Sensorium

A Quest to Understand Extraordinary Experiences of Sense

What Color Is the Word Facebook?

Syed Jaffery starts a Facebook synesