It was a chilly March evening in San Francisco, the coalescing Victorians of Duboce Triangle screened ghoulishly by the irrepressible fog. The hushed street saw occasional cars, out of which stepped twenty- and thirty-somethings, mostly alone or in pairs. They clutched coats close, checking lighted phone screens, and disappeared one by one into a stately home in the middle of the block. A door on the third floor landing opened to a living room filled with people, holding glasses of wine as they chatted and mingled. A familiar scene – perhaps a cocktail party or, in San Francisco, a tech networking event. But nestled in the corners of the bay window were a violist, a violinist, and a cellist, looking over music, tuning their instruments, their presence transmuting the gathering into a salon. The room quieted down as people found makeshift seats, perching on sofa arms or leaning on each other on the floor. In a concert hall the lights would be dimming. The living room was soon filled with the sounds of the Beethoven Trio, Op. 9 No. 3 and a selection of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations arranged for string trio. The crowd was held captive by the music for about an hour, and in watching the musicians’ movements it became clear that the charm of the concert was not a one-sided affair. The violist in particular seemed utterly swept away by the music: her eyes closed, she danced slightly in her seat as she played, her changing expressions a reflection of the moods of the music.
After the concert, the small crowd applauded appreciatively and shook itself out of the hour’s reverie. People got up from their seats and began to disperse throughout the house, looking for more wine and conversation. I found myself wandering onto the balcony, where I encountered the dancing violist. Tall, with dark hair and a ready smile, she introduced herself as Christina J. Simpson. We quickly discovered that we had a background in college athletics in common, and chatted about this for awhile as the lights of the East Bay filtering weakly through the billowing fog in front of us. The conversation turned to music, and I asked her about how she became a musician and what playing music was like for her. She began to describe the worlds that opened up when she played, the colors she saw and the emotions she felt. I began to hear the echoing of a long-ago lecture from a college psychology class faintly in my head, and I interrupted her: “Wait. Are you a synesthete?” She smiled. “I am!”
Synesthete: a person with synesthesia. Syn, “with,” esthesia, loosely: “perception” or “sensation.” By this literal definition, all human beings can be categorized as synesthetes, and in a metaphorical sense, we are — we are all people with sensation. Our senses help us move through our environment, constantly taking in information, figuring out why it’s relevant to us, and printing out for us a receipt with only the most salient bits. There is so much information all around us all the time that if we took in and analyzed everything we saw, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched, we’d be paralyzed by data. Our brains quietly winnow for us, bringing some sensations to the fore and pushing others into the background. We take note of the car turning right, the sound of the jackhammer on the pavement, and the smell of the bakery, but when we cross the street it’s the car that gets our attention. We triage, all day.
What color is Tuesday? Exploring synesthesia – Richard E. Cytowic | Source: © TED-Ed/YouTube
Individuals who have synesthesia, who make up 4% of the population, do this too. They experience and sift through the sensations of the world as they move through it, but their unusual abilities in turn evoke unusual reactions to external stimuli. Richard Cytowic, the foremost scientist studying synesthesia, gives the following definition of synesthesia: “…a hereditary condition in which a triggering stimulus evokes the automatic, involuntary, affect-laden, and conscious perception of a sensory or conceptual property that differs from that of the trigger.” To unspool that knotty definition: for synesthetes, the experience of one sense causes the spontaneous experience of another sense, consistently. If you’re thinking Proustianly of a madeleine dipped in tea sparking a series of memories, that’s close, but not quite it. I may hear a person’s voice and recognize that it is my friend, and that she is happy, but a person whose synesthesia is expressed in the form of a sound evoking a smell, may hear the same voice, intuit her happiness, and also smell roses.
It is the interconnectedness of synesthesia, the complex overlay of senses and reactions, that fascinates scientists.
Synesthesia falls into five basic main groupings, explains Cytowic in his book Synesthesia. They are called, with just one variation of each noted in parentheses, colored sequences (letters have individual colors), colored music (a pitch evokes a color), affective perceptions (a taste evokes a color), non-visual couplings (a sound evokes a taste), and spatial sequences (a vivid vision of a number line). So for some synesthetes, words have tastes or shapes — addressing a friend may taste like toast, or there may be something metallically and heavy about the word “book.” For others, hearing a clanging bell may evoke green spots or bright flashes of orange. Still others see letters on a page in distinct colors, or with distinct personalities; “C” is a light blue, or maybe a friendly little girl. These reactions are consistent, involuntary, and specific to the person. Cytowic reflects that the very attributes that characterize synesthesia made it difficult to “prove” in a scientific world that prizes objectivity and replicability across large sample populations. Happily, as technology has improved, so has the ability to test this phenomenon, and the synesthete’s internal consistency of sensation over time gives scientists something to work with other than dubious individual raconteuring. For individual synesthetes, “A” is always purple; Beethoven always tastes like syrup.
Christina Simpson has what Cytowic might call colored music and colored sensations. (Having one form of synesthesia, he says, makes it 50% more likely that you’ll have another kind, so it’s not too surprising that her synesthetic tendencies are doubly cross-modal.) She sees colors, has tastes, and feels emotions when she plays or listens to music, and her world is populated with similar involuntary reactions that come from everyday stimulation. She drinks a glass of milk, and an image immediately materializes in her mind.
“There are elevated green hills that sit below the Alps, like those in The Sound of Music. There are mooing cows. The grass is so green that the milk tastes like earth-juice and the springy, pleasant thoughts of the mountains. The milk is good and moral.”
Christina is highly articulate, but seems frustrated that she can’t quite get across what’s happening in her mind. “It’s difficult and strange to put to words these feeling-images.” She describes having to shut down portions of her awareness in especially stimulating places so that she doesn’t feel overwhelmed. Her life in the Bay Area gives her plenty of opportunities to practice.
“The gray City of San Francisco buildings and AT&T building I live close to are cheap versions of the 1960’s brutalist style I got used to at UC Berkeley. They look like discordant monolithic chords that never stop blaring.”
Her whole life is a galaxy of synesthetic experience, and the sun at the center of these rotating planets is music. Christina grew up enthralled by music. She came from a musical family and was exposed to classical music at an early age, seeing famed violinist Midori (“classical’s Madonna,” she says) perform at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco when she was just six years old. It literally moved her — she remembers squirming in her seat, trying to emulate Midori’s movements. She recalls also the little radio she had tucked under her pillow as a child, the Temptations and Aretha Franklin lulling her to sleep each night. On long drives through the hills of California, her father would play the music of Catalonian flamenco band The Gipsy Kings, which introduced another thread in a growing musical tapestry. “I had never heard this music before and I remember thinking this music must come from the dry rolling hills. I thought the hills were singing this to me and the grass waved with the music.”
She began violin lessons at age five, adding viola at age eight. She loved practicing, and the deeply-felt emotions that came with playing music. At age ten she learned Bach’s First Cello Suite, her process somewhere between architecture and simile:
“After I felt I understood the shape of one very small portion, I would add the next one. I remember thinking of how it could connect to the first and trying to express where it felt the music was going. This group of notes felt like it was wondering something, another phrase might have sounded like it was climbing up an inspirational mountain.”
This combination of physicality and emotional resonance characterizes her musical vocabulary. Pieces are “built,” mastery is recognized when her playing is “the heaviest, most solid thing in the world.” In describing the feeling of learning a new piece of music, she hearkens to her architectural vocabulary, starting with the frame of a building, building up the rooms inside as she learns more of the piece, and eventually taking a walk through the building she’s built.
“I love playing Bach, because his music feels the most architectural to me. [With] some other composers, I’ll just build sketchy structures, but to Bach’s music there are marble arches, vistas through curved stone windows, and when we reach the climax, monolithic structures on top of the green hills.”
