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Seeing Sound

AUT Visual Design graduate and creator of floristry company ‘Print and Petal’ Sarah Heares says synesthesia enhances her creativity. Photo: Jean Bell.

Jean Bell finds out what it’s like to live with the rare genetic condition ‘synesthesia’ and asks whether the senses combining enhances creativity or causes confusion.

There’s a kind of mystique around synesthesia.

Super famous people like Billy Joel, Vladimir Nabokov and our own dear Lorde claim to have it. But what is it actually like to have it when you’re, well, a relatively normal person?

For people affected, dubbed ‘synesthetes’, is it a gift that you’re grateful to have? Or is it a plain annoyance?

With these questions in mind, I set out to decode the mysterious and fascinating condition.


Basically, synesthesia is a super rare genetic condition where you get a merging of the senses, and it affects only one to two percent of the population. The most common type is grapheme-colour synesthesia, where people experience colour sensations when they see, hear, or think about letters or numbers. There’s also chromesthesia, where people see or associate colour with sound (this is the kind Lorde has).

In order to get the informed low-down on synesthesia, I got in touch with the super knowledgeable Dr Patrick Shepherd, a Senior Lecturer at the College of Education, Health and Human Development at The University of Canterbury.

He isn’t a synesthete himself but his passion for synesthesia began after a voyage to Antarctica, where he wrote an article on writing music inspired by the blue, white and black colours of the continent. While synesthesia wasn’t a theme in the article, someone who read the article pointed out the similarity between synesthesia and his piece. “My research in synesthesia started then and it’s just snowballed,” says Dr Shepherd (excuse the pun).

In saying that, synesthesia is not all beautiful colours lighting up your life. There’s also types like lexi-gustatory synesthesia, where hearing, reading or thinking about a word can fill their mouth with a flavour – so a word can literally leave a bad taste in your mouth.

Dr Shepherd says this type can make accommodating to everyone’s taste buds in the kitchen trickier than it already is. “Imagine cooking for someone? You’d cook for your synesthesia, but what about their taste?!”

Is it a bird, is it a plane, is it a gift?

So how does someone even get to have synesthesia? Well, it’s a neurological condition and entirely to do with the makeup of the brain; it’s definitely not something that can be learned. Dr Shepherd says we can project emotions onto music and ‘see’ colours, but for real synesthetes, the colour sensation is involuntary and has little relation to emotion.

“A lot of people grow out of it, a lot people don’t know they have it and a lot of people don’t use it,” he says.

He also reckons most children have synesthesia, but we just grow out of it as boring adults.

“If you use it and think that way, then you strengthen those neurological pathways. If you don’t, then your brain just goes ‘oh well, we’ll just do it another way.’” Major head trauma and use of psychedelic drugs like LSD or mushrooms can also cause permanent synesthesia.

Researchers also used to think that synesthesia was more common in women than men, but turns out that’s bollocks.

“I think the problem is that men tend not to open up about this, but women are more free to talk about their feelings and more orientated to talk about it, whereas guys think it’s a little bit odd,” he says.

Meet Sarah (or Pink-Yellow-Blue-Yellow-Red)

You know that synesthesia that connects colour with letters and numbers? That’s the type Sarah Heares has. Sarah is an AUT grad who completed a Bachelor of Visual Design before plunging into the world of floristry and art by starting her own floristry business called ‘Print and Petal’.

Sarah realised she might have synesthesia when she was at a party in uni. “I made a comment to someone that it was weird when something was one colour, but it didn’t mean that colour. And they were like ‘what are you on about?” she laughs.

“I always saw letters and numbers as colour, and then I realised I was the only one who saw them that way. But I still didn’t know what it was.”

She remembers the sensation in kindy when she began to read and write.

“I’ve always spelt my name in my head with colour, so Pink-Yellow-Blue-Yellow-Red for S-A-R-A-H.”

Sarah says her family and friends had no clue that she had it. “So when I told people they were just like ‘okay? Didn’t know that was a thing in the first place but congrats!’” Life through synesthesia-tinted glasses

Sarah says she never had to grapple with her condition, but said it can make things pretty confusing on a day-to-day basis.

“A difficult one for me is the word green. G is orange to me, so the word green is orange to me,” she says.

Dr Shepherd also highlights examples of synesthetes having daily ‘oopsies’ caused by a mix up between colours and numbers. “There’s this guy in Belgium who routinely gets on the wrong bus to work. It can be deeply embarrassing.”

Sarah says she ends up with a lot of preconceptions about things in life, and without meaning to, tends to assume things due to something and its colour relationship in her head. “When I go to meet someone, say a client, I’ll play a guessing game. ‘Oh, this is the colour of their name, I wonder if they match it?’” she laughs.

“I’ve never wished I don’t have it. It’s quite fun. It’s kind of like sitting around doing Buzzfeed quizzes. Like ‘What kind of garlic bread are you?’… but it’s more ‘What colours are these people?’”

The colour of social constructions

Funnily enough, it seems like social constructs and self-perception play a key part in her condition. “From so young you are taught that you are a girl and that pinkis the colour for girls. That’s why I think S became so pink to me… I identify with feminine qualities and style,” Sarah reflects.

Sarah sees the letters D, J and R as a deep navy blue, which are the most masculine colours in her mind. “That’s why D became navy blue. Dad is the big male figure in your life, and my brother’s name is Josh, so that's how J became that too.“Growing up I always thought I’d marry someone with a name beginning with J, D or R because to me I wanted to marry someone with that masculine ideal,” Sarah laughs, raising an eyebrow. “I am marrying someone with a name with the letter J. It’s funny to think maybe those conceptions are influencing my life. Who knows?”

Are synesthetes more creative?

So, does having synesthesia make you more creative? Dr Shepherd reckons it doesn’t. However, he says that just because someone has synesthesia, it doesn’t mean they are going to use it or even know about it. “Some of them use it, some of them don’t. For some of them it helps make them creative, some of them just ignore it,” he says.On the other hand, Sarah isn’t sure: “I’m definitely a creative person and live my life creatively. But is that because I have synesthesia? Or is it the other way around?

“If I wasn’t creatively inclined, would I hate [my synesthesia]? Say I was an insurance broker and I kept on messing up people’s mortgages because I kept writing blue instead of nine?” she breaks off, laughing.

Awareness is the way forwardSo how come there’s research showing that tons of kids might have synesthesia, yet we hardly hear about it? Dr Shepherd thinks that while kids tend to be really honest and open, they might stop short at talking about having synesthesia because they don’t want to look silly.

However, he says synesthesia is definitely something that needs more attention in the educational sphere. He adds that teachers being aware of the condition can be a game changer when it comes to education. “If you’re not connecting with a kid and they’re not learning, they may have synesthesia.”

Sarah agrees, saying: “It’s really understudied because I don’t think it really causes any difficulties for anyone. No one’s sinking money into it.”More awareness would do wonders, says Dr Shepherd. “Making people realise their way of seeing the world is not the only one and a synesthete’s way of looking at the world isn’t wrong.”

Although synesthesia might seem like some kinda super power, or reserved only for the cool club of celebrities and artists, it’s simply a malfunction of the brain that has some amazing effects, ranging from the bizarre to the beautiful.

While I’m not sure I would personally want it, I can’t help but agree when Sarah calls it a gift.

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