The letter “S” is red: “Sand,” “sea” and “sky” are all red words. “Rain” is shiny black. “Mist” is green. “Lust” is a sad dull yellow.
Bizarre? Certainly. But not nearly as uncommon as you might think. This condition of mixing up sensations — known as “synesthesia” — affects about one person in 2,000. Most people just intermingle colors with letters, numbers and days of the week. But others experience colored pain or can tell when the cream has gone sour by sniffing its “shape.”
Synesthesia is enjoying something of a renaissance. A hundred years ago, it was all the rage. Artists and composers were thrilled by the creative possibilities, and scientists were trying to untangle its cause. The composer Aleksandr Scriabin believed musical keys had inherent colors; he composed a few pieces calling for a colored organ. The writers Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud and Joris Karl Huysmans all dabbled in the cross-sensory, though whether they were genuine synesthetes is unclear. Vladimir Nabokov was definitely one, and apparently so were his mother, wife and son.
After a long hiatus, artists are once again painting it, composers playing it and writers writing about it. In the past decade, at least four popular books have been dedicated to the topic. The most recent, “Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens,” by Patricia Duffy, is — importantly — the first to be written by someone who actually has the condition.
Synesthesia isn’t easy to fathom. People who don’t have it have a hard time understanding — let alone explaining — what it’s like. Duffy gives us an insider’s view.
Most synesthetes, for instance, don’t realize that there’s anything unusual about the way they think. The numeral 9 just happens to be, say, silver. Or trumpets just always sound blue. They simply take it for granted — and assume everyone else realizes it too. Then one day, they let slip, and their world changes forever.
Not unusually, Duffy made it all the way to age 16 before that happened. On that memorable day, she was talking with her father in the kitchen about how she’d had trouble as a kid learning to write the letter R. “I realized that to make an R all I had to do was first write a P and then draw a line down from its loop,” she recalls saying to him. “And I was so surprised that I could turn a yellow letter into an orange letter just by adding a line.” Father was intrigued.
Almost all synesthetes will say their mixed sensations have been there for as long as they can remember and they have always been the same. The color is an essential element, not decoration, Duffy stresses. “To me, a red O seems as peculiar and wrong as the notion of a triangular O,” she writes. “An O is circular! And it is white!”
Hear, hear. An O is indeed white. But that is one of the few colored letters that we synesthetes can agree on. Duffy describes her yellow P and orange R. Nothing could be more ludicrous: In my world, P is pale blue and R is black.
One of the pleasures of “Blue Cats” is that Duffy lavishes time on details that a lot of her nonsynesthete predecessors failed to properly appreciate. She doesn’t just mention that letters have colors, she analyzes how those colors blend and mutate when they find themselves side by side in a word. She explores the way many synesthetes organize the world spatially. Numbers, for instance, are often fixed in space on what she calls a “number trail.” Years, months and days of the week all have not only colors but shapes and patterns as well — a very particularly tilted loop, for instance, or an endless roller coaster. Through interviews with others with various forms of the condition — painters, a photographer, a composer, a mathematician — Duffy examines the phenomenon of synesthesia thoroughly and lucidly.
She also had the good sense to convince her publisher to fork over for some color photographs, something other authors on the topic haven’t bothered to do. Some of the illustrations — the comparisons of colored alphabets, the colored equation, the depictions of time — are indispensable in understanding what must seem to many to be truly alien concepts.
Duffy is a bit coy about what she thinks lies at the root of synesthesia. Most of her explanations are posed very tentatively as questions, such as “Do synesthetes generally have the capacity to sink more easily into, for lack of a better term, a state of ‘creative reverie’?” or, for you regular folks, “What would happen if … unattended mental processes were attended to?” She stops just short of saying it, but I can feel her longing to belt out: My god, we’re a creative bunch, and so in touch with our inner selves too!
This reliance on a sort of mystical explanation is disappointing, especially when the condition really is a fascinating scientific puzzle. How is it that perfectly healthy and otherwise neurologically normal people can experience color when there is no real color there to be perceived? What happens in such a brain to make the visual areas switch on when something is merely heard, not seen? Are these people born this way, or does something happen early on in their lives that make them distinct? Is it genetic? Are we all a little bit synesthetic?
Duffy can’t be faulted for not having the answers, because there really aren’t any yet. But there are some interesting propositions. She touches so very lightly on these important issues that I almost wish she’d steered clear of the science altogether. Where it does appear, it jars with her otherwise conversational style, as though she transcribed it undigested from tape-recorded sessions with experts.
It’s not as if there wasn’t space for a fuller explanation of what’s possibly going on in synesthetes’ heads. Even with the assistance of generous margins, numerous lengthy italicized quotations and page-numbered photographic plates, the book seems to struggle to reach full length. There is too much padding in the form of unrelated research (such as, out of the blue, a comprehensive listing of Howard Gardner’s “multiple intelligences”), irrelevant musings and personal history.
On this last point, perhaps I can call her editor to account. In her acknowledgements at the end, Duffy thanks him for encouraging her to think more about her relationship with her father. It’s uncharitable of me to say so, but I felt there was rather too much about her father. There were a few too many sentimental tributes, a bit too much family minutiae. Do I need to know exactly which inspirational notes he had fixed to his workroom wall?
As a synesthete myself, I know this book’s description of synesthesia is accurate and true. It tells the real story. Many of Duffy’s readers may be skeptics, though, who question the very existence of the condition, who think it might be fabricated or even some mild mental illness. For this reason, it is especially important that the book be accurate on other levels as well. Sadly, it is peppered with niggling little errors, the kind that undermine your confidence if you’re already having a hard time taking it seriously. A few names are chronically misspelled (Eraldo Paulesu, for one, who did one of the first brain scans of the condition, and, OK, I admit it, my own), foreign words mistransliterated, even the color-coding of the Prague metro lines is slightly off. An earlier oft-cited book is repeatedly given the wrong title, an important article mentioned in the text goes unreferenced, while another that is referenced offers up the publisher’s name in lieu of the journal’s. Are there no copy editors? Are there no fact checkers? What happened to the “keen ability to recall … people’s names, correct spellings of words, even phone numbers” that Duffy celebrates in this very book?
Despite these minor deficiencies, however, the book is a fun and worthwhile read. Whether you’re a nonsynesthete amused by colored words and shapely smells or a synesthete annoyed with the notion of “cat” being a blue word (when it’s clearly brown), either way you’ll shake your head and marvel.