I Have Something in Common with Marilyn Monroe—and You Might, Too

Marilyn Monroe had synesthesia, a sensory condition that has led to a broad reconsideration of perception in general.

Photograph by Elliot Erwitt / Magnum

Marilyn Monroe had a condition called synesthesia, a kind of sensory or
cognitive fusion in which things seen, heard, smelled, felt, or tasted
stimulate a totally unrelated sense—so that music can be heard or food
tasted in colors, for instance. Monroe’s first husband, Jim
Dougherty, told Norman
Mailer about “evenings when all Norma Jean served were peas and carrots.
She liked the colors. She has that displacement of the senses which
others take drugs to find. So she is like a lover of rock who sees
vibrations when he hears sounds,” Mailer recounted, in his 1973
biography of Monroe.

I have synesthesia, too. The condition, which has been
described in literature for centuries but only recently studied
scientifically, takes many forms. The word comes from the Greek “syn,”
or union, and “aesthesis” or sensation, literally meaning the joining of
the senses—a kind of neurological crosstalk. Experts have so far
chronicled more than a hundred variations. About four per cent of people
are believed to have at least one variation; some have many. We’re
called synesthetes.

I see numbers in colors, which is one of the more common forms of
synesthesia. For me, three is a sunny yellow, four is bright red, five
is a brilliant green, six is pale blue, seven is royal blue, eight is
muddy brown, and so on. I do Sudoku puzzles by colors, not by the shapes
of numbers. I remember phone numbers by colors, too. If the colors go
together, I’ll never forget the number. If they clash, it’s almost
impossible to recall. When I went to my home town, Ann Arbor, for my
thirtieth high-school reunion, I picked up the phone and called a friend
I hadn’t seen in decades—on a number I remembered (and still do). I hate
the number nineteen: one is white, nine is black. It’s like good and
evil in one number. It makes me shudder.

“Synesthesia is a genuine phenomenon, and people who have it are actually
experiencing the world differently,” Dr. David Eagleman, a
neuroscientist at Stanford, told me. “It alters
perceptions.” Synesthetes tend to have better memories, for one thing.
“They have an added way of remembering something,” he said. I actually
have a rotten memory—except that I’m a whiz at numbers.

Research into synesthesia has led to a broad reconsideration of
perception in general, according to Richard Cytowic, a professor of
neurology at George Washington University. “From the scientific point of
view, it’s caused a paradigm shift. Perception may be due for a
redefinition,” he told me. “Our eyes see, yes, but vision can apparently
also hear. Tactile receptors can also taste. If synesthesia research
continues this way, we may find that we all have a little bit of it in
us.”

Eagleman and Cytowic chronicle varieties of the condition in their book
“Wednesday Is Indigo Blue: Discovering the Brain of Synesthesia.” “A
person with synesthesia might feel the flavor of food on her fingertips,
sense the letter ‘J’ as shimmering magenta, or the number ‘5’ as emerald
green, hear and taste her husband's voice as buttery golden brown,” they
write. The authors selected the title because some synesthetes see time
in colors. Others see months or even years spatially, in three
dimensions, as if laid out in the air around them in different
directions. One of the more unusual forms involves taste, like the
synesthete who said that chicken breasts taste blue.

The actor Geoffrey Rush has spatial synesthesia. He told the
synesthesia expert Maureen Seaberg that, when he was a child, “the days of the week just instantly
had strong color associations. Monday for me is kind of a pale blue, and
I kind of imagine the day like that. Tuesday is acid green, Wednesday is
a deep purple-y darkish color. Friday’s got maroon, and Saturday is
white, and Sunday is sort of pale yellow.”

Artists, musicians, and writers are commonly synesthetes, Eagleman and
Cytowic claim. Billy Joel and Pharrell Williams see music in color.
Williams
once described his
blockbuster tune “Happy” as being yellow with accents of mustard and
sherbet orange. Joel
told Psychology
Today that strong rhythms run, for him, in vivid reds and golds. Soft
and slower melodies flow in blue and green tones. For Duke Ellington,
the jazz maestro, a D on his colleague’s baritone saxophone might be a deep blue, the texture of burlap, while a G on another musician’s alto sax might be light blue with a satiny finish, according to the biography
“Sweet Man: The Real Duke Ellington,” by Don George. In the eighteenth
century, the Hungarian composer Franz Liszt was known
to command his orchestras to play “a little bluer,” or to demand, “That is
a deep violet, please, depend on it! Not so rose!”

Thanks to the advent of neuroimaging, scientists now believe that,
physiologically, synesthesia is produced when regions of the brain
communicate with one another. “Think of it like two countries with porous
borders,” Eagleman said. “In most brains, they stay separate. But, in the
synesthete’s brain, they communicate.”

Evidence indicates that synesthesia is genetic, Cytowic told me.
Vladimir Nabokov, the author of “Lolita,” was a synesthete. So were his
mother and son. “I have this rather freakish gift of seeing letters in
color. It’s called color hearing,”
he told the
BBC, in 1962, before the serious study of synesthesia began, in the
nineteen-seventies. Asked about the colors of his initials, he replied,
“V is a kind of pale, transparent pink. I think it's called,
technically, quartz pink: this is one of the closest colors that I can
connect with the V. And the N, on the other hand, is a greyish-yellowish
oatmeal color.” In his memoir, “Speak, Memory,”
Nabokov describes the
letters associated with shades of green. “T” is pistachio. “P” is the
color of an unripe apple. “F” is the shade of an alder leaf. But
Nabokov’s son, Dmitri, saw letters in completely different colors.
That’s common, even between identical twins with synesthesia, Cytowic
told me.

A couple of years ago, I discovered that one of my colleagues was a
synesthete. Her numbers were totally different colors from mine. For
her, three is red, four is lemon yellow, five is sky blue, six is light
purple, seven is chocolate brown. (It’s common for synesthetes to have
very specific shades associated with letters or numbers or food or days
of the week.) She also sees the alphabet in colors, as do I, but hers
are more vivid and varied. “A” is eggplant purple. “C” is light pink.
“L” is clear and glassy, more like a texture than a color. And “S” is
blue. She can remember names by colors but can get confused by spelling
if a name has both a “P” and an “R.” Both, for her, are shades of green.

If you think you might be a synesthete, too, there’s a test that
Eagleman and Cytowic devised, on the
synesthete.org research Web site. It’s
impossible to fake, Cytowic told me. “Synesthetes have a propensity to
be unbelievably particular in their experience,” he said. The color
wheel offers more than sixteen million shades. One test requires
matching letters and colors—three times. For a synesthete, it’s easy to
repeatedly identify the same color among millions of choices. Fakers
can’t.

Sourse: newyorker.com