Dark blue, male, inherently evil. These words are not usually associated with numbers, but for senior Bethany Wiles, they embody the number nine perfectly.
Every name has a color. In fact, every word, letter and number has a color. Numbers even have genders and unique personalities as well. This is normal for Wiles. Associations like these are normal for most people with synesthesia.
Synesthesia is what causes Wiles and approximately 3.5 million others worldwide to see the world differently because of the way their brains perceive their surroundings.
To experts, the presence of synesthesia means that a person’s experience in one of the five senses triggers an experience in another. To Wiles, it means seeing or hearing a word, letter or number and involuntarily seeing a specific color.
The world of synesthesia is vast and hard to define. One reason for this is that it’s under-researched and experts are still in the dark about its exact cause. Another reason is that synesthesia doesn’t manifest itself in just one way. In fact, there are over 60 different types known today, ranging from hearing music and seeing corresponding colors to experiencing sexual arousal and tasting flavors.
Wiles has grapheme-color synesthesia, meaning that graphemes, which refer to letters of the alphabet, have specific colors. It was only in eighth grade that she learned from a Beauty Guru video on Youtube that there is a name for what she had been experiencing her whole life.
When she told her mom, they decided to do a little more research. The more they learned, the more sense it made that Wiles was a synesthete. But at first, her mom wasn’t completely convinced, so she tested Wiles on number and letter to color associations to make sure they matched up consistently.
“For about a week [my mom] made me go over numbers just to make sure I wasn’t imagining it or anything,” Wiles said. “She would literally just shout numbers and I would shout back colors and I was right every single time.”
Her mother’s skepticism is common. People who seek help because they see colors when listening to music or counting numbers are sometimes written off by those who aren’t aware of synesthesia. Because the concept is so foreign to those who don’t experience this phenomenon, it may be hard believe or fully embrace at first.
According to author and synesthete Maureen Seaberg, there is a certain stigma associated with synesthesia because of how little the world actually knows about it.
“People, children in particular, with synesthesia are very misunderstood in therapy settings,” Seaberg said.“Psychiatrists who are not aware of [synesthesia] and don’t know that it’s not a psychosis or hallucination can misdiagnose people. [Synesthetes] could be medicated when they don’t need it or just labeled as something that they’re not.”
Wiles, however, never saw a psychiatrist, and it wasn’t until she told her father that everything clicked. He has a form of synesthesia too, although it differs greatly from hers. As Wiles understands, whenever her father thinks about any cycle of time, for instance days of the week, he pictures himself within a panorama of that cycle, facing whatever specific day he is thinking of.
Though knowing that her dad had it too solidified Wiles’ notion that she was a synesthete, it didn’t explain why their experiences were so vastly different.
While researchers still argue over the exact cause, Yale professor Dr. Lawrence Marks, considered one of the fathers of modern synesthesia research, believes that there may not be just one.
Some studies indicate that there may be a genetic component involved, which could explain Wiles and her father. However, this doesn’t account for the cases of synesthesia that arise in patients who have suffered major head injuries.
Marks believes that there isn’t a single gene out there that determines whether or not a person has synesthesia. There may be a gene– or many– that sets the stage for its development, but even then, it doesn’t determine when the synesthesia will appear or what form it will take. It takes time for synesthesia to develop and each individual case is shaped by personal experiences and perceptions.
“You can’t be born with having colors to letters because you have to learn the letters first,” Marks said. “So clearly experience is necessary.”
This “experience” is anything that inspires and shapes a person’s synesthesia. A synesthete may associate the letter “L” with the color blue if that’s the color it was outlined in when they learned “L” in preschool. They might associate the name “Carol” with the taste of baked beans if that’s what they were eating the first time they had dinner with a new friend. Seemingly insignificant events can actually lead to associations that synesthetes will carry with them for the rest of their lives.
Experience is the reason that Wiles and her English teacher, and fellow synesthete, Laura Beachy Langdon don’t see the same thing when other students in class ask about the colors of their names.
For Wiles, the name “Maggie” is yellow, but for Beachy Langdon “Maggie” is red with some orange to it. These colors have nothing to do with the personality of their classmate and student, they’re just what Wiles and her teacher see automatically when picturing that name.
According to Marks, individual experiences and the way the brains perceives these experiences shape each case of synesthesia into something totally unique. Every synesthete sees the world in a distinct way, and researchers doubt they’ll ever be able to fully understand each individual case.
Thinking about her own view of the world, Wiles smiles coyly and lets out a small laugh.
“You know, I kind of feel a little bit bad for people who don’t have any of these experiences,” Wiles said. “I don’t know, it just makes me very happy.”
Check out this video, courtesy of TED, to understand more about how synesthesia works.