December is blue, joy is yellow

The second part of my Synaesthesia Test arrived from Cambridge University a couple of weeks ago, and yesterday I finally had a couple of hours to sit down and do it.

It was actually even more fun than I imagined it would be, for reasons I shall explain in a moment.

This section consists of two parts. First is the “coloured grapheme” test, which assesses your response to written words, letters and numbers. Second is the “coloured hearing” test, which examines your response to a series of sounds on a CD that the research lab provides.

I was given both parts because I’d indicated, in the first part of the test a couple of months ago, that I responded both to sounds & written words/letters/numbers.

Subjects are asked to do the tests one after the other, with a 30-minute break in between, which is why I basically had to set aside part of an afternoon to do it. So I made myself a nice cup of tea (thank you, British forebears!) and sat down to Part One, the Grapheme Test.

You’re given three sheets of Pantone colours, labeled A, B, and C, and are instructed to lay those out in order on the table in front of you. Each colour has been assigned a number, so when you need to indicate that you’ve seen a certain colour, you just write its corresponding number in the space on the test sheet.

Can you hear these colours?

The Grapheme Test is really just a numbered list of words, letters, and numbers. You look at each one in turn (the word “London” or the number 5, for example) and pick the corresponding Pantone colour that most closely matches what you see when you look at that word. You can pick as many as two colours for one word (“London” makes me see red and olive green, for example), or one (“Sunday” is lilac, for me), or none (it happens, but not for me this time).

The instructions for both parts of the test are pretty specific about asking you NOT to “try” and see a colour. I think this is partly because some things actually don’t light up your brain, and partly to weed out the “wannabes” that are present in every study of (let’s face it) a cool subject.

When I was finished all 100 examples, I took my obligatory half-hour break: I had another cup of tea and started in on the latest Lisa Gardner mystery, Love You More. I was surprised to find that I was actually fairly tired: I’ve known for years that I have synesthesia, but have never tried to (or been asked to) categorize every thing that I see. It’s the difference, I guess, between just strolling through an art gallery versus going and examining every painting and sculpture up close.

Just the thing to revive you after a synesthesia test.

Next up was the CD, which contained 99 five-second tracks of sounds ranging from spoken words to foghorns to animal noises. (My neighbours, if they didn’t think I was totally nuts before, are now assured of having a madwoman next door.)

This is where things got really interesting (for me, anyway) because I was astonished to discover that where the CD repeated a word that had been printed on the sheet in the previous test, my brain lit up with the same colour(s): in other words, December was blue, London was red and green, and joy was yellow, whether they were written or spoken.   

Similar sounds, not surprisingly, also produced similar colours: there were variations on horns on the CD, for example – foghorns, tubas and the like – and all produced variations on a soft, deep blue.

A man’s voice and a woman’s voice speaking the same word produced different colours, although again this may not be true for everyone.

But as I mentioned at the beginning of this entry, the whole experience was even more fascinating than I’d ever imagined, simply because, with very few exceptions, I’d never “looked up close” at the visual effects my brain produces in response to sounds or graphemes. I know that 37 is red and purplish-brown, for example, only because it’s the same for Daniel Tammet and I was really surprised, upon reading one of his books, to discover we have that in common.

But otherwise it’s been like living blissfully inside a kaleidoscope or a giant expanding Mandelbrot set, with colours blossoming and shifting all around me but without ever pinning each one down and examining it closely.

I admit there has always been a part of me that wondered if this was for real, whether I was just a “synesthesia wannabe,” but after yesterday there’s no doubt at all in my mind. If I weren’t so worried about being carted off to the funny farm, I’d probably start carrying those Pantone sheets and a notebook around with me all the time, cataloguing every single thing I see….

The human brain is such a fascinating machine, and being given a chance to look at the workings of one’s own brain, without having to have an MRI or any medical intervention at all, is one of the most amazing opportunities I’ve ever had.

Stay tuned for Synesthesia Test, Part Three: the DNA sample and … ??


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