If you are one of that small band of people who happen to see days of the week, months of the year, even single numbers and letters in colour, you are considered either very peculiar or very lucky. It also means you are a synaesthete. I am one of them.
Synaesthesia is a rare condition: few people have heard of it. To put it simply, synaesthesia is a psychological and neurological state concerning the visual and auditory areas of the brain. For those who have never known a yellow Friday, or a red July, it’s hard to understand how this curious phenomenon works. Most people have five senses: sight, touch, hearing, taste, smell. For synaesthetes, there is an overlapping of two or more senses. Aisthesis comes from the Greek word meaning sensation, while syn means together, or union. This mingling of the senses means a colour is produced in their minds. For some people it’s abstract things that conjure these colours — numbers, for example, or letters. In my own case it’s days of the week and months of the year. Those of us with this particular form of synaesthesia are considered more rare than those who only see numbers or letters. Rarer still are those to whom taste, smell and music produce colours.
My discovery of my own synaesthesia happened 40 years ago. I was talking to a literary man, a keen student of Nabokov. Somehow the conversation switched to the great writer’s ability to see letters in colour.
‘Well, I see days of the week in colour,’ I said. It wasn’t a boast. It was a fact.
The man, a journalist, decided to test me. He made me write down my colour for each day of the week and month of the year. To be precise, Monday is a cloudy pink, Tuesday a deeper pink, Wednesday mulberry red, Thursday dark blue, Friday yellow, Saturday green, Sunday stainless steel.
A year later he tested me again. Naturally I got every one of them right, because I had been living with these colours for as long as I could remember. Reluctantly, the journalist admitted that I too must be a synaesthete, and wrote an article declaring that there were now two people ‘suffering from this incomprehensible condition’.
Most of the books on synaesthesia are too complicated for the layman: the exception, I found, was John Harrison, senior neurologist and research fellow at Cambridge. What most intrigued me about his fascinating insights was his confession that, having studied the subject for so long, he can imagine it, but can’t know what it’s like. This is understandable because no matter how articulate and vivid a synaesthete may be, it’s almost impossible to convey. Dozens of times I’ve tried to describe my colours by explaining they are lined up like a tongue-and-groove fence, each plank of wood a different colour. But the colours are not like samples from a Dulux catalogue. They’re not absolutely clear, but misted, as the skin of a dark grape is sometimes misted. The colours could never be reproduced in real life — though I do find some of the Dutch grape painters get pretty close to my Thursday.
How do the colours work for me? Could we meet on Monday, someone asks. The very thought of Monday instantly triggers the dusky pink panel in my mind. What I have never understood is that if you don’t have synaesthesia, how do you think of Monday? ‘I imagine a page in my diary’ is a common answer. But most people say they don’t think of anything. That is something I cannot imagine: not visualising anything when you think of something abstract. Surely you would feel ungrounded, lost?
Perhaps one of the reasons synaesthetes go undetected is because it’s a condition not much discussed: you do get some funny looks if you happen to say your November is a duck-egg blue. Many synaesthetes have always thought it was such an ordinary part of one’s being it was not worth mentioning. My sister-in-law and I, who have talked about myriad subjects in the past 50 years, never once discussed it. But recently, by chance, the subject came up.
‘My Wednesday,’ I said, ‘is a dark red.’
Of all well-known synaesthetes, Nabokov was probably the most lucid. For him, the state began in his seventh year. ‘I was using a heap of old alphabet blocks to build a tower,’ he wrote in his autobiography. ‘I casually remarked to my mother that the colours were all wrong, though we discovered that some of our letters were the same.’ His mother was also optically affected by musical notes — which Nabokov never was. ‘The colour sensation,’ Nabokov added, ‘seems to be produced by the very act of my orally forming a letter. A evokes polished ebony, R is a sooty rag, N is oatmeal….’ It’s not hard to understand, reading his very long list of precise descriptions, why non-synaesthetes assume us colour-touched folk are a bit peculiar.
You can also see the whole mysterious condition of synaesthesia is fertile ground for humour. I was talking about it at a dinner party in Norfolk in the summer. Sitting next to me was a barrister who looked completely bemused. Opposite was his wife.
‘I know exactly what you mean,’ she chipped in. ‘My days of the week are colours, too.’ She named a few of them. The barrister passed a hand over his learned brow.
‘We’ve been married for nearly 30 years,’ he said, ‘ and it’s the first time I’ve heard that my wife’s Monday is green.’
He questioned both of us for a while, then asked a barrister-like question. ‘Could I say, “Let’s meet on orange”?’
Nabokov eventually admitted that the confessions of a synaesthete must sound tedious and pretentious to those who are protected by ‘more solid walls than mine’. I agree with this entirely. But is synaesthesia merely a puzzling and useless condition, or is it a gift? I can’t be sure of the answer, but I know it’s an unfailingly good conversational opener. I only positively know that its constancy is reassuring and without it, I’d be at a loss. There would be no structure to the pictures in my mind. I’d be bereft. As it is, I’m eternally grateful to my inner rainbow.