Guest Post: Synaesthesia

Hey, everyone — please welcome Musette as today’s guest poster, complete with her wacky fonts!  Sorry for the late start, we had the time wrong…

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Is 22 Blue?

Three is yellow.  Five is a pale pink.  Six is a shocking pink.  Two is pale blue.   But 2+2 equals a very dark blue-violet.  22 is silver and white while one, which is black and eight which is green, becomes bronze when it´s 18 and russet when it´s 9.  And 28 Rue Cambon is black and green and very pale pumpkin.

Is this synaethesia at work?  Wikipedia defines synaesthesia thus: from the Ancient Greek σύν (syn), “together,” and αἴσθησις (aisthÄ“sis), “sensation” — is a neurologically based phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.[1][2][3] People who report such experiences are known as synesthetes.

In one common form of synesthesia, known as grapheme → color synesthesia or color-graphemic synesthesia, letters or numbers are perceived as inherently colored

 It is, perhaps, the most regular´ version of it for me.   I tend to speak Common Grapheme:  numbers have colors and days of the week have colors, too (Wednesday is a lovely leaf-green, since you asked)  And I mostly think in color and when I am stressed I can´t always remember if I´m speaking normally or in color, which drives my accountant crazy ( you try working with a nutjob at tax-time who says, “it´spale violet- blue and black´ when what I meant to say was “47“)

But all too often my locked-down´ color references shift when fragrance, colors and numbers collide.    And fragrances have their own color preferences that often are very frustrating because they don´t correspond to the number I have put down for them (for example, Shocking is, of course, the number 6 – but it really isn´t because the SMELL of Shocking is a deep brown, shot with gold, so it´s the number 9.  Lucky for me Chanel No 5 smells black and white and always has been, though I suspect I´m influenced by Mme and her elegant label.  The number 5 will just have to get over it, with its jaunty, cotton-candy pink self.

Awhile back Shelley @ Scentscelf  posed the question “can a fragrance be in black and white?”  There are a couple of them, to be sure, like Chanel 5, but for this poor grapheme most fragrances go tromping through the crayon box, singing a jaunty tune.  A lot of them, of course, are colored´ by their names – it´s tough to not see violet´ in a fragrance named thus (though there is one violet scent that isn´t a color or a number – it´s a dress!) and let´s face it, Vent Vert is just that (at least the vintage is.  The reformulation is more like Vent Acid).  For 30 years I´ve felt I should be swayed by Vacances´ charming green bottle top and liquid gold color but no matter how I try, it remains an intense near-white, like a sunspot, with a smack of bright blue.  Every time I sniff Vacances, for a moment time stands still, the sun blazes white-hot and all the birds stop singing, like  high noon in August.  Her quieter sister, Lucien Lelong pour Femme, is crisp tan with an edge of aqua, though there isn´t a hint of water in the scent.  It´s a yacht I fell in love with 20 years ago – those colors exactly replicated in a fragrance.  I suspect Vacances would be mortified to know she isn´t a Parisienne´s holiday – unless said Parisienne is holidaying in a Wisconsin cornfield.

Mitsouko smells very pale bronze with touches of pale green and mercury bubbling through.  Her number is 37.  I just fell head over heels for PdG´s Drama Nuui – you´ll have to guess the color(s)!

But why on earth is L´eau d´Hiver pale slate-green with hints of very pale lilac? And for such an elegant scent it has a goofy number: 18.

And that´s just the tip of the iceberg but to bore you all to death with my color/number references would just be – you know – boring!  Way more fun to hear what color references you might have.  Or maybe they´re not color references – maybe they´re dress styles or shoes or dog ears or whatever. 

Tell me I am not the only grapheme (or nutjob, as my CPA would say) in the bunch – come play with me!!!  Do you have these same kinds of experiences with perfumes?

