Do You See What I Hear: Books on Synesthesia

When I was younger, my mom and I engaged in good-natured debates about which colors we associated with which numbers and letters. Although our peculiar relationship with color influenced our everyday lives, we didn’t know this mental condition had a name until my sophomore year of high school. As a member of the marching band’s colorguard, I performed in a show called, “Do You See What I Hear?” A synesthete, Michael Torke, composed the songs, which he aptly named, “Green,” “Ash,” and “Bright Blue Music,” based on the colors he saw when he heard notes played in a particular key.

For those of you who don’t know, synesthesia is a neurological phenomenon that occurs when one of our senses crosses with another. The most common kind is called grapheme-color synesthesia, which means we associate or see numbers and letters as specific colors, but some synesthetes experience even stranger or more intense sensory associations, like tasting a sound or smelling a feeling.

Although my mom still hangs onto the ludicrous belief that December is black (seriously, Mom?), I know it is this shade of blue. However, we both agree that Monday is red. If you can’t understand how a day of the week can be a certain color, the best comparison I can make is the Nike logo. Go ahead: study it. What do you call it?

It’s a swish, right? Or a swoosh. Even though I asked you to describe a shape, you thought of a sound. That’s what synesthesia is like, except all the time. (For those of you that didn’t think swish or swoosh, I’m sorry. I’ve got nothin’ for ya.)

If you’re interested in reading about the world’s coolest neurological condition, check out this brief list below! Because I’m completely biased on this subject, I left off any premises that struck me as too dramatic. Synesthesia is fun, guys! Concepts like, “I almost died, so now I’m a synesthete!” or, “I’m failing at life because I’m a synesthete!” just baffle me. My experience (and my understanding of this congenital mental condition in general) is that synesthetes have above-average memories—due to our ability to forge strong associations—and because of that, we often succeed in school and work. Even though I failed epically at Color by Numbers as a kid (because they assigned the wrong colors to go with each number!), I’ve always considered my synesthesia a gift, not a burden. So there! Any other synesthetes out there who want to disagree? Or who want to describe their own experiences? Sound off in the comments!

Blue Cats and Chartreuse Kittens: How Synesthetes Color Their Worlds, by Patricia Lynne Duffy

The Boy with 17 SensesDrawing from research and her own synesthesia, Duffy uses her colorful worldview to introduce us to famous synesthetes and the neurology behind this mysterious condition.

The Boy with 17 Senses, by Sheila Grau

In this middle-grade fantasy, everyone on planet Yipsmix feels, tastes, and sees sound. Not only that but the taste of food varies depending on what they hear while eating, and numbers have their own personalities! (Is 7’s personality cannibalistic?)

Forest of Wonders, by Linda Sue Park

An apothecary, Raffa sees colors when his potions develop properly.

The Man Who Tasted Shapes: A Neurologist Reveals the Illusion of the Rational Mind, by Richard E. Cytowic

After working with a synesthetic patient, Cytowic challenges his own understanding of how the human brain functions.

A Mango-Shaped SpaceA Mango-Shaped Space, by Wendy Mass

This coming-of-age novel vividly portrays Mia’s colorful world and emotional journey through grief, romance, and—the worst necessity of all time—middle school.

The Noisy Paint Box: The Color and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art, by Barb Rosenstock

The only picture book on our list, The Noisy Paint Box captures the sounds abstract artist Vasily Kandinsky heard while mixing paint.

One Plus One Equals Blue, by MJ Auch

(And by “Blue,” they mean orange because 2 is obviously orange.) Social outcasts and synesthetes Basil and Tenzie become enamored with Basil’s charismatic but unreliable mother when she returns from a failed stint in Hollywood.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender

In this less-literal, more-magical interpretation of synesthesia, Rose can literally taste her family’s emotions when she eats the food they’ve prepared.

Shade Me, by Jennifer Brown

Nikki experiences a mystical-premonition version of synesthesia (emergencies are bright orange before she knows they’re emergencies), and she uses her colorful feelings to solve a mystery.

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About the Author:

Biz Hyzy is a graduate of Lake Forest College with a BA in English Literature. She is one of Booklist's editorial assistants for the Adult Books department. In the past, she has worked as a bookseller at Half Price Books and as a writing tutor. When she isn’t reading, you can find her swing dancing or playing games.

2 Comments on "Do You See What I Hear: Books on Synesthesia"

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  1. cathes@plano.gov' Lee says:

    Enjoyed this, Biz! Me, too– I enjoy color grapheme and spatial synesthesia…and yes, Monday is definitely red, and always has been!

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