Inside the mind of a synesthete

Sofia Chavez is a junior English major.

02_Synesthesia: GRAPHIC BY LEO TAFOYA/GRAPHICS CENTER

It is a universal experience to see oneself as different, to believe that you are unique or special, or that no one can understand you. I didn’t know there was anything abnormal about the way my brain worked until I was embarrassingly old. 

I was 17 on a mission trip in Central America when a teammate asked me what language I thought in after I told her I was raised bilingual. That was the first time I questioned what happens inside my brain and how my thoughts are shaped. At that moment, I realized that I couldn’t come up with an answer. I don’t think in any language. I don’t think in words.

The word synesthesia comes from the Greek meaning “to perceive together” and I see it as my brain’s way to make connections and solve problems. As a writer, synesthesia challenges me because I have to translate my abstract thoughts into comprehensible words. That being said, I also believe that the thousands of ways I could arrange a thought into a sentence gives me creative freedom. It’s fairly easy for me to get philosophical and ambiguous if I don’t watch myself, but I’d rather be pensive and thorough than thoughtless and rash.

Synesthesia is experienced in different ways by people. For me, the sense of taste, smell, and sound are connected to sight, usually by means of color. I also experience what researchers call “conceptual synesthesia” that allows me to see abstract concepts such as emotion projected in my mind. In rare cases people see such concepts projected externally as hallucinations within arms reach. 

I was an introverted child who spent most of my time in my head observing the world around me. I grew up riddled with intrusive thoughts. I would think of something that would bring up image after image until I was lost inside my mind. My grade school teachers would either reprimand me for being so absent-minded or affectionately remind me to come back from the clouds when I would space out during class. Over time I learned to control my thoughts and sort through the mess. I find that listening to music keeps my brain busy enough to slow it down and let me think more intentionally. Even if I’m not listening to music, there’s a song playing on repeat in my mind.

My mind does not consist of an internal monologue as is portrayed in films like “Inside Out.” Instead, I see an array of images, colors, and moods or inclinations. Colors can represent the moods or be tied to memories at times. When I’m doing something new or learning a new concept, random colors appear and different memories pop up and integrate the new information into the complex web of my mind.

The image inside my brain is of infinite black space with colors that I associate with memories or emotions that are at the forefront of my mind. Each of these memories is connected to a timeline that resembles the film of an old-fashioned movie reel winding behind me. I can look inside the reel and search for memories chronologically.

Another way I access my memories is through my internal calendar. The calendar appears as a circle around me with December directly in front and June and July behind me, and with colors tied to each month. Most strongly, I see December as dark blue, January as purple, May as orange, June as lime green, and August as crimson. 

 Different genres of music have their own color palettes that correspond to other areas that I visualize. For instance, I see techno music as an array of shades of indigo that look like a starry night. Because I relate indigo to academics, techno music accompanies my studying. 

 Whenever I’ve told people about my condition I’ve been met with a variation of surprise, awe, and confusion. But I’ve never experienced life any other way. Synesthesia is like an extra sense to me, so losing it would be like losing my sight or hearing. Now that I understand my condition I am grateful for it. At the very least, it’s rarely boring in my mind.

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