And one more question, since I am in a Questioning Mood: have you ever liked a perfume you would hate on its own but you are oddly drawn to because it reminds you of a fragrance you loved at an earlier time? Such it is with Miss Rocaille.  By itself it would drive me insane.  It’s a bit screechy and very thin and not very interesting, but for some reason it reminds me of something I wore in my late-teens, perhaps Coty’s Elan?  The funny part is, I cannot remember a single thing about the actual smell of Elan!  Are there any perfumes that do that to/for you, conjuring up associations with no concrete basis?


 — by Musette/Anita

 Color wheel:

  • Tommasina says:

    I’ve been putting this off but just have to add my own synaesthetic meanderings. (Need I preface this by saying I’m a perfume lover?)

    – I only discovered about 4 years ago that my mother has the grapheme thing: her alphabet and numbers all have colors, as do days of the week, and months. And, to her, aspirin tastes ‘grey’.

    – my days and months have colors – or maybe ‘washes’ would be a better word; but the times of day within the days of the week also have different textures and colors and feels. I can’t really describe it terribly well; but, for example, say the phrase “Thursday afternoon” to me, and it will have a TOtally different feel / vibe / color sensation, etc., from the word “Thursday” – and that’s nothing to do with the grapheme thing, cos I don’t even have that! I have used my visual sense of time to remember appointments and so on: I can ‘see’ where in the day I’m ding what, and it all has a different color / texture, etc. I have thus rarely needed a calendar – though as I get older, I don’t always remember the color or sensation of the time of day for such-and-such a rendez-vous, so have given in and bought a calendar the past few years…

    – like Jarvis and Anthony, amongst other things, I’m a classical musician (but will do Gershwin, etc., when necessary / in the mood~), but had somehow not realized that I ‘saw’ musical notes as colors and shapes. Then, when I was (TG, apparently mis-) diagnosed with Menieres disease, about 3 years ago, I had all sorts of distortions and boomings in my head, and most of the time felt very nauseous and off-balance – both literally and metaphorically – so I didn’t want to sing: I couldn’t properly hear what I was singing. I went to one lesson anyway, and I freaked out when my friend / voice teacher suggested I start warming up with a run of 5 notes, bcs when she played them on the piano, they were the wrong shape and color! And, as I said, I hadn’t realized that I ‘saw’ these things. I guess you could compare it to knowing that your shadow is there in bright light, but never paying any attention to it unless someone says, “Hey, look at your shadow!” I couldn’t for the life of me tell you what color and shape those notes should have been, but they were extremely elongated, dark-orange-brown isosceles triangles, and no way could I sing them!

    – in that lesson, when Beth and I had recovered from this discovery, and I had stopped shaking, she asked what else I could tell her about notes and colors. It mystified me, but I was immediately able to tell her that G# is a sort of chartreuse green;

    – I later realized that most of Beethoven is a teakish-brown with striations just like the wood, with some malachite (ditto on the striations). No idea why that should be, rather than individual notes having colors; I guess it’s the mainly rather melancholy blend of it all;

    – a lot of Mozart’s lighter stuff is a bright, seaside-hotel-shutter blue – again with paler striations (what IS it with the striations? Maybe it’s bcs I’m a Libra and can never decide on just one thing);

    – Schubert’s happier Lieder are often greenish in tone – a sort of shady, leafy, tree-y effect;

    – the key of Eb (flat) major is a sort of dark purplish-brown, with the sort of variations that you get in those constantly-changing screen savers. The colors / notes don’t change; it’s as if they were cut out of already-striated (but not quite) material of some sort. It’s soft, kind of hazy, and it ‘gives’; but it doesn’t change;

    – as I most often sing Baroque music, I also quite often have to transpose down a semi-tone (from A at 440 to A at 415). This causes problems not so much bcs of the transposition per se, but rather bcs of the different colors / shades and feel of the notes.

    OK, off I go with the nice men in white coats!

