which causes her to picture years and dates on “platforms” in three dimensional space. “[Dates are] like a hallway or maybe just a really long staircase with a platform…almost like each month is a destination and same as each day of the week,” Townsend said. “It does not help me in math…If it’s the number 1275 that really confuses me because it looks like a year to me… it’s really hard for me to think of it like a [math] problem instead of thinking of it like a progression in time.”

On the other hand, Townsend’s unusual perception of time helps her in history classes. “It definitely helps in history because I picture years and events like I can remember what they look like,” Townsend said. “I just picture like each century and then there’s points on that one century that are different dates. If they’re in the past it’s more like they’re an object because I’m not going to interact with them. [More recent years are] like a hallway because you’re going towards it…like a display in a museum.”

Pinney’s synesthesia lets her visualize academic concepts, thus improving her memory. “When trying to remember a formula, I don’t necessarily have to [memorize it],” Pinney said. “I just remember that the color is light green to me. [For example], inverse sine [derivative equation] is sort of light blue with a tinge of green.” Pinney also uses this technique when writing. “With essays I will sort of hold the different paragraphs in my head…each paragraph will have a certain intent which corresponds to a color or number…The colors are representative of either an idea I’m trying to push or an emotion evoked by the paragraph.”

Similar to Pinney, Stern identifies her emotions and experiences with colors. “Different tastes have different colors,” Stern said. “If I’m eating something I really like, then the light in the room will sort of turn a little bit of a tint of that color [that I like].” For Stern, good colors include orange, light purple, and light blue while dark red and yellow have more negative connotations. “Different people have an aura of a color around them. Before I know that person, they just kind of have a mixture of colors around them, but then once I get to know them, then they have a specific color that’s assigned to them,” Stern said. “My color for myself is orange. And then, let’s say someone who I don’t really get along with, their color might be like super neon pink. Those colors to me, they just don’t… there’s like tension between them.”

For Pinney, objects have personalities. While describing an ordinary blue water bottle, Pinney said, “It is almost proportionate yet slightly shorter than it should be…It’s a personality that has been trying so hard…[The water bottle’s] about to reach personal fulfillment, but…still has moments of childhood and previous adversity.” Pinney can trace the relationship that she sees between personalities and objects’ proportions back to childhood. “There would always be objects that I didn’t like,” Pinney said. “For example, it was this little soap container and the shape was just so unappealing to me…when we moved I was so happy we left it behind…I didn’t realize for years that it was because its personality was one that I didn’t like.” 

Just like Pinney and Stern, Townsend personifies objects and concepts because of her synesthesia. “I always hated the month of February when I was little,” Townsend said. “It’s like March and January are squeezing it so it’s not…comfortable. I also don’t like Thursdays because it’s the same kind of thing.”

Pinney also has a unique perception of time. In her mind, months assume different colors, sizes, and shapes depending on her experiences during that period of time. “[The year is] almost like a very morphed color wheel,” she said. “The summer, because that to me is generally a very happy, calm, and uniform time, I don’t break that up into separate months. To me, that’s just a soft tone of yellow, and it’s curved. It’s a meandering circle.” While working on stressful college applications, Pinney’s emotions altered the way that she pictured those months. “Because I was so focused on what I was doing and not on the order I was doing it, the months are sort of crammed together into one, so they’re organized not so much by the actual time passing, but by what occurs.” Pinney sees any stressful time, such as the months she was finishing college applications, in dark green. “Then [another stressful time will]…occur later and so those two [periods of time become]…sort of connected…an array of dark green.”

For Pinney, Stern, and Townsend, each of whom has now been aware of their synesthesia for several years, the realization that they saw the world differently came as a surprise.

“For years I had just been referring to colors as being numbers and I thought that was normal,” Pinney said. “Instead of memorizing street names I would just associate the names with a certain color or image so I would tell people turn left on a street that is sort of the name is aquamarine…until about maybe eleven or twelve I thought that everyone just thought this way.”

Stern found out that she had synesthesia around the same age as Pinney. “In the sixth grade I read a book called A Mango-Shaped Space and the main character has the condition,” Stern said, “and that’s how I sort of figured out that I had it.” Townsend also discovered that she perceived the world differently through reading. “I was reading an article [about synesthesia] in a newspaper or something and I was like wait a second and I kept researching a little more and I was like that is exactly what I picture [time as] too…Wait that’s not supposed to happen?”

All three girls have had vastly different experiences with synesthesia, but none of them could imagine living without it. Pinney, Townsend, and Stern, along with their famous counterparts such as Kanye West and Richard Feynman, will continue to live in a world that only synesthetes understand. A world where music paints pictures, people are enveloped in colors, and time looks like a meandering pathway. “It’s kind of like having my own…personal world,” Stern said. “I don’t really know what it’s like without it, but I love having it.”