October 26, 2012 § Leave a comment
For as long as I can remember, I’ve seen the days of the week as colours.
Not just simple shades of colour, but very precise and specific hues, so precise in fact that it is almost impossible to pick them out on a colour wheel. For some of them, what I see ‘in my mind’s eye’ is actually a blending of two colours. For example, if someone says ‘Tuesday’, I will instantly see red blended with orange.
I had always assumed this was the result of memory association – perhaps I once had a book with the days of the week accompanied by the colours I now associate with them. But even if this is an explanation for how the associations were initially learned, the experience is apparently a mild manifestation of a condition called synaesthesia.
Synaesthesia is a generic term for a ‘blurring of the senses’ and can take many forms – involving almost every possible combination of senses – such as seeing colours when listening to music or ‘tasting’ words.
Although hypotheses vary, the condition in general terms is caused by increased connectivity between the sensory pathways, which could have occurred during the brain’s early development. There are two main groups of synaesthestes – ‘projectors’ who experience the condition in the external world and ‘associators’ who experience it only internally.
A few weeks ago I went to a talk at the Wellcome Collection by Michael Banissy, a lecturer in psychology at Goldsmiths. His specialist interest in this field is ‘mirror-touch synaesthesia’, in which people who see others being touched actually feel the sensation themselves. This is caused by the part of the brain which deals with empathy being overstimulated to the extent that it produces physical sensations.
The attendees at the lecture were a mixture of students and others with a general interest in the subject. I wondered if there were any fellow synaesthestes in the audience.
At the end of the talk, we were asked if we had any questions. The very first one came from a man sitting at the front, who said: “For as long as I can remember, I’ve seen the days of the week as colours…”
Interestingly, his experience was that the condition had largely disappeared as he had got older. He remembers the colours but no longer experiences the synaesthesia. I wondered if this too had happened to me – rather than being an automatic, unconscious response I just remembered the colours when someone mentioned a particular day (an example of re-membered memory perhaps – although that’s probably a subject for another post…). The cessation of his synaesthesia however seemed to coincide with his retirement, implying that a decline in neural activity may have been a possible cause.
Things started getting a little stranger as the man sitting behind me, who had earlier entered the room in a rather agitated state, said he too saw days – and months, years and decades (the 1970s are apparently brown) – as colours. He was so used to it he wondered how the rest of the room (me and the gentleman at the front excepted, of course) ‘saw’ the days of the week – if not colours then what, the words?
Later, another man came up and admitted that yes, he too, visualised days as colours. And, like me, just that and nothing else. A few people wandered up to us at the end, wanting to ask us questions…
According to Banissy, synaesthesia is experienced by four per cent of the population. ‘Weekday colour synaesthesia’ is the most common form – two per cent of us have it.