Pictures in their heads

By Allegra Tepper

Eve Bilger ’10 stared down at a vocabulary question on the SAT, feeling pressure from having already spent precious minutes zoning out. She read the question, at a loss for any clue as to the meaning of half the answer choices. Looking at one of the options, a vision came to her mind of an isosceles triangle missing the bottom side, with a gleaming ray at the point where the two sides met. The word was zenith, meaning the highest point or state. The vision seemed to fit the prompt, so she chose it before zoning back into her internal fantasyland. Low and behold, she was right.

Bilger’s vision was an involuntary cross-sensory reaction triggered by the word zenith due to a neurologically-based condition called synesthesia. According to the Journal of Cognitive Science, synesthetes, as synesthesia carriers are called, have cross-wired senses; the stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic and involuntary sensory reactions in a separate pathway. A rare condition with relatively little scholarly research having been done, there are over 60 reported types of synesthesia. According to Andy Woo, a neurologist practicing in Santa Monica, certain studies have reported that up to one percent of the population might have some form of the condition, but the lack of significant research on synesthesia doesn’t back up the claim. Woo said he had seen only one patient with the condition in his 18-year professional career.

Bilger’s most frequent reactions fall under the grapheme to color form of the condition, which, according to Woo, over 60 percent of synesthetes are reported to have, but she also has stimulations under the music to color category. Other forms include taste to touch like a prickly sensation in the finger tips sparked by the taste of chicken, and touch to smell like the scent of cedar wood sparked by the feeling of velvet.

Bilger always knew she had a different way of thinking. She kept that awareness to herself, though, for fear of alienating others and appearing marginally insane.

“I honestly thought I was crazy,” Bilger said. “I was perfectly happy keeping that to myself.”

The night before school began this year, Bilger was sitting in her room listening to music with her best friend, Riley Mate ’10. That night, Mate said something to Bilger that he’d never said aloud to anyone, an involuntary utterance that at the time, just felt right: “This guy’s voice sounds like this.” Mate raised his hand to draw biomorphic shapes in the air to demonstrate what he was seeing. Bilger responded, “Totally.”

The two spent the next four hours talking about their cross-sensory reactions. Not only was it the first time that either of them had shared their experiences in such detail, but it was also the first time they’d ever encountered a like-minded person. Mate described what he saw as his “inner mind’s eye.”

“Every taste, smell, sound or texture has its own accompanying image,” Mate said. “I don’t see it instead of what’s around me, but it’s happening in my head. It’s almost like hallucinating, maybe even a natural high.”

From then on, the two talked about all of the visual sensations they experienced. They compared images of tortilla chips breaking, glass shattering, the image that accompanies the taste of spicy food (Mate described his as bar codes being scanned at increasingly fast rates) and the image of the word “it” (a cactus-like prickly form with dark colored stripes all over). Mate purchased a moleskin notebook so that he and Bilger could document their visions and discoveries.

“After figuring out that we both thought this way, I decided to talk to my brother about it,” Bilger said. “He immediately mentioned [Russian-American novelist] Vladimir Nabokov because he had read that he was known for having this thing called synesthesia.”

Nabokov had the same variety of synesthesia that Mate and Bilger believe they have exhibited. Since neither Bilger nor Mate has felt this unconventional way of thinking has hindered his or her lifestyle, neither of them has seen a professional for complete diagnosis.

Jared Green ’11 is also a synesthete; he associates sounds, tastes and textures with colors. Green’s pediatrician gave him an electronic self-test for synesthesia, which came out 96 percent positive, but there is currently no perfect way to diagnose the condition.

When Bilger told her mother about their discoveries, she began researching famous cases of the condition, including painter David Hockney, and musicians Jean Sibelius, Duke Ellington and Eddie Van Halen. In AP Art History courses, seniors were recently exposed to synesthesia by way of Wassily Kandinsky, who was known to have often transposed his visions to the canvas.

“When I brought it up to my mom, I told her some of the stuff I see, like the number one is blue and it wears brown shoes and it carries a suitcase and wears a little hat,” Mate said. “And the number two is yellow and sort of gets along with the number one. I think she sort of thought I was making it up, being an idiot.”

Bilger nodded in agreement with some of Mate’s descriptions; they both always recognize the letter “I” as white, but Mate’s wears a red striped tie. Likewise, Nabokov also associated visuals with letters; to him, blue letters include a steely “X,” thundercloud “Z” and huckleberry “K.”

“Each number has its own personality, so each math problem has its own little narrative based on the ways the numbers interact,” Bilger said. An example of their mathematic perspective? Both Bilger and Mate independently called the problem 36 divided by 47 “chaotic”—four and seven do not get along.

“For that reason, though, it makes certain concepts really difficult to understand; if the numbers aren’t in the order I see fit, then I don’t really get it,” she said.

Bilger and Mate’s synesthesia has had other negative effects on their academics as well. While the condition occasionally proves helpful for Mate in AP Art History—his acute visual memory and the fact that “sometimes my image of an artist’s name will look like their style of art”—he is often distracted for long periods of time by the visuals triggered by Eric Zwemer’s lectures.

“I have honestly never been able to pay attention in class,” Bilger said. “Unless I am being directly spoken to or really involved in what’s happening, I can’t stay with it. Sometimes my history teacher will just say the most random fact and it will send me off for 20 minutes on this visual trip, and that will be the only thing I remember from the lecture. The one thing that upsets me is I wish I knew the exact way that I could learn best. I know that these classes don’t really work for me. “

Even so, Mate has found a way to make his Synesthesia work in his favor; a student artist, Mate is currently using some of his more pertinent visuals as part of his Advanced Drawing and Painting III Senior Body of Work. He’ll be attending Savannah College of Art and Design in the fall.

Despite some of the pitfalls that come along with being a synesthete, Mate and Bilger are both grateful for their condition, and can’t imagine what life would be like without it.

“It shows me my own creativity, like all of these things I have in my head that I can just whip out,” Bilger said. “Just the collection of everything over your lifetime, sometimes it just floods back. I think of it as a file cabinet, like a big storage unit inside my head.”

While Mate and Bilger have similar forms of Synesthesia, Bilger has one thing Mate can’t relate to.

“I can tell myself I’m feeling things all over my body, tastes, smells, textures,” Bilger said. “I’ll think to myself ‘What do I want to eat right now?’ then just open my mind up and let tastes run through my mouth until I taste what I want.”

“I am starting to understand myself so much better having someone to talk to about it with,” Bilger said. “Even now, I’m just searching for myself. For how much I’ve come to understand since school started, I can’t even imagine how much I’ll continue to understand.”