There has been a surprising amount of discussion about synesthesia over the past few years. I am going to quote the introduction to Wikipedia’s article on synesthesia:
Synesthesia is a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. People who report such experiences are known as synesthetes.
Difficulties have been recognized in coming up with an adequate definition of synesthesia: many different phenomena have been included in the term synesthesia (“union of senses”), and in many cases it seems to be an inaccurate one. A more accurate term may be ideasthesia.
In one common form of synesthesia, known as grapheme → color synesthesia or color-graphemic synesthesia, letters or numbers are perceived as inherently colored. In spatial-sequence, or number form synesthesia, numbers, months of the year, and/or days of the week elicit precise locations in space (for example, 1980 may be “farther away” than 1990), or may have a (three-dimensional) view of a year as a map (clockwise or counterclockwise).
There have been many books published recently about the topic and even by authors who possess this characteristic. In particular, I have recently read:
- A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Mass
- Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant by Daniel Tammet
- Wednesday Is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia by Richard E. Cytowic
- The Man Who Tasted Shapes by Richard E. Cytowic
- Tasting the Universe: People Who See Colors in Words and Rainbows in Symphonies: A Spiritual and Scientific Exploration of Synesthesia by Maureen Seaberg
All of this builds up to why I am interested in this topic. My husband has synesthesia. In fact, he has multiple combinations and forms of synesthesia. I, on the other hand, do not. I find his descriptions of his rich inner world to be fascinating and beautiful. In fact, any of the books I listed above can make a person quite jealous that they do not have synesthesia! Who doesn’t want to dream in a kaleidoscope of color to wake and turn that beautiful dream-scape into a song (Billy Joel, per book #5 above)? The sensory combinations that my husband creates have enabled him to be an amazingly brilliant mechanical designer, machinist, and engineer. At 5 he could look at engines and understand the components, the components that must be inside the engine, and visualize how they moved and worked. He very strongly has the “spatial-sequence” described at the end of the Wikipedia entry – from his own internal circular calendars to what I call his internal CAD model.
Among other forms, my husband also has what is probably the most common form, color-graphemic synesthesia, but it blends with his spatial-sequence in a way that is very interesting. For this quilt project, I wanted to try to understand this portion of his view of the world and attempt to turn his 3D internal visualizations into a quilt. I talked at length with my husband about whether or not he would be willing to help me turn what he sees into a 2D representation, and in the end I think we both learned something from the process.
To start, he described in detail what a single letter of the alphabet looks like to him when he focuses on just that single letter. For instance, when he thinks of the letter “A” it has a color (yellow), and it appears as a 3D shape of the letter “A” in a black to gray gradient space in the upper left of that space. It is as if the letter is tipped and rotated isometrically such that the letter faces the upper right and the left edge and lower edge of the letter are visible. One thing that I did not really know is that he can see this overlaid with what he really physically sees with his eyes, so if the object he is thinking of is super bright or annoying it overwhelms his senses and can really bother him. (Which helped me understand what he means with some of his comments about music and being over-stimulated by our current media-flashy-bright advertising world.)
OK, so to me, that meant I needed to find a gradient fabric that worked with his vision. We spent a lot of time trying to find the right fabric, and in the end, a black/grey gradient by datawolf from Spoonflower was the best choice. I ordered 5 yards of the fabric and fussy cut out the portion that I am going to use for each alphabet letter block.
I also spent several evenings with my husband working to select the correct colors for each letter of the alphabet. This turned out to be harder than either one of us was expecting! We found that some letters of the alphabet are a lot more “shy” and under-toned, and it was difficult for my husband to tease out what color to use to describe them. And associations with words that start with that letter do not really help; instead they seemed to make the process harder, so he would have to focus on one letter at a time and then move on to another letter and we would come back to difficult ones later (even weeks later).
Being the nerds that we are, we started a spreadsheet to track the colors and to see if there was any color variation happening from day to day. It turns out that the colors are completely repeatable and the troublesome letters are always the troublesome letters! After rough sketching what the correct color for a letter would be, I pulled out my Kona solids color board, and my husband picked the correct color value.
The ladies at the Fat Quarter Shop must have really been wondering what this particular order was going to be used for:
From L to R: Amethyst (G), Baby Blue (F), Blue (D, J), Blueberry (E, Y), Bone (O), Buttercup (A), Canary (T), Cardinal (Z), Citrus (L), Eggplant (Q), Kumquat (R), Lipstick (H, K), Red (X), Ruby (N, S), Sky (I, P, U, V, W), Surf (B, M), Tomato (C).
To be honest, the colors are a lot more beautiful and vibrant than I pictured when we were going through the mapping process. After we had finished and before I placed the fabric order, we looked over the color pallet to see the colors not used (greens, tans, softer pastels) and we were not quite sure how the individual letter concept would map into a full quilt top.
After cutting the fabrics into blocks to represent each letter and arranging them into the alphabet, a few patterns become clear. The letters that were hard for my husband to conceptualize are grouped together (the lighter blue fabrics). Vowels are all pale values of their color. And I am jealous that “Y” is not Surf blue! 🙂
The block above is roughly what I am going to create for each letter of the alphabet. I made a pattern sample previously to begin to work through how to piece the blocks together.
Since I spent the day carefully cutting the fabrics for this quilt, I also cut out the alphabet in larger blocks to put together as a pieced back, along with the softer gray gradient to complete the rectangle.
So, in parting, I would like to thank my husband for his patience in working with me. And I would like to acknowledge that while synesthesia can sound amazing, I am also quite thankful that the words on the page do not look like this to me:
My husband is amazing.
Linking up to WiP Wednesday at Freshly Pieced.