Inside Marcia’s Head: A Glimpse of Synesthesia

by Brandie Jefferson

“We’re in,” Marcia said, pausing before adding, “April.

“OK, May is above that. Then June, June is to the left. July, which isn’t any higher, is also to the left. But August, August is waaaay down at the end of the summer…”

Smilack went on like this on the phone one March evening, walking me through the months of the year, outlining the calendar that she sees perpetually in her left peripheral vision. “It has never changed in my entire life since I first learned the months of the year.”

Smilack has synesthesia, a neurological condition in which the senses are blended. People with synesthesia – synesthetes – often have more than one sensory experience for a single input. So, for instance, when Smilack hears a sound, she also sees a wash of color, or an image.

But along with this one-to-one relationship are a host of other sensory mix-ups involving time, space, gender, and personality that overlay not just her visual perception, but the way she experiences everything from voices to typeface.

“Most synesthete have one trait, period,” Smilack said. “I have like 100. You have to keep that in mind.”

One of those traits is her visual calendar. “The days of the week each have a color,” she explained. “And weekends are bigger than weekdays.”

The names of the month are laid out in front of her, in an oval. The months, each with their own distinct color, and in fonts of different sizes, read counter-clockwise. When she wants to know, say, how many months it is until June, she reads through them, just as a non synesthete would read through the months written on a calendar.

Weekends

“I don’t have a feeling for it,” she explained. “I just have to know where I’m standing.”

Smilack’s experience of the calendar is not singular, it representative of what is called spacial sequence synesthesia, which has been documented by neuroscientist and synesthesia expert David Eagleman, among others. Though it is not unique, her calendar’s counter-clockwise orientation and its elliptical shape are both minority characteristics, according to a study published by Eagleman in 2009.

That’s just one of the ways in which, even in a small population—researchers have traditionally believe that at least 4 percent of the population is synesthetic, though a new study put the upper limit at 24 percent—Smilack stands out.

Smilack is fast talker who pushes a discussion through the Civil Rights Movement to photography to the circus in just a couple of sentences. “Sometimes I’m an artist,” she said. She is actually an accomplished photographer. She is also a writer and former newspaper reporter. Often times she is a research subject. Currently she is an editor, working on a book with Rose Styron, wife of famous author Bill Styron.

For starters, the form of synesthesia she experienced when she heard her photograph in Ravel is called “chromesthesia.” She also hears sounds when she sees objects; her chromesthesia is bidirectional, unusual in any kind of synesthesia.

She puts this to use in her photography, which she uses to try to share what it’s like to be synesthetic with a broader audience.

“I shoot when I hear a chord of color,” she explained. (Though sometimes she feels a texture or smells or tastes something). She looks at an object, and just when the chord strikes, she presses the shutter. Most of her photographs are reflections on gently rippling waters – hence her trip to Venice (“You’d think it would be my favorite city,” she said, “but it wasn’t, the canals were narrow and it was raining, but anyway…”).


Furry Lights & Chimes Credit by Marcia Smilack My initial synesthetic response to this image is one of texture, but I also hear the sound of chimes. It depends on where I focus my eyes. For example, if I focus my eyes on the filament-like edges of the shapes in the top row, I instantly feel texture against my skin. But if I shift my attention to their color and arrangement, the texture disappears and the sound of chimes both surfaces and dominates, as if texture and sound traded places in the layers of my consciousness. It works like this: First, I hear the fifth shape (yellow) in the top row. Next, I hear the yellow shape to its right which is slightly diminished. Then, the sound travels right to left, as the four white shapes -- along with the other less defined shapes beneath the row -- pick up and repeat the original yellow sound in a sequence typical of what I hear when a rectangular metal chime is hit with a hammer.

Furry Lights & Chimes Credit by Marcia Smilack
My initial synesthetic response to this image is one of texture, but I also hear the sound of chimes. It depends on where I focus my eyes. For example, if I focus my eyes on the filament-like edges of the shapes in the top row, I instantly feel texture against my skin. But if I shift my attention to their color and arrangement, the texture disappears and the sound of chimes both surfaces and dominates, as if texture and sound traded places in the layers of my consciousness.
It works like this: First, I hear the fifth shape (yellow) in the top row. Next, I hear the yellow shape to its right which is slightly diminished. Then, the sound travels right to left, as the four white shapes — along with the other less defined shapes beneath the row — pick up and repeat the original yellow sound in a sequence typical of what I hear when a rectangular metal chime is hit with a hammer.