One could imagine another musician inventing a similar schema to explain her craft to a layperson, but it is Christina’s vivid, idiosyncratic recollections that give her away as a synesthete. She often employs inventive two-word descriptions to try to capture her multi-sensory experiences, these kennings a testament to the limits of the vocabulary of synesthesia. Her synesthetic sensibilities are “feeling-images,” “flavor-colors,” or “color-tastes.” She expounds on the flavor-color of some classical music: citrusy. “Its bright eighth notes ping like a flying drop of orange juice with light sparkling through. My favorite example of this, and my first time playing a classical chamber piece, is Mozart’s Divertimento in D major, K. 136 (1772). Doesn’t it sound like dancing lemony-orange gold tastes? This might also be because I taste D major as citrusy.” Other composers evoke different feeling-images. “Brahms feels kind of like velvet purple whipped cream. His lines are very long. If you can kind of imagine when people spread icing on a cake, but it’s like that in front of my eyes… purple-y icing.”
[NYCP] Mozart – Divertimento in D major, K. 136 | Source: © New York Classical Players/YouTube
Her synesthesia is present with her always, but she says that sitting in a concert hall as an audience member is particularly potent for her. As the music drifts over her, she sees “a huge landscape of moving colors and textures that are constantly changing with the music. It fills basically the whole space of the hall I can see. It is as if the air comes alive with the music.” She says that it induces a trance-like state in her; she would not notice right away if someone tapped her on the shoulder or tried to get her attention. Even sounds that are adjacent to music, like honks or beeps, can prompt a reaction, especially when they are unexpected or chord-like. “I’ll see them as a sudden blob of color and form. They’ll appear in my field of vision in the direction of the sound – so not right in front of my eyes, but off to the side.” A sense of place often dominates her descriptions. She frequently refers to landscapes and nature, as though drifting above them, and then landing gently in them.
“My favorite piece of music in the whole world is the fourth movement from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. That feels like if stars were spilling a blue waterfall of starlight into a green valley. It’s sparkly but smooth at the same time, and has shivers of beautiful movements. That evokes a whole landscape for me. It’s like being in a place when I listen to it.”
Gustav Mahler – Adagietto from 5th Symphony: Vienna Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein [HD] | Source: Adagietto/YouTube
A curious person and a naturally fast learner, at age eleven she became the youngest violist ever accepted into the San Francisco Symphony’s Youth Orchestra. It was here, surrounded by other talented young musicians, learning world-famous pieces of music, that she began to recognize that she needed some kind of coping mechanism for the colors and images that blossomed in her mind’s eye as the music swelled around her. She was no longer playing individually, totally in control of the music. How could she focus on playing the right notes while flying colors and emotions, stirred up by the surrounding orchestra, sprang unbidden into her consciousness? She began to teach herself how to compartmentalize these experiences so that they could peacefully coexist. “I realized over the weeks that I would have to know the music like my own thoughts in order to do what I wanted to do: get lost in my visions while still executing the notes exactly.”
Her whole life is a galaxy of synesthetic experience, and the sun at the center of these rotating planets is music.
Growing up, Christina was aware that some of her patterns of thinking were not on the same wavelength as most others’, but she figured that among fellow musicians she might find kindred minds. (This was not a bad assumption; many famous artists and musicians are indeed synesthetes. Vincent van Gogh, Duke Ellington, Billy Joel, and Franz Liszt all made art that was inseparable from their synesthetic worldview.) But it wasn’t until college that she was given a word, and a concept, for her experience. A friend who played in a quartet with her, after hearing her describe the colors that flowed as she played or listened to music, revealed that he felt none of what she felt. Christina was astonished.
“I asked him how he understood music, and it was so radically different than mine that my world was rocked. I thought my experience was Music in an absolute sense, that it was the definition of music. He asked me more questions and told me it sounded like something called synesthesia.”
She recalls feeling a little bewildered by this revelation. Though validating, it also reminded her of how set apart she felt from friends growing up. Despite her precocious talent for music and her deep love for it, she expresses a certain ambivalence. “When I listened to music, it was a passive experience. I was not in control. It felt as if I was being played on a harp and was subject to the colors, shapes, and sensations the music might elicit from me.” Now she has a word for it, but she’s still grappling with difference. She knows now that most other musicians don’t experience the world the way she does, and even other musicians with synesthesia don’t experience it exactly the way she does.
