San Francisco, USA → Massage Therapist, Writer & Poet→ Synesthesia.
R: Who are you?
CC: My name is Carolyn Cain Hart. Some of my friends call me “CC”.
R: Where do you live?
CC: I live by the ocean in San Francisco, California, USA. I feel really lucky to live in this city. It has a vibrant arts community at all levels….from street art to exclusive galleries. San Francisco is also welcoming to people who wish to fly their freak flag. That’s me and at least half a million other people living in this otherworldly city.
R: What do you do?
CC: I’m a massage therapist, a career I started 23 years ago. But, I’m also a writer. I completed an MFA in Writing at the University of San Francisco a few years ago. Mostly, I write poetry and personal essays. And, I blog about synaesthesia.
R: When did your synesthesia begin? OR Were you born with it?
CC: Like many synesthetes, I was born with conflated senses. I have several forms of synaesthesia: sound-shape, grapheme-color, spatial-sequential, number form, and mirror-touch. I also have a smattering of sound-to-tactile and sound-to-visual texture synesthesia.
My earliest recollections include feeling shooting electric pain course down my legs whenever I saw another person’s wounds or injuries. I also remember I could feel colors in my mouth when I was a little kid. I hated the way burnt orange made the back of my throat hurt. Sadly for me, it was a very popular color in California during the 70’s.
R: When did you figure out other people didn’t have Synesthesia?
CC: So many people with synesthesia don’t realize there is anything different about the way they perceive the world; we think we are just like everyone else, that all people have similar perceptions. As a child, I knew there was something different about me, but I thought the issue was that I was somehow weak or defective. For example, my mother worked as a nurse at the local hospital. She would come home with blood on her uniform, and I just didn’t understand how she could work in an environment where she saw injured people all day. But she did exactly that with great strength, compassion and skill. My older sister wanted to follow in our mother’s footsteps, but I was just horrified by the idea of working in a hospital. And so, it seemed to me that I was incapable or deficient; I thought everyone got shooting electrical pain searing down their legs when they saw blood, wounds, broken bones, etc. But I was too weak to get past the sensation….so surely I must be flawed. That was my logic.
R: Do you feel different to others?
CC: I do. It’s taken me such a long time to orient myself to pretending to be “neuro-normal”. For example, color-grapheme and spatial-sequential synesthesia have given me an exceptional memory. But, I’ve learned rather slowly, that just because I remember very small details about people, doesn’t mean that they will appreciate me revealing those memories. I went to a cocktail party where I was introduced to a woman I met previously years ago. She said to me “It’s nice to meet you” and I said “We met once before. You had just returned from a vacation on Maui where you read JM Coezee’s novel Disgrace”. She looked at me like I was a stalker. It’s taken me awhile to recognize that just because I remember something doesn’t mean that everyone else will share my recollection, or wish to.
At this point in my life, I love to fly my neurodivergent freak flag. I have migraine, hypnogogic hallucinations, synesthesia and mild sensory processing issues with light, sound and texture. But, I really like who I am, with all of my weirdness.
R: In your own words, how would you describe your synesthesia?
CC: Synesthesia is so deeply integrated into my perceptions that I never feel that I can do justice to a description. Let me share with you my day at work so that you can feel what it’s like to have multiple forms of synesthesia.
Typically, I arrive at my office around 7:45. Immediately, I look at my electronic calendar which is on an app on my phone. This scheduling system will show me who has signed up for massage sessions at the technology company where I work as a massage therapist. When I see those appointment on the screen I immediately must orient those appointments in three dimensional space around my body in order to understand what my day is like. So, my 8:00AM appointment will feel like its right in front of my face in a deep maroon color. The next appointment at 9:00AM is above my head, a deep bright pink. Every other appointment that day is aligned in space and by color. They all rise up above me, and appear in the colors that are conferred by my grapheme-color synesthesia. But along with the color that I “see” for each hour in the day, I will also see colors for each name on my schedule. So, if my 11:30 AM client is Mary Jackson, I will see the bright yellow “11”, the emerald green “3” and white “0”, Mary’s first name in red and her last name, Jackson, in purple. This color pattern feels as if it is just above my head and will move closer to my body as the appointment draws closer. This is true for all of my appointments throughout the day.
