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Tasting the Color Purple: What it’s Like to Have Synaesthesia

Synaesthesia – 

the subjective sensation of a sense other than the one being stimulated. For example, a sound may evoke sensations of color.

I hope my choice of gif reflects how truly amazing it is to have it. My ‘brand’ of synaesthesia deals with associating colors with letters/numbers I see and foods I taste. I remember when I was 7 or 8 years old, I told my grandparents about how every letter and number was a certain color, “1 is white, 2 is red, 3 is yellow, 4 is blue…” and so on. Of course, none of us were aware of what synaesthesia is at the time, so we didn’t think to explore it further. They did find it intriguing though, how when asked to tell distant family members about my colored alphabet and numbers during Thanksgiving and Christmas, I always repeated them perfectly. Talk about a nice conversation starter. 

It took a few more years for me to discover the taste aspect. One Sunday afternoon after church, my family and I had gathered around the table to enjoy lunch, and for dessert, someone had brought in a chocolate cake. As soon as I took a bite, I remember saying, “This cake is purple!”. After explaining to my confused family that I didn’t literally mean the cake looked purple, I went on to describe how, for some reason, this piece of chocolate cake embodied the ‘essence’ of the color purple. It tasted purple, it was purple. Later, I’d discover that potatoes tasted like a dark maroon, and peanut butter was a lovely forest green. Unlike letters and numbers which all have their own distinct color, my synaesthesia seems to be more selective with foods for some reason! It’s always fun to try new foods now, because I never know if a new flavor will also bring forth a new color.

For the color/symbol aspect at least, these connections are projected into the real world for me. Everything sentence I read is like a rainbow. When I think of someone’s name, for example, I see color.

My name is orange, azure blue, red, black, golden yellow, and white. 

Some others, especially those with sound/color synaesthesia, see colors bursting out into the world “at arms reach”. If you’re interested in knowing more about how sound/color synaesthesia works, visual artist Melissa McCraken provides a great example. She actually transcribes what she sees when she listens to music onto canvas as beautiful, abstract paintings. Here’s her rendition of Prince’s Joy in Repetition

Other than having a sort of quasi-sixth sense, having synaesthesia is fun because science doesn’t know much about it yet. I’ve seen some estimates claim only 1 in 10,000 people have it, while other research hypothesizes one in 300 could have “some variation” of the condition. Why it occurs in the first place is even murkier. Still, while psychologists are diligently working through the hows and whys, I’m just going to continue making my rainbow connections. 

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Claire Biggerstaff is a senior at Davidson College where she's pursuing a major in English. Since her sophomore year, she's been heavily involved with Her Campus and has written for her school's chapter, interned with Her Campus Media, and eventually became the Editor in Chief of her home chapter. Her work as also appeared on publications like Babe.net and The Odyssey. When she's not researching news stories or holding editing workshops with her writers, you can find her enjoying an episode of The X-Files and thinking about how much she loves autumn.
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