    Running back in to tell you – as you must know – that there are lots of synaesthesia web sites…

  • Joe says:

    Hi Musette: I’m very late to this comment party, but I found it very interesting. Some aspects of this whole discussion remind me of some of the topics in the books of neurologist/author Oliver Saks — you might like to check out a couple of his books if you haven’t already. The title that comes to mind somehow in relation to this post is “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.”

    Also, my best friend has often talked about taking Thai classes when she spent over a year there in grad school — a roomful of perplexed foreign students with a teacher holding up sheets colored paper for each day of the week and doing repetition drills of the Thai words. Turns out that the whole CULTURE has a day/color association:

    Oh, and about that Drama Nuui — I’m with you. I have a decant and wore it today. I liked it even better than the first time I wore it. I just think it only lasts about two hours TOPS on me unless I try really, really hard to detect it.

  • Jarvis says:

    Fascinating post, Musette. Like Anthony, I’m synaesthetic, am a classical musician, and also a perfume lover. I have grapheme -> colour and sound -> colour synaesthesia, and it has been an endless source of fascination for me. With respect to fragrance, however, I don’t have anything approaching the vividness of those other synaethetic experiences, which leads me to suspect that whatever colours I associate with fragrance are not really synaesthetic experiences. However, when I think really hard about fragrance notes, I sometimes feel like I have a kind of textural experience of fragrance notes: sensations of roundness, say, or scratchiness, or pebbled surfaces, depending on the fragrance note.

    My partner has a rather unusual form of sensation -> colour synaesthesia, in which he experiences physical sensations (both pleasurable and painful) in terms of colour.

  • Anthony says:

    Hi, Musette, I’m a regular reader but have been really busy and am sad I missed this post on the day it came out. I have synaesthesia, am a classical musician, and a perfume lover and it’s amazing how those three things all go hand in hand. Recently on basenotes there was a big thread about reviews and what some people DIDN’T like about certain reviews (rolling eyes TO-tally) and one member said they thought it was useless to describe fragrance in terms of color and I just couldn’t imagine NOT using color to describe a fragrance. Though I guess I have to remember in the end that saying something smells purple doesn’t really help most people 🙂 Btw, I see the numbers and letters in colors and always have and they’ve always been the same but I also see key colors in music and notes as well… Thanks for the cool article! One of the most colorful fragrances for me is CdG Luxe:Patchouli… Have you tried it? If not, do so… I’d be curious to know what you “see” hehe 🙂

  • mj says:

    I am so glad you posted this-ever since I read about synaethesia in the Smithsonian magazine years ago I’ve been fascinated. I’d love to hear more.

  • Zoe says:

    Yikes, your creative formatting was hard for me to read! I speak Common Grapheme as well, but boy, do I have a different accent… Three is a royal blue, and four a leafy green. Two can’t be anything but bright yellow, while the letter e is a richer, golden yellow. A is green, u orange. F and s are lime. Wednesday is light blue, Thursday indigo. Of course, those are the *days* themselves, the *word* Wednesday is predominantly yellow. “Thursday” is a schizofrenic orange and green. Add to that the fact that English is not my native language and you’ll understand how confusing your post was. 😀

    That said, I don’t have any particular synaesthetic experience with scent, and I think it would be harder to separate from the connections we all make through experience: green = leaves, herbs and grass, red = spices and red flowers, yellow = citrus and brightness, blue = marine smells.

  • For me, music is in color; my favorite songs are all in a range of murky blue to pale purple. I can’t listen to some songs because the colors are too harsh and clash and hurt my teeth! Now I feel crazy!

