A friend recently asked what colour Hong Kong was to me. The answer was instant – lemon yellow.
I have no idea why I picture this sunny shade when I hear the words spoken – it’s not like Hong Kong is famous for citrus fruits or balmy weather. If anything you might expect red to be the colour I associate with the territory, given its red-and-white Bauhinia flag, the ubiquitous island taxis, the countless hanging lanterns at Chinese New Year and the auspicious meaning of this bold shade in local culture.
But no – it’s a distinct lemon yellow.
I have synaesthesia, a perceptual phenomenon in which the stimulation of one sense triggers an automatic, involuntary experience in another. For me, the connection lies between the sounds of words and colours: I hear a word and instinctively see a colour I associate with that word. (When I was nine, I wanted to change my name to ‘April’. I was going through a princess-pink phase and wanted a name of that colour, rather than the daffodil hue I pictured whenever someone said ‘Sophie’.)
Synaesthesia can occur between any combination of senses or cognitive pathways; there have been 80 different types of the condition reported across the globe to date. The most common form, which I experience, is called ‘colour-graphemic synaesthesia’, but there are people who can taste words, feel a sensation on their skin when they smell certain scents, or see abstract concepts like time projected in the space around them. Some people even see personalities in letters and numbers – the letter M being shy, or number four being heroic.
Earlier this year, journalist and lexical-gustatory synaesthete Julie McDowall became a viral Twitter sensation when she offered to tell people what their names tasted like (apparently Jesus tastes like a Malteser, and Ross is a sausage roll).
This phenomenon is only thought to affect one in every 2,000 people, and there is strong evidence that points to a hereditary link. In my family, my cousin Daniel sees colours and textures when he listens to music. His favourite song, That Look by Flume (featuring George Maple), elicits bursts of bright yellow, red and orange liquid exploding from a small ball, ‘kind of like a screensaver’. When he hears low notes, he has visions of dark blue, purple and violet tones, which appear in different patterns and shapes depending on the rhythm of the music.
It’s been suggested that having your sensory wires crossed is linked to improved creativity. Famous synaesthetes include Pharrell Williams, Jimi Hendrix, Vincent Van Gogh, Marilyn Monroe and Nikola Tesla. Whether true or not, I have certainly come to regard my synaesthesia as a gift. It allows me to see the world in a totally unique way. Certain experiences, like travel, have become all the more enjoyable because it isn’t just the names of people that colour my mind – it’s places, too.
My gift isn’t straightforward. It isn’t based on the feelings and opinions I have towards a place, nor the surroundings I associate with that particular spot in the world. If that were the case, I certainly wouldn’t picture sandy beige whenever I hear the word ‘Taiwan’ – a place I remember for the delectable beef steak skewers at Shilin Night Market and soaking in the lush mountainous hot springs of Beitou.
Nor would I visualise brown chocolate Minstrels when someone says the word ‘Vietnam’. As delicious as these bite-sized treats are, the shade does not do the country justice – it’s far too vibrant and luscious for that. A gorgeous hue of emerald green, inspired by the exuberant terraced rice fields, would be more appropriate. But synaesthesia doesn’t work that way – it’s immune to emotion and bias. Ask another synaesthete their opinion and they might insist that Taiwan is cobalt blue and Vietnam is burnt orange.
But that is partly the beauty of this gift: it’s unique to whoever owns it. I have been lucky enough to traverse the globe, dipping my toes in beautiful hues along the way. I’ve just moved to the Netherlands – which, incidentally, is baby blue, not orange – and I look forward to filling more of my passport with every colour under the sun. After all, life is about using the whole box of crayons.