For Fort Lauderdale high schooler Laura Herman, A is red. Q is purple. G is brown. Two is pink. Rap is salty. And techno is like sweet and sour sauce.
That’s because she has synesthesia, a perceptual condition where she combines two senses in four different ways (letter-color; sound-taste; time-space; and shape-color), which apparently is common among synesthetes.
Laura is not alone. An estimated four percent of the population has synesthesia. And there are over 50 types. For example, some synesthetes associate certain fabrics with emotions. Denim could be associated with sadness, or cashmere with confusion. Others can feel voices on their skin.
Some famous composers were synesthetes. Leonard Bernstein admitted he had synesthesia at the end of his life, and it is hypothesized that Franz Liszt had the condition as well.
Laura is entering her senior year at Pinecrest High in Fort Lauderdale. She only realized she had synesthesia when she was 13 years old, after one of her teachers mentioned that Einstein had the condition. Before that, she assumed everyone saw the world the way she did because more often than not, you are going to question what you see, not necessarily how you see it.
So, let’s try to see the world how Laura sees it.
Laura sees letters in color and numbers in color.
Laura: “I describe it as two layers: when it’s written out, I know it’s black and white. But in my mind’s eye, that TV screen behind your eye where you would see memories, I see the words in their own color.”
These color associations exist for her when she thinks of a letter, reads a letter, or hears a letter. Words also have an overall word color. For example, “Laura Herman” is pink and orange respectively.
The associations between letters and colors can be based on the first letter of the word or a combination of the letters in a word. For example, my name, “Gabbie,” is brown because G is brown for Laura. But, “gravel” is a dark brown because she sees R as dark purple.
These letter-color associations, however, are not etched in concrete. For example, “pig” is pink for Laura even though P is blue. Laura offered a hypothesis. She thinks that as children, we are conditioned to think of pigs as pink, and these color associations for synesthetes form early in life and stick around.
Here are Laura's letters:
This functions the same as letter-color but each shape has it’s own color. Triangles are orange and circles are blue.
Laura: “Classical music is usually sweeter… Rap can sometimes be salty … whereas indie music is kind of like herbs, I guess. And then techno electronic music is tangy, like sweet and sour sauce.”
Out of the four combinations, this is Laura’s least acute. She says she only associates taste with music when it’s really audible, be it live, loud, or includes a strong beat.
And it’s not exactly a taste. It’s more “like a sensation on my tongue in the area of those taste receptors.”
Laura: “Instead of being a linear, horizontal line I see [time] in this distorted fashion around my body spatially… So for example, the 1600s are kind of coming toward me from the left. And then the 2000s end up shooting across diagonally in front of me towards the right. And of course, years are in color and also based on the colors of the numbers…”
This is perhaps the most enviable type of synesthesia that Laura has, making it a prime organizational tool. It acts as one more way to remember a time or date. So, instead of it just being July 16, it could also be that date in front of her to the right.
Laura is a burgeoning scientist and has been doing research on synesthesia through a program at her high school. She has presented her work at various conferences, including the Junior Science and Humanities Symposium and the National Conference of the American Synesthesia Association.
One of the big questions in synesthesia research right now is, why are certain letters associated with certain colors? As a sophomore in high school, she began tackling this question.
After looking at three data pools of synesthetes—one English-speaking, one German-speaking, and one Spanish-speaking—she proposed that the more frequently a letter is used in the language, the more likely it is to fall at the beginning of the color spectrum.
For example, as one of the most common letters in English, A is red, a low-frequency color and one that falls at the beginning of the spectrum. In German, N is one of the most common letters, and most Germans in Laura’s data pool saw N in red. In the English-speaking data pool, however, N was green.
Laura spent this past summer at Harvard. She tested whether she could learn a new language that wasn't based on the English alphabet and avoid making color associations.
She goes off the college next year after graduation and hopes to study neuroscience or psychology.