    I was once trying to ask my boyfriend to play a certain song on his ipod; I couldn’t remember how it went, just that “it looks like the color of the sky after it rains”. We found the song though 🙂

  • lunarose says:

    Nabokov and his mother were famous synesthetes. i had a boyfriend, a painter, who would see paintings as he listened to music. i ‘experience’ shapes inside of my body in relation to particular sounds, especially scratchy old recordings of tango or opera (why those one, i have no idea! but it greatly increases my enjoyment of recordings that drive most people nuts.) it’s a very odd and unique sensation, totally dictated by the sounds as they come in.

    i had a roommate who associated colors with particular words and letters. she was a writer as well. i wonder what the association is between being a synesthete and creative output/artistic leanings? i have no synesthaesia related to smell, but it sure sounds fun!

  • Elle says:

    How incredibly cool! And your colors for Shocking and Vacances in particular are absolutely in sync w/ what I would imagine them to be. Trust me, I would never find your color/number references boring. I do hope you post again about more. I’m going to be going to sniff all the scents you mentioned and trying to “see” the colors you mentioned. Oh, and Drama Nuui? Did you settle on a color? I’d need to resniff it to offer my own guess as to what you might perceive it as. I know I didn’t perceive it as dark. For me, jasmine is always light, but this has to do w/ memories of a childhood in the tropics and memories of reading outside under jasmine vines.

    • Musette says:

      Elle, thank you SO much for the lovely compliments – but I have a better idea than you trying to ‘see’ my grapheme weirdness: next time you crack the top on a bottle of scent, don’t overthink it but give yourself a hot second to think about what it triggers in your mind. Might be color, might not. But I think scent triggers a little bit of something synaptic in everyone – just for some of us it is the ONLY way we can see the blasted things.:-w

      Drama Nuui is a weird one for me because it runs parallel to the scent, colorwise, until it hits this weird curve – it’s intense leaf-green, with the crispest white imaginable…and that’s pretty obvious, at least to me (kathleen’s ‘neon’ is my ‘laser’)…..and there’s a lot of very blackBLACK….but then it morphs into something tan? I kept thinking it would be silver – in fact, I would have laid money down it was silver…but no, it’s tan. It’s just so unlikely and has nothing to do with how gorgeous the fragrance is (yeah, March – I said GORGEOUS!


  • hvs says:

    sigh. i’m really envious. or admiring would be the polite reaction. i have two friends with synesthesia – one is a Grapheme, and the other sees colors when he hears music. i imagine things sometimes, but it’s not the same! my only consolation is the Grapheme told me the letter that starts my name is my favorite color, red…

  • sweetlife says:

    I am not a natural synesthete, but it makes perfect sense to me. I can sort of let my mind go fuzzy and put colors/tastes/sounds/sensations together. And of course we all do this with scent on a regular basis, since there is so little vocabulary for it.

    You’ll be happy to hear the Diane Ackerman, of The Natural History of the Senses, is a synesthete, and traces her life as a poet back to a moment when she saw clusters of plums as bats and frightened her schoolmates when she said so.

    How does this stuff affect/work out in your painting life, Musette?

    • Musette says:

      It actually works for me, since most of my paintings have these little tales I make up for them. There’s a painting I did called Niobe (look for it on my website) that is based on the heat of the day.

      Gotta tell you, it’s so refreshing to be able to speak of these things again. El O is a grand guy and all but I can just see his eyes glazing over (or dilating in terror) at the prospect of having to try to unravel this type of conversation, poor thing!


  • March the Impressed says:

    Great post. I’m glad the colors stayed in the text, heh. Ya should have seen me pasting them in there (…. but is this the RIGHT blue? etc.) 🙂

    I now have a sample of Shocking; I will have to go dig it out and see if there are any color associations.

    • Musette says:

      Honeybunny! I am SO sorry! I never even thought about that when I was playing in the paintbox!

      Dang. Tell me you were stuck in the airport, eating a moldy cheese sandwich and this was the only creative outlet available to you at the time?

      Or else you were hiding from zombies and the only thing standing between you and them was translating some colortones?

      Yeah, that’s it! Zombies! Allergic to colortones! Whew!#:-s


  • theminx says:

    I have grapheme → color synesthesia and its always been the best mnemonic device for me. I think it would be interesting to have my sense of smell affected with color as well, but alas, that is not the case – only letters and numbers.

