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Hearing Red: Dream or Disability?

Synaesthesia, or sensory confusion, is so romanticised and misunderstood that the experiences of students with the condition are often swept under the rug

Synaesthesia Cover Image Artwork by Robin Eames

Hearing colours. Tasting shapes. Smelling music.

They sound like side effects of psychotropic drug use. But for the many individuals who experience the misunderstood neurodiversity trait ‘synaesthesia’, overlapping sensory experiences define their daily perception of the world around them.

Scarlett, a USyd Arts student, describes the condition as “a cross-activation of sensory processes.” She experiences grapheme-colour synaesthesia, the most common form, which associates colours with letters, numbers, days of the week, and months of the year. She also has musical and visual-tactile forms, which have allowed her to develop a natural ear for relative pitch and an excellent memory.

It’s easy to hear this and think of it as a ‘funky did-you-know’, or ‘creative advantage’. Indeed, it is common for visual and musical artists to acknowledge forms of synaesthesia within their work.

For UNSW Media/Arts student and Sydney-based creative Wendy, senses are an integral part of developing her art pieces.

“Art is in itself an experience,” explained Wendy. “The fact that we can perceive different things in different ways means that we can change its meaning—artists play off that.”

Wendy believes that senses heighten the human experience of art. Accordingly, she envisions the future will hold a greater quantity of immersive artistic works which engage with multiple sensory faculties.

“The way that we engage now as contemporary artists is hugely reliant on utilising not only one, but multiple senses,” Wendy said. She explains that it’s the best way to communicate and engage an audience.

Many popular musicians including Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and Kanye West claim to possess a manifestation of this neurological phenomenon, adding to the impression that synesthetes have a natural tendency to develop a proficiency for the creative arts.

Wendy suggested that people with synaesthesia “naturally have that gearing towards it, in the sense of seeing colours and being able to harness that kind of perception.”

Yet, students such as Scarlett who struggle with sensory processing disorders feel their account of the condition is often disregarded in the media and popular culture. Despite the many advantages synaesthesia poses for artists, its oft-cited association with artistic achievement neglects the fact that experiencing multiple senses at once can also be incredibly overwhelming—particularly for those who suffer from its more extreme manifestations.

Scarlett has struggled with side effects of the condition throughout her studies, further exacerbated by years of sleep deprivation and a serious trauma she experienced in 2011.

“After this traumatic experience, those associations became so intense that the colours were blinding and demanded a lot more of my attention,” she explained. “The colours would be so intense and so demanding of my sensory bandwidth that it was just completely overwhelming.”

Scarlett described how the excessive sensory input transmitted by letters on a page made reading almost impossible. She would experience migraines and nausea if she forced herself to continue, eventually causing her to feel so unwell that she was compelled to stop. Due to these symptoms, Scarlett lost her ability to read for several years and was forced to abandon her law degree altogether.

Thankfully, she regained her literacy after a long period of intensive occupational therapy at Westmead and was able to resume studying last August. She now implements techniques such as weighted blankets and using a green rather than blue light on her computer screen to reduce the rousing felt by her nervous system.

For Scarlett, achieving her goal of returning to her studies meant overcoming significant misunderstandings of the neurodiversity, as her experience initially was dismissed by health professionals as craziness or merely another symptom of trauma.

“I wouldn’t have gone for three years without being able to read an email had any of the literally dozens of medical people I had seen paid attention to it, and took me at my word of my experience.”

USyd postgraduate researcher Joshua Berger, who is currently completing his third year of PhD candidature in synaesthesia, believes these misconceptions can be highly problematic.

“For people with more extreme forms, [synaesthesia] can be distracting and cause a strong aversion to stimuli which trigger unpleasant concurrents,” he said. Yet, as Berger told me in the words of neurospecialists Ramachandran and Hubbard, those claiming to experience synaesthesia are often dismissed on the basis that they are “faking it, on drugs, or just plain crazy.”

Scarlett praised the assistance of the Disability Services at USyd, who installed voice reading software on her computer to use when her condition is more extreme, and print all her readings on green paper to dull excessive sensory input.

A representative from the Disability Services commented that, “The University has been able to appropriately support students with rare conditions to participate in their degree, to engage in student life and to complete their studies.”

Yet for students who experience synaesthesia on a daily basis, more research and education would assist in relieving the misunderstandings that come from being overwhelmed by the sensory world. Although her senses may be confused, Scarlett is certain about the colourful future she desires: “More people who can understand [synaesthesia] as not a disorder but not a fun party trick either—it is something in between.”