She sees sounds as three dimensional shapes moving in space, in a world where most people perceive sound as intangible noise. For her these noises take on a very real presence.
Maya Broder ’13 has synesthesia, a neurological condition in which stimuli of one sense prompt an automatic experience of another. Causes of the condition remain largely unknown, according to The Synesthesia Community, though synesthestes are known to often share a large number of traits including a poor sense of direction, excellent memory, frequent affliction by migraines and heightened introversion and creativity.
Common forms of synesthesia include assigning letters or numbers a certain color.
Broder, though, has something closer to “chromesthesia,” a type of synesthesia in which certain sounds trigger the synesthete to see colors and shapes.
Broder’s condition, however, is not as simple as sounds automatically evoking a color or figure. Broder has adapted to the more normal sounds of her daily routine. The sound of a doorbell, for instance, does not conjure up vivid images of moving spheres or curves. Often, it is simply the ring of a doorbell. It is only when she begins to focus on the sounds around her, particularly music, that she begins to see sound moving in three dimensional space.
“It’s not 2D shape, it’s 3D movement,” Broder said. “I can see where [the music] goes.”
This sometimes helps Broder, a jazz bassist, with arrangements. When the three dimensional shapes she is seeing move better together, her songs often fit better.
She described arranging as getting from one note to another as if following a pathway, but a pathway that she physically sees. This idea helped Broder more fully understand the idea of music enveloping its listener because can she literally see “a space overcome by sound.”
The easiest thing for her to describe is her experience upon hearing “Chameleon” by Save the Day.
“It starts and, to me, the sound looks like it’s spinning in on itself,” Broder said.
While synesthesia is uncommon, Broder’s type is more common than others. Deborah Malamud’s ’13, however, is not. Malamud, as a lexical-gustatory synesthete, experiences a rarer form of synesthesia in which certain words will evoke distinct tastes. Her condition plays a different role in Malamud’s music than it does in Broder’s.
“Sometimes when I’m rhyming lyrics, I won’t like the taste of a certain word, so I’ll either choose a different one or just suck it up,” Malamud said. “Sometimes I have to choose between synesthesia and my song. I like certain names based on taste, too.”
Despite the different way in which they reconcile their condition with their music, according to The Synesthesia Project, both Broder and Malamud’s condition may be linked with their musical inclinations.
According to the Project’s website, “Synesthetes tend to be more artistic, or drawn towards more creative and/or artistic professions and hobbies.”
Renowned artists like Billy Joel, Marilyn Monroe, Vladamir Nobakov, Wassily Kandinsky and Stevie Wonder were all confirmed synthestes. Like Broder, Monroe also saw sound as taking on physical form, seeing vibrations when she heard sounds.
According to the project, most synesthetes are female, outnumbering males two to one, though the explanation for this remains largely unknown, as many of the affected do not realize the way they see the world is different from the way it is perceived by others, and never mention their condition.
Both Broder and Malamud did not initially realize they experienced things differently. Broder only discovered her condition after she began comparing her perceptions with those around her and finally saw a psychiatist who validated her diagnosis.
“I didn’t think it was anything,” she said. “But the more I thought about it the more I realized there were legitimate movements.”
Even though she now understands she has a condition, Broder feels she does not need to be treated by a doctor.
“It doesn’t hurt me,” Broder said.
Malamud, like Broder, used to think everybody was like her before her diagnosis was confirmed.
“I thought everyone had it when I was younger,” she said. “I would say things like ‘Mm, that word tastes great!’ and was oblivious to the stares I received,” she said. “It was only when I read ‘A Mango-Shaped Space,’ a book about a girl with synesthesia, that I realized the condition I experienced was out of the ordinary.”
Her father, a doctor, later confirmed her diagnosis.
Living with synesthesia, Malamud still experiences the occasional problem but, like Broder, has adapted.
“Sometimes it distracts me when I read, if the words taste especially good or bad. That’s why I can’t really read when I’m hungry. But I can push it back and not let it distract me, typically,” Malamud said.
Broder experienced similar difficulties when she was learning piano. She became frustrated because the music she played wasn’t moving the same way as the music she heard. Despite these problems, both have embraced their condition.
“It has definitely influenced my life,” Broder said. “I like how my brain is more of a mystery to me than a lot of other things.”