|By Patricia Lynne Duffy
170 pages, $26
It sounds faintly schizophrenic, to see
sounds or to taste shapes. And indeed,
throughout history, people who claimed that
words or music came in different colors were in
danger of being misdiagnosed as psychotic -- or
dismissed as speaking merely metaphorically.
But what they were experiencing is
synesthesia, a neurological condition in which
stimulating one sense fires off a reaction in a
second sense. Synesthetes might say that a food
tastes "pointy" and mean not a metaphor, but a
sensation in the mouth.
Researchers disagree about how many people
have some form of synesthesia; estimates vary
from one in 10 to one in 25,000. But many
researchers believe more children than adults
and more women than men experience the
phenomenon. The French poet Arthur Rimbaud wrote
a sonnet, "Voyelles," about his experience of
colored vowels. Novelist Vladimir Nabokov
described his colored alphabet in his
autobiography. Franz Liszt reportedly saw
Journalist Patricia Lynne Duffy is another
synesthete and her matter-of-fact descriptions
of the phenomenon in "Blue Cats and Chartreuse
Kittens" will go a long way to letting others
enter into synesthetes' perceptions.
Duffy experiences a colored alphabet, one of
the most common manifestations of the
experience. Before she could read, she would see
colored patterns when she heard words, a unique
pattern for each set of sounds. She spent much
of her childhood painting pictures of the
designs, never realizing that other people
didn't hear words in the same way.
When she learned the alphabet and began to
read, her color perceptions transferred to
letters and then to the words formed by the
letters. In Duffy's mind, "c" is dark blue,
which means that "cat" is a blue word, too. "K"
is chartreuse, so "kitten" is chartreuse.
The mark of a true synesthete is that his or
her perceptions don't shift. "It is important to
understand that to a synesthete, the color of a
letter is as intrinsic part of it as is its
shape," Duffy writes. "To me, a red O seems as
peculiar and wrong as the notion of a triangular
O. An O is circular! And it is white!"
It's interesting, say researchers, that
colored-language synesthetes don't necessarily
agree on which colors go with which letters --
but that a remarkable number say that the letter
"o" is white.
What's going on here?
Duffy devotes much of the book to what
researchers think is going on in a synesthete's
brain (something about lack of blood flow) and
why they think it might have developed (an
evolutionary trick to fix complex experiences).
But some of the most affecting passages are
synesthetes' accounts of how they found others
who could understand their perceptions, after
years of feeling like freaks. "I felt I had to
hide the way I was internalizing things," says
one synesthete, who dazzlingly experiences
numbers and units of time as being colored and
three-dimensional. (That's similar to the
synesthesia I experience, time as colored
spaces. By the way, we're living in a
trapezoidal lemon-yellow decade.)
To bridge the gap between synesthetes and
others, Duffy includes several Web pages. A good
starting point is web.mit.edu/synesthesia/www/synesthesia.html,
which tries to reproduce some perceptions.
Meanwhile, Duffy's book is a
thought-provoking glimpse at how much is lurking
in other people's minds -- and how little we
know about it.
© Copyright 2001, Detroit Free Press. All Rights