Written by Angela Barnes

Voices

My Colourful Secret

Comedian Angela Barnes has synaesthesia, which, she tells Standard Issue, is a little bit complicated and (just) a little bit sexy.

My name is Angela Barnes and I have a secret. It isn’t a dark secret, or a sexy secret, or a family secret. God, I’d love any one of those. No, mine is a secret about how my brain works.

So, here it is, drum roll please… I am a synaesthete. That is to say, I have synaesthesia. No? Literally it means “union of the senses”. That clearer now?

OK, boiled down, synaesthesia is a sort of link between the senses, so that when the brain is dealing with one sense, another is activated. For example, a synaesthete might be able to taste colours, or smell sounds, or, in my case, experience colours and spatial locations for abstract concepts.

When my brain is processing abstract concepts, particularly letters, numbers, days of the week, months, dates, years, number sequences, names and personalities, they have a colour (grapheme-colour synaesthesia). And, on top of the colour, concepts have a precise location in a physical space (Spatial Sequence synaesthesia). Synaesthesia, a bit like the term autism, is a catch-all umbrella term for many different manifestations of the condition.

superhero

Illustration by Harriet Carmichael

Now, I expect you are thinking: “They what? You mean you see a colour when you think of numbers?”

And I take a deep breath and I try to explain “No, not exactly, well sort of. They just ARE a colour. The way that anything non-abstract just IS a colour.”

I really appreciate it’s tricky to grasp, because I struggle to comprehend how people can interpret the world WITHOUT processing information in this way.
I guess we’ll just have to try to get along without fully understanding everything about each other. I mean, I don’t understand why you’re so attached to that shirt, but it doesn’t stop us being friends. Right?

Many synaesthetes go through life completely unaware that they have this superpower (that is my term, I grant you, but I’m sticking with it).

I first discovered I was a synesthete when I was 19 and at Sussex University studying Linguistics. One of my lecturers was the late and brilliant linguist Larry Trask. His book Language: The Basics (a bloody fascinating read, go look it up) was one of our texts. In it, there was a section about this group of unusual people called synaesthetes. I read and re-read it. I went to the lecture about it. Yet, I just couldn’t understand what was so unusual about these people. In a tutorial on the subject, I came clean, and said “but surely everybody thinks like that?” My tutor packed me off there and then to go and speak to Larry. I went to his office, he asked me some questions, and declared, “We got ourselves a synaesthete. Congratulations”.

One of the most common traits among synesthetes, and one that’s the bane of my life, is a terrible sense of direction. I can get lost and confused about where I am, IN MY OWN HOUSE.

You know how sometimes you wake up and can’t work out which way you’re facing? My whole life is like that. The worst places are places with corridors and more than two floors. When I used to work in an office, everyday was like a Choose Your Own Adventure story. Will I pick the right door and end up back at my desk? Or will I choose the wrong door again and interrupt an important board meeting for the fourth time this week?

 

One of the most common traits among synesthetes, and one that’s the bane of my life, is a terrible sense of direction. I can get lost and confused about where I am, IN MY OWN HOUSE.

 

On the positive side, there seems to be quite a strong link between synaesthesia and the arts. Synaesthetic musicians include: Leonard Bernstein, Tori Amos, Duke Ellington, Billy Joel and Aphex Twin. In the 19th Century, it was deemed very fashionable in the music world to be a synaesthete, in fact there are stories of composers faking the condition to make them more popular. And just to prove how cool the condition is, recently Pharrell Williams and Kanye West have both come out as synaesthetes.

Many visual artists are also synesthetic: Wassily Kandinsky, David Hockney and Carol Steen.

I can’t help but feel a bit hard done by. I can’t draw and I am tone deaf. It’s like I have this superpower but I haven’t worked out how to use it. I’m Superman, and the whole world is made of kryptonite.

Rather than in an arty creative way, my superpower manifests in a much less impressive, yet probably more practical, ability to remember dates, phone numbers and quantities. Numbers and numerical patterns appear as blocks of colour in specific spaces in front of me, thus making them easy to remember.

I can still remember the home phone numbers of friends I went to school with over 20 years ago, Kirstin: 736491, Claire: 676022, Kate: 730181, yet I still can’t colour in within the lines, or turn the right way coming out of the train station I use every day.

You may well have some questions at this point. Here are answers to some FAQs:

– No, it is not the same thing as seeing auras. I am a synaesthete, not a charlatan.

– Yes, I will tell you what your colour is, but if it is brown or grey, you are not allowed to kick off. It just is. It doesn’t mean anything about my feelings towards you. Some of my best friends are grey.

– My name is royal blue, thanks for asking.

There are many theories as to why these unusual connections exist in a synaesthete’s brain. Some researchers believe we are all born synaesthetes, with a connection from the left to the right brain that allows us to process the world around us before we have acquired language. The theory goes, that this connection dies out as we acquire language and no longer need it, but, for whatever reason, in synaesthetes, it remains. Nobody is really sure why the phenomenon happens, but this is the theory that makes most sense to me.

greyfriends

Illustration by Harriet Carmichael

Synaesthesia is classed as a “neurological condition”, but it isn’t a “disease” or even a “disorder”. It doesn’t appear in the DSM V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) or the ICD (International Classification of Diseases). It’s just a way of interpreting the world. And I like it.

So, there you have it. I am a synaesthete, out and proud. And wait! I’ve just remembered, my secret IS a sexy one. You know why? Because my orgasms are full of colour. Depending on the intensity, length etc, they are usually on the red spectrum, going from an orangey red to a deep bluey-purple.

Pretty hot huh?

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Written by Angela Barnes

Angela Barnes is an award-winning standup comedian. She is sometimes on TV and the radio and is often in a comedy club near you. @AngelaBarnes