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The "Art" of Synesthesia

Walking past the Reid Arts Center, you hear the notes of a cellist, and a rainbow of colors arcs through your head. During geometry class, numbers on the white board form colorful patterns: 1+2=blue. In chemistry class, your teacher explains electron orbitals, while the feeling of that idea brushes your fingertips. It reminds you of the texture you experience when searching for something in your room.

Synesthesia occurs when one sense is simultaneously perceived by one or more auxiliary senses. The Greek meaning of synesthesia is “joined perception,” the connections that synesthetes make, enabling heightened senses and enhanced cognition.

Emlyn VanEps ’12 has a type of synesthesia that joins hearing with sight. Hearing notes on a scale, she recognizes each note as a specific color.

“I don’t physically see the color in my vision. It’s like when I look at something…and my brain recognizes that it is the color red. It’s the same with notes,” VanEps explained.

VanEps’ ability to join sight and sound alters her taste in music. “Certain sounds have colors and textures I don’t like. For example, I don’t like the chromatic harmonica because it plays lots of notes at the same time.”

Despite her exceptional ability, VanEps is not the only synesthete at Deerfield. Carley Porter ’12 and Caroline Kjorlien ’13 associate digits and letters of the alphabet with specific colors, which comes in handy when memorizing phone numbers or peoples’ names.

“Some number combinations are more appealing because of their color. When I see numbers on a page of my math homework, even though I know they are in pencil…it looks rainbow to me,” said Porter.

Although many synesthetes see colors in response to different stimuli, those associated hues are usually different for each person.

“For me, all even numbers are blue and green, ‘cool’ colors. Odds are fiery colors,” Kjorlien said of her personal synesthetic experiences.

Nina Sola ’13 associates numbers with colors. Even more fascinating is her ability to feel the “textures” of ideas.

“In school we want to make connections, and when I think of an idea with a certain texture, I am reminded of another idea—immediately there is a link,” Sola described.

Synesthetes are able to make abstract connections that no one else can see. However, synesthesia can cause difficulties for those who have not fully discovered the scope of their talent.

“The trick is to figure out how it can help you. Don’t adjust the way you think to how people want you to think. Use your brain how it wants to be used. It’s like using a tool for what it was made to be used for,” Sola said.