I love the smell of synaesthesia in the morning

London Underground stations taste like this

A taste of London’s underground transport system

If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

I am so curious to know what people who don’t have this see when they listen to music, I can’t imagine it without the colours…


The Italian language is like pieces of torn up colour paper in a jumble – bright warm hues like green, orange and light blue.


A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue: vowels,
I shall tell, one day, of your mysterious origins:
A, black velvety jacket of brilliant flies
which buzz around cruel smells,…

Arthur Rimbaud, Vowels

My red is so confident he flashes trophies of war
And ribbons of euphoria.
Orange is young, full of daring but very unsteady for the first go ’round.
My yellow in this case is no so mellow.
In fact I’m trying to say it’s frightened like me.
And all of these emotions of mine keep holding me
From giving my life to a rainbow like you.

Jimi Hendrix, Bold as Love

The long a of the English alphabet (and it is this alphabet I have in mind farther on unless otherwise stated) has for me the tint of weathered wood, but the French a evokes polished ebony. This black group also includes hard g (vulcanized rubber) and r (a sooty rag being ripped). Oatmeal n, noodle-limp l, and the ivory-backed hand mirror of o take care of the whites. I am puzzled by my French on which I see as the brimming tension-surface of alcohol in a small glass. Passing on to the blue group, there is steely x, thundercloud z, and hucklberry k. Since a subtle interaction exists between sound and shape, I see q as browner than k, while s is not the light blue of c, but a curious mixture of azure and mother-of-pearl. Adjacent tints do not merge, and dipthongs do not have special colors unless represented by a single character in some other language (thus the fluffy-gray, three-stemmed Russian letter that stands for sh, a letter as old as the rushes of the Nile, influences its English representation).

Vladimir Nabokov, Speak Memory

Then, I said, we will consult also with Damon on these questions, with regard to which feet are appropriate to represent servility, violence, conceit or madness and other vices, and which rhythms should be kept since they are suitable for the opposite states. Also, I think that I heard him refer – somehow unclearly – to some rhythm ‘in armour’ that he called ‘composite’, to a ‘finger’ and even, yes, an ‘heroic’ one!

Socrates – Plato’s “Republic”

BqByFNGCMAEKvIvSynesthetes are people (approximately 4% of the general population) who, on hearing musical notes and seeing numbers, certain shapes and words, visualise flashes of different colours like, as it were, chromatic voices talking (or screaming) to them (e.g. E as “light green”). They dream music as colour, hear architectures or see deeper connections between paintings/designs and the surrounding environment; they taste, smell or even touch certain voices, words and sounds, or feel that days and numbers have a spatial element to them.

They seldom associate the same colours to numbers, days of the week, years, words, letters and musical notes. Some cannot listen to music while driving, because it is too confusing. For them words that are spelt wrong stand out with a very specific colour.

Pythagoras, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Lloyd Wright, Degas, Baudelaire, Mozart, Marilyn Monroe, Kandinsky, Duke Ellington, Nabokov, Rachmaninoff, Rimbaud, Liszt, Richard Feynman, Aphex Twin are among the most famous synesthetes.

Perhaps our ancestors did enjoy the ability to see sounds and hear colours, but most of us have lost it – unless we use hallucinogens (btw, let me make it clear that I am no fan of Terence McKenna’s theories) – and it is now treated as a harmless neurological disorder.

Near-death experiencers also describe a blending of their senses (Synesthesia’s Links to the Mystical, Pyschology Today, 15 January 2013).

if_the_doors_of_perception_were_expanded_everything_would_appear_as-it_is-infiniteCompared to them, ordinary people are colour-blind, like prisoners in Plato’s cave. They see shadows and mistake them for what is real, because a provisional scientific consensus tells them that they are in the right and that their perception of reality (e.g. the range of sound and colour frequencies is actually far more abundant) is the norm, and not greatly impoverished.

Synaesthesia is for weirdos, namely, for artists.

As a result, a vast majority of synesthetes either don’t know that other people don’t see the world like them, or are afraid that there is something wrong with them, even though no trait is preserved in a population unless it serves some purpose: synesthesia is a highly heritable phenomenon that is associated with numerous benefits to cognitive processing, potentially underscoring a basis for why this condition has survived evolutionary pressures (Survival of the Synesthesia Gene: Why Do People Hear Colors and Taste Words? Plos, 22 November 2011).


At the end of the day, what is wrong with hearing colours and painting sounds?

Calling a powerful, normally enjoyable, all-encompassing experience a medical condition is horribly misguided. They did that with homosexuality, not long ago – if you belong to a minority, you are likely to be classified as pathological.

Depending on the context, it can be unpleasant (for some synesthetes certain visual images in advertising, art galleries or shopping malls can be pain-inducing much in the same way as “normal” people cannot stand high-pitched noises), but it can also become an extremely useful and pleasant creative quality that some people have, rather than a hindrance.

Thinking different is good, if you accept and appreciate diversity and complexity.

The way I see things, human societies need more imaginative and innovative people capable of making unlikely associations to solve problems and enhance the appreciation of beauty and life, not fewer.

Experiencing richer, more complex and interactive realities is something awesome, something to be grateful for, as any colour-blind person could confirm.

Louis Bertrand Castel (1688-1757), a Jesuit priest, held that synaesthesia (he called it “colour music”) was the lost language of Eden, before our fall, when human beings could not misunderstand each other and saw reality as it objectively is (cf. Hesiod, Works And Days, ll. 109-120).

Could that be true?

Perhaps our senses, as well as reality, are a great deal more complex and flexible than we assume.


2 thoughts on “I love the smell of synaesthesia in the morning

  1. I noticed you linked to a blog post of mined:

    “Perhaps our ancestors did enjoy the ability to see sounds and hear colours, but most of us have lost it – unless we use hallucinogens”

    It is an interesting topic. I don’t think I’ve written about it again since that post.

    I’m not a synesthete myself, although I have used psychedelics in the past. So, I have some sense of what the actual experience means when your various senses cross over. It is hard to imagine, though, what that would be like in the milder form of daily continuous experience.

    “(btw, let me make it clear that I am no fan of Terence McKenna’s theories)”

    No fan of McKenna, I see. I realize you added that qualification because I mentioned him in my blog.

    I take interesting ideas anywhere I find them. McKenna had a strange mind, no doubt about it. But some aspects of his theories are perfectly in line with what you write here.

    If he were alive today, he’d probably enjoy reading something like this piece and he’d probably be amused by your comment about his theories. One thing I appreciated about him was that he didn’t take himself too seriously and he seemed constantly amused by life.

    I was more a fan of him as a person than necessarily his theories. But his ideas or rather his explanation of his ideas was always entertaining. He had a way of talking that drew you in, even when he was going on about something totally crazy. He was a unique guy.


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