Before I see my first client, I select a music station from a service like Pandora. I usually like slow electronic New Age music in my sessions because it has the smoothest texture and is the least distracting. But occasionally, a song will come on that has too much sensation for me. For example, the song Miss You by Trentemoller will come on the station I am playing. That song is so full of holes that feel like they pull on the air in the room. I can’t listen to it. But maybe a song that has a smoother shape will play, perhaps Brian Eno’s Thursday Afternoon. There’s plenty of room for me to think with in that song, which is full of beautiful vertical lines. And, I perceive that song in the color of Thursday, transparent silver…like water in a glass. It’s quite soothing.
Mirror-touch synesthesia is such an asset in my work as a massage therapist, it feels as if I have a super-power!
When my first client comes in at 8:00, he is limping. He twisted his ankle the day before, and when he pulls off his sock, I see a deep blue and black bruise. Immediately, I feel something akin to electricity shoot from my sacrum all the way down the back of my legs. It is intense, painful, and comes in waves or flashes that follow the dermatomes, the nerves that give sensation to our skin. The more I look at the bruise, the more likely I am to become somewhat desensitized to it. By the time my client is on the table and I am working on him, its likely the electrical shooting pain is quite mild.
Some researchers like to describe the experience I have as synesthesia-for-pain, which is a form of mirror-touch synesthesia. I also have more “typical” experiences with mirror-touch including mirror-proprioception. So, when I see other people’s bodies, they feel like they are my own; another person’s twisted ankle feels like its mine, not so much from the sense of feeling pain in my own ankle, but feeling as if that other person’s body is superimposed over my own. Mirror-touch synesthesia is such an asset in my work as a massage therapist, it feels as if I have a super-power!
— Vox Synaesthetica (@VoxSyn) October 13, 2015
R: How has your experience with synesthesia evolved? Is it the same as when you were a child up until now?
CC: My synesthesia is exactly the same in regard to sensation and perception. But, my understanding of it is so much greater. I have more compassion for myself. And, some of my synesthesia is much less pronounced as I’ve grown older. I no longer feel colors as sensation in my mouth, although I can remember what those sensations once felt like.
R: What are the features or characteristics of synesthesia?
CC: In addition to my mirror-touch synaesthesia as described above:
– I see all of my letters in colors specific to each letter that have been constant over my lifetime.
– I see all of my numbers in colors specific to each number that have been constant over my lifetime.
– I see the days of the week as having unique color for each day, which have been constant over my lifetime.
– The months of the year each have their own color too. And like my other synaesthesias, they’ve been with me as far back as I can recollect.
– Each present day rises up above my head.
– Every yesterday is physically behind me.
– Every tomorrow is in front of me at me feet.
– The week looks like a wheel with colored spokes that represent each day. This wheel moves in a counter-clockwise fashion.
– The year looks like a larger version of the same wheel, with colored spokes for months, but this wheel moves in a clockwise fashion.
– When I see numerals in ascending order, they appear in patterns rather like a ladder that moves upward and to the left as the numbers increase.
– Music has shape and texture that is wholly dependent on how it sounds, but doesn’t seem to be related to musical notes or instruments.
– I feel sounds on my skin as texture/sensation.
Please see descriptions above for information relation to my mirror-touch synesthesia.
R: Can you see an objects true colors? For example: Do you see the plants as green, the sky as blue, an orange as orange?
I love the enhanced memory that comes with synaesthesia; my earliest memory is from 9 months of age
R: Most synesthetes find their condition enriching. For some synesthetes, it can be unsettling – sounds produce uncomfortable colours, words provoke odd tastes. Can you describe your positive vs. negative experience with synesthesia?
CC: I love the enhanced memory that comes with synaesthesia; my earliest memory is from 9 months of age, which is quite young in terms of recall. But, this great recall is sometimes a problem in relationships, very much so in the case of arguments or disagreements. It’s an unfair advantage, or so I’ve been told…
R: When you wake, is it immediately present?
R: When you go to sleep is it still there?
CC: Yes! I have synesthesia-for-pain in my dreams if I “see” a wound or injury.
