My cousin and I have synesthesia. Yes, I know. It sounds like a disease. Unfortunately, it is not catching. If it were, people would have lots more fun. We just see colours instead of people’s names’ – Barbara Butcher explains
As adults, neither of us thought very much about it. I had two children, Michael (green: the colour of fir trees) and Lisa (blue). Jean had Linda (lavender) and Michael (pale green).
Then, a couple of years ago, I heard a programme on the radio about synesthesia and apparently people who have it frequently do not realise that they 'see' things differently. I was thrilled finally to learn that the phenomenon had a name.
Synesthesia can also involve the other senses. Someone with the condition may 'feel' flavour through their fingertips, or 'taste' certain flavours when hearing someone's voice.
Many people with it work in the arts, eg, as musicians, artists, writers and poets. As a young child, novelist Vladimir Nabokov told his mother the colours on his wooden alphabet were 'wrong'. She knew what he meant as she, too, had synesthesia and it often does run in families.
After hearing the programme, I met up with my cousin and we compared notes. We still 'see' names as colours, but had no idea that it was a recognised condition.
We talked about my synesthesic experience with music. I have always seen classical music in beautiful waves of colour and can recall melodies by remembering the patterns and colours. I can also 'watch' a show, sometimes dance routines and sometimes ballet, when I listen to music.
Lately, I have found I can recall a melody and then watch the 'show', being amazed by the wonderful, colourful costumes, even when there is no music actually playing. Very useful during dental treatment!
I have always had a very keen sense of hearing and smell and can smell a flower from looking at a picture. Different-coloured flowers have particular fragrances. A pink carnation, for example, smells sweet, a white one has a hint of clover. I also smell things on TV, like food on cookery programmes or chlorine in a swimming pool. I find it difficult to watch programmes featuring drunks throwing up, especially when I am trying to eat!
Some people see shapes and colours with numbers, but Jean and I have not found this happens for us.
For me, the downside is the poignant nostalgia I feel when I recall the past. I not only 'see' my mother (Myrtle and burgundy) in the kitchen at home, but smell the wonderful food she cooked and hear the melodic sound (amethyst and turquoise) of my father's violin playing on Sundays.
A new book on synesthesia (details below) has been published by researcher Richard Cytowic and neuroscientist David Eagleman. On holiday with my cousin recently, I mentioned it to her. 'I don't see days of the week in colour,' I said. 'Don't you?' she said incredulously. 'Today is Tuesday and it is yellow. Surely you knew that?' u
Wednesday Is Indigo Blue is published by MIT Press, priced £10.95.
Daily tip from the lady archive
"It is not always she who appears most kindly in her interest who is the safe sharer of sacred (maybe sorrowful) secrets! Charming manners do not always connote sincerity of heart!”The Lady. In Confidence. 4th April, 1918