SynaesthesiaPosted: April 8, 2013
So, there’s a concept I think is pretty cool. It’s called synaesthesia.is an acceptable spelling, too, if you don’t like weird silent letters.
Synaesthesia is a sort of mental quirk where completely unrelated things just … seem to be related. There are people who perceive every colour as having a smell. Or sounds as having a certain texture. Or maybe they feel like the letters of the English alphabet each have a personality, and you can know the letter A as a person. It’s not a disability — because it doesn’t impair the person in any way. It’s just their particular way of seeing the world. I’m not synaesthesic myself, but I think it’s a fascinating thing to imagine.
I used to work in an Italian restaurant that made a different soup every day. One morning, the soup was made of roasted butternut squash and the chef had managed to get a bright, richly orange colour to it. I came to the conclusion that the soup looked happy. Hmm, I thought. Will anyone else get this analogy I’ve made?
So I tried commenting to the other servers, “The soup looks kind of happy, huh?” Their reactions were a 50/50 split. Some looked at the soup, grinned, and said, “Hey, yeah!” The rest gave me an utterly blank look. Even when I explained that the warm shade of orange sort of looked happy, they didn’t truly get it and thought I was a bit odd. Ehh, it was worth a shot!
Synaesthesia isn’t that unfamiliar, though. We mix sensations in some of our everyday turns of phrase. Most English-speakers know what it means when someone is acting “cold” toward us: it makes us think of the unpleasant sensation of being physically cold, and the similar unpleasantness we feel when a person speaks snappishly or ignores us. The comparison doesn’t make literal sense but it’s not a far logical leap to make.
Mixing ideas in a synaesthesic way can make a piece of writing more striking, too. I recall reading a fanfiction where a character was described as “calm as leaves” — now, doesn’t that speak volumes? As cool as leaves in a shady grove. Maybe also smooth-textured, so your fingers slip easily over the leaf’s surface. Or maybe rustling, moving, yet still somehow peaceful. That’s what a person was acting like. It’s like the text is inviting you to plug your own perceptions into the story.
But like the happy squash soup, not everyone connects with a synaesthesic description in a piece of fiction. Some people find “calm as leaves” to be a useless, nonsensical description because leaves can’t express emotions.
I wonder if it has something to do with a person’s artistic aptitude. If you’re good with language and colour, maybe your brain is just more inclined to make whimsical comparisons that can’t be logically explained. Whereas if you prefer math and rhythm and order, you wonder what the artists are jibbering about.
Synaesthesia might not be well understood, and its blended ideas might not resonate with 100% of people. But I think mixed sensory metaphors are a fascinating way to describe the world. Even if your brain doesn’t draw the comparisons as instantaneously as a truly synaesthesic person, we can still matching up life experiences so they describe each other. Whenever I add a synaesthesic description to one of my stories, it gives me a glittery little bit of delight.
- Some People Really Can Taste The Rainbow (wnyc.org)
- Aligare in the distant future (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
- Salterra sickness (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)