These photographs are the best approximation she can give as to how her senses operate regularly. The shapes and colors triggered by voices and winds and passing cars are not in the forefront. Like transparent clouds reflected in murky water, “If I try to look at it directly, the water goes away. There are so many layers, layers and levels that I see simultaneously in the universe in which all of my perceptions live.”

Embedded in these layers are different modes of synesthesia.

In the most common form of the condition, called grapheme-color, people experience numbers and letters as having distinct colors, no matter what color ink they are printed on; ‘A’ is always orange, ‘2’ is always blue. For Marcia, letters and numbers don’t have colors. They have gender, personalities, families. “The number 2 wears shoes,” she said. “Always.”

An art installation she’s been working on for the better part of 20 years is something of a fairgrounds. She calls it The Imaginary Circus of the Flying Neurons. In the circus are booths that play off of her unique perceptions, such as a spa for verbs. Verbs for Marcia are always exhausted, “They have to do all the work.”

Growing up, Marcia did not speak much about her synesthesia. Her mother was afraid Marcia might be mentally ill. But then one day, when she was 25 years old, she was busted in the laundry mat as she danced to the ‘music’ of the dryer. “I was grooving, then all of a sudden I twirl around and to my horror, there’s another human being sitting there, watching me.”

She tried to explain herself to her one-woman audience. “The more I tried, the worse it got.” But a funny thing happened. The woman, a psychology student, asked, “Do you think you might have synesthesia?” At first nothing the woman said sounded familiar – she was asking about grapheme-color synesthesia. “That meant nothing to me. But then she said something about color and sound. When she said this, I asked if that would explain why the first note I ever played was green.”

At the time, Marcia had been reporting about health and science for the Boston Globe, and since these were the pre-Internet days, she had a room full of medical reference books. When she got home, she cracked one open.

“I found ‘synesthesia between ‘seizures’ and ‘syphilis.’ It was considered a disorder.”

There are numerous theories about what is going on in the synesthetic brain. The most popular is a kind of hyper connectivity in brain regions which regulate the senses in question. In the case of chromesthesia, that would mean more connectivity between the areas of the brain associated with seeing color and hearing sound. In fact a 2013 study showed synesthetes had more white matter—which carries signals across the brain — in the area of the frontal lobe that connects the visual and auditory centers of the brain.

Marcia likes this hypothesis and believes, like some researchers, that everyone was born with these abilities, but that during a “pruning” phase in neural development, we shed most connections, save those we need to survive. “As an infant you have mommy and warmth and food and it’s all a bouillabaisse of information,” she supposed. “As consciousness develops, you start separating these things.”

Her thoughts about the root of her unusual perception are borne of more than just thoughtful introspection. Marcia is active in the synesthesia conference circuit and enthusiastic participant in scientific research. It was after speaking at a conference in Germany that she became involved in research for the blind.

The researchers took photos of black and white objects and, through use of an algorithm, translated the photographs to sound.The researchers asked Marcia to draw the shapes of the the sounds.

“They just played this weird sound and I drew this weird picture and the technician says, in a heavy German accent ‘Oh my god.’ I’m like ‘is that good or bad?’”

Marcia was able to get the researcher to send her the original picture from which the sound was created. “It was a watering can,” she said. And though she didn’t realize it while she was working, “I had drawn a watering can. It had the handle, the spout, everything.”

For Marcia, of course, asking her what it’s like to be synesthetic is like asking me what it’s like not to be synesthetic. “I have no idea how other people perceive or process information,” she said frankly. But she gave it a go, anyway.

“The question is not what do you see, but where I see it. I don’t see it with my outside eyes — when you dream, where do you dream? It’s like a screen inside your head. I have access to that screen every moment of my life,” she said. “I always have.”

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