R: How does it affect your everyday activities?
CC: See description above regarding my workday. Additionally, I don’t partake of many contemporary entertainments, such as horror films, or amusement park rides or recreational drugs. I’m hyperstimulated just living in this world. I don’t need any more sensory input.
R: How does synesthesia affect your work?
See above. But my career is totally enhanced by having synesthesia. Please also see this article
R: Do you feel like you’re in control of synesthesia?
CC: It controls me…
R: Synesthetes are usually very creative, often talented at music, art or poetry. Pharrell Williams, Tori Amos, David Hockney, Stevie Wonder and many more creatives are syntheses. How has it affected your writing?
CC: Currently, I’m finishing revisions on a novel about a young woman who is a synesthete. I hope I can convey to my readers what it is like to live with synesthesia. My sensorial world is so rich and dense, I hope I can convey this complexity.
R: If you had the option to lose it, would you?
R: Do you think your life would be different without synesthesia?
CC: Yes, I do think my life would be different without synesthesia. But, just like people who are more neuronormative cannot truly imagine life with synesthesia, those of use who have synesthetic perception cannot imagine life without our synesthesia.
R: Synesthesia research began to flourish again in the 1980s, when technical equipment was able to demonstrate that it was indeed a palpably discrete genetic condition. Have you officially been diagnosed by a health professional?
CC: Not yet…
R: Have you sought treatment?
R: How do you best manage it? (medication, meditation, yoga, alternative medicines, or something else)
CC: I manage my synesthesia by fully immersing myself in it!
R: Do you feel like you’re in control of synesthesia?
CC: It controls me….
R: Do friends or colleagues notice it?
CC: Not unless I point out my synesthetic experiences, but I think in general, I’m a little weird and people do notice that. I’ve given up trying to be anything but the way I am.
R: Does it affect your relationship with them?
CC: I’m not sure…
R: Synesthesia is probably genetic. Many synesthetes have synesthetic parents/siblings. Do any of your family members also have it?
CC: Yes. One of my sisters has spatial-sequential synesthesia. I have one niece who has ordinal linguistic personification and another niece with spatial-sequential and mirror-touch.
R: Do you tell people you have it?
CC: Sometimes, but only if I feel they will conceptually understand synesthesia.
R: How do you explain it?
CC: Sometimes, I just use the Wikipedia description. Or, I tell people its a neurological phenomenon that has a scientific basis.
R: Do you know where it comes from?
CC: Scientifically, yes. Spiritually, no.
R: Do you know other people with it?
CC: Yes. I live in a very arty, accepting city.
R: What is your favourite song?
CC: Beethoven’s 7th symphony, 2nd movement. I could listen to it indefinitely.
R: And type of music?
CC: I love American bluegrass music…
R: What does your favourite type of music look like?
CC: Ray like patterns, or circular images, largely vertical, no holes.
R: Does different types of music look different? classical music makes pretty colours and rock music hard shapes?
CC: Rock music can be spikey. Classical tends toward more rounded shapes. But texture and shape are part of my experience….not so much color. And this aspect of my synesthesia, sound to texture is very mild.
R: Would you say your type of music decided by your synesthesia?
CC: Not really.
R: What else does it affect? reading books? viewing art? Photography or Film?
CC: I can’t tolerate violence. It’s not about my sense of ethics, but my sense of synesthetics. And I don’t read the American writer Stephen King. But I think he’s brilliant.
R: Does it affect certain tastes? or foods?
R: Have you read any great books about it?
CC: Anything by Richard Cytowic, but particulalry Wednesday is Indigo Blue.
R: Or seen any movies?
R: What are your plans for the future?
CC: Publish more of my poetry, and writing.
R: Any thing else you’d like to add?
CC: I love this strange and wonderful life.
Carolyn CC Hart is the author of Vox Synaesthetica which features her reflections and insights on the synaesthetic experience.
Her writing on synesthesia has been published on Brain decoder
And on twitter @voxsyn
Rodger Hoefel in conversation with Carolyn CC Hart
Cover Photo by Valentina Sadiul
Other images supplied by Carolyn CC Hart