Lorde Gives a Muggle-Friendly Explanation of Her Musical Synesthesia | Source: © Late Night with Seth Meyers/YouTube
“It is not something I imagine — it is almost like a physical reaction to something. Like when the temperature drops, you get cold. When the music changes, I see and taste and feel different things.”
Despite some of the frustration that comes from the lack of control, and the difference from others, Christina reminisces about her uniquely sensation-filled childhood fondly.
“I felt like the world was talking to me all the time. Colors were massaging me, wind was singing to me, rainbows were the most delicious thing I had ever tasted with my eyes. The particular green of the grass on a spring morning felt like a spark of electricity that started at the base of my spine and ran up to the top of my head.”
Adding music to her life introduced another color to a hugely expansive palette, and she feels that if she hadn’t begun as a musician she would have found a different way to express herself. She is an artist in a very holistic sense — she loves to paint and dance as well — but music gives her just the right conduit.
“Sometimes I feel like having all these colors inside makes me feel like I am going to burst — sharing them is my favorite way of getting rid of them. After performing I feel clean and light and joyful.”
Christina’s focal point and fault line is music. Her wide-ranging tastes and interests seem to reflect an awareness of this: she pursues activities that help offset the occasional zaniness of her inner musical world in some way. Studying history at UC Berkeley gave her mind some structure, the immutability of the past a refreshing break for her. “I wanted my brain to work so that when someone told me something I could just accept it. I didn’t want my mind to throw it up in the air to look at from all sides, to laugh at it, to connect it with fourteen other things, to turn it upside down and shake out the bits inside.” Sports helped her with this too — she rowed for Berkeley, and found that the rigidity of practice and competition helped her “think in straight lines.” But music, the brightest spot in her synesthetic life, also gave her a kind of needed interpretive space. Her colors, swaddled by a symphony. She is now working professionally as a musician, and though it is challenging, she feels that is just right for her. “I saw the world in music so that was how I had to live.”
If you type “synesthesia” into Google Books’ ngram viewer — which tracks the usage of words in books over time — you’ll see a tiny graph sprout right around the turn of the 20th-century, and a steep growth throughout the rest of the century and into the 21st. The field is making progress, but only since Richard Cytowic began revitalizing the discipline in the 1980’s has anyone given this neurological condition any serious thought. Nowadays, more and more studies of synesthesia are undertaken, and it’s rote for an introductory psychology class. It is the interconnectedness of synesthesia, the complex overlay of senses and reactions, that fascinates scientists; uncovering more about synesthesia can have potentially huge implications for what we know about brain function in general. Christina, too, is looking for answers. She has gotten in contact with a Bay Area researcher who specializes in synesthesia, curious for an expert’s point of view on her everyday reality.
Synesthetes like Christina Simpson remind us that our experience of the world is wholly subjective. We can’t possibly know what a painting or a piece of music will be for someone else, how it will affect his or her senses and emotions. Our reactions are dictated by our genes, our environment, our likes and dislikes — the uncountable froth that composes a human mind. It is perhaps in this liminal space of unknowability that understanding can blossom. Christina called Mahler’s fourth movement in his Fifth Symphony “stars… spilling a blue waterfall of starlight into a green valley.” I can’t see the valley, but the gentle plinking of the melody, set delicately atop swelling strings — it’s both celestial and earthly. I see what she means. Christina, in tracing the emotions and revelations of her musical journey with synesthesia, reminds us to reflect on the totally unique way that we all move through the world, to look in awe at our own colors.
“In the past, I’ve rejected the way my brain works, which has shaped the choices I’ve made. But I’ve gradually come to realize there is a place for me in the world, that there is value to my colorful, seemingly non-sequitur approach. I’m realizing that if I work with my tendencies and leverage the beauty and creativity of my approach to help people, there is a place for me.”
Christina Simpson performs regularly in the Bay Area. More information about upcoming performances can be found here, and more about her can be found here. All photos of Christina are by Titilayo Ayangade, Austin-based photographer and cellist for Thalea String Quartet.