  • Samantha says:

    My paricular version is of tastes…every word has a paricular taste associated with it. I don’t actually taste the thing, but the word will just remind me of a certain taste. For instance, my daughter’s middle name Jane reminds me of bacon. It’s strange, but it is pretty much every word…they all remind me of a certain food or flavor. Like the word noodle it does just remind me of noodles, but take a very similar word like poodle and it reminds me of canned peaches.

    • Musette says:

      oOOH! How fabulous! I’m absolutely loving how so many different ways there are to process information (and the stimuli) and also how many people are brave enough to come forth with that info – most people aren’t willing to do that!

      Thanks to you all for breaking out the info!

      and I am totally grooving on the idea of Jane=bacon.

      baaaacon. Oddly enough, the word ‘bacon’ is lime-green; when I typed it it showed as lime green. Wonder if it will do that anon.



  • Disteza says:

    What a cool post! It’s so interesting to see the differences in how people’s brains process the same stimuli. I happen to be one of those people who learn things aurally (have to hear it to visualize), so I have to make sure I hear people correctly. I’ve had a few unintentionally hilarious mistakes as a result of thinking I heard one word instead of another.

  • mimmimmim says:

    I tend to describe perfumes in terms of textures, although that’s more conscious than anything and probably denotes a horrible lack of vocab…

    • Musette says:

      Oh, I dunno about that:-? I would think describing them in textures would take a rather developed vocab! Would love to know what some of your definitions are – c’mon, give ’em up!!!


  • kathleen says:

    Very fun post! Gets one to thinking

    In my earlier years, I can’t remember when it stopped, but it did, I used to see coloured light around people. I thought everyone did. It probably stopped around the time I learned that everyone didn’t. When I choose a fragrance it is usually based on the colour of what I am wearing as opposed to the style. When I get the first whiff, I get a colour. My hoarded Djedi ((A)), green, brown, bronze. I picture the same colours when I sniff Onda, though I do not find them similar in smell. Chanel No22, silver. Vacances, lilac & pale green. Serge Noir, purple. Drama Nuui, haven’t had enough sniffing opportunity, but there is a neon feel.

    I think I will ponder on this thru the day, and see if it happens in other ways. Maybe I’ll see you later…

    • carter says:

      Just want to add that if ever there was a perfectly named fragrance (in terms of color) it would have to be Iris Silver Mist.

    • Musette says:

      Oh, that’s a shame about the colored light! I’ll bet that was gorgeous!!! Perhaps it will come back to you later, as in your Very Later Years. I think we put a lot of dampers on synaptic impulses as we grow into our adulthood (that sad loss of childhood, as we put away childish things) but as we really age a lot of the restraints are loosened and perhaps we are able to use senses we’d earlier damped.

      Totally with you on Djedi. And I can totally see how you would get the neon in there – I call it ‘laser’ but I suspect we are having similar reactions.

      Your colors for Vacances mimic what I see in Diorissimo. Vacances is, actually, more of a sound for me, rather than color, though I stick by my earlier assertion of that white-hot; you know how it sounds/feels/looks when you are at the beach on a day when the sun is white-hot and you lie in the deck chair (no towels for this creaky old lady) and look up and all color is bleached and you can hear only the roar of the ocean? That is Vacances to me.

      Carter, I cannot recall Iris Silver Mist (I’m largely anosmic to iris, alas)….but it sounds just gorgeous! I’ll be Serge is a synesthete of sorts.


      • carter says:

        I’d bet he is, too. I think that artists in general are much more in touch with their inner children :o) (I really hate that term, but waddaya gonna do?) and that it is the child in us that lets this stuff in…or out…you know what I mean.

        If I had to choose one SL it would be ISM, as long as I could have Bois de Violette, too /:) It smells just like an ice cube feels sliding down your spine on a hot summer day.

  • carter says:

    As a kid I always saw proper names (as well as a random smattering of other words) in color in my head, and always written in script for some reason but most likely because the nuns were doing their damnedest to beat the Palmer Method into me at the time.

    It used to drive my sister crazy because she, Christina, was green and wanted to be blue. My sister Brooks was blue and lorded it over Christina, which I encouraged. In truth, had Christina actually been blue and I would have lied and told her she was green just to piss her off.

    Anyway, dear reader, I lost it somewhere along the way (together with a couple of other things, but that’s a whole other story) and now when I try to recapture it I’m pretty sure I’m forcing the matter, which one should never do.

    • Musette says:

      I agree, it doesn’t do to force it. Grapheme only works (at least for me) if it comes spontaneously. Found that out the hard way, writing this post!


      ps. I LOVE the idea of Christina being ‘green’. To me, Christina immediately conjures a bright yellow. My name ‘Anita’ always conjures a bright reddish/orange which is absolutely NOT in my favorite palette of colours. I’m most drawn to blues and greens……dang. Tell C I feel her pain..

      • carter says:

        I always got my own name as yellow. Christina was (and remains) the type who liked to move the plastic indicator thingie on the Ouija board l-) so needless to say your kind words would be totally wasted on her :d

  • Lee says:

    You’re my favourite >-) in the whole wide world!!!

  • Shelley says:

    Here is what the Facebook status of a musician friend said — for a few weeks: xxxx wishes she were a synesthete. Another friend has a brother who *is* a synesthete, and only discovered that it was a something, and not “nut jobness,” in his adulthood.

    Them’s some totally fascinating, trippy connections you get to make. Potentially disconcerting when you don’t know what’s up, but way way cool to some of us who only get to observe.

    There are people who see colors for certain notes in music. Did you ever read The Phantom Tollbooth, where at one point in Milo’s journey, a conductor raises his baton and starts painting the sky? I sometimes wonder if Norton Juster was a synesthete…

    Anyway…what of perfume? So, you visualize it as color. Probably good that you are not one of those who gets color -> taste translations, right? What if a certain color juice ended up translating as, say, peanut butter? Or brussels sprouts?

    On the other hand, what if a scent translated into tones? timbres? Wow, a scent symphony…

    Okay, I’m fascinated. Not going to venture a guess as to Drama Nuui’s color for you. (Yet…I’m thinking. 😉 ) When I posed the question “can a perfume be in black and white,” I was of course thinking of the classic filmmaker’s/photographer’s choice, and their reasons for selecting one over the other. But I love the idea of considering the question in your terms.

    Silences? That odd color you get when you mix too many colors of paint, but can see striations/swirls of “regular” blendings…heavy on greyish tones…a line of white…with a strong green throughout.

    I love it. Still thinking…

    • Musette says:

      Hmmmm….I don’t know Silences well enough to comment but I love your description of it, nonetheless.

      Hey! Drama Nuui! Drama Nuui! It’s here! It’s here! It’s HERE!

      My brain is really aswirl – I just sprayed it and got a completely different color striation from what I got originally …..I’m going to not overthink it – will be back with the colors anon.



      ps. wonder why there is no whirling around the room, dancing and singing emoticon? Orter be one, imo!:((

    • Musette says:

      I meant to ask you: do musical graphemes find it troublesome? Does it ever affect how they ‘see’ (as in hear) the notes? Show you how much color influences my world – I once nearly bought a house because they’d painted the ramshackle shutters pale aqua. Luckily El O was there, in all his normalcy, and he reminded me that I could always paint shutters pale aqua – but it would be tragic if we had to dig out the basement!


      • sylvia says:

        i know a synesthete with perfect pitch who associates notes with colors. i think every person is assigned a color in his brain, possibly by the pitch at which they speak. he’s a music major so it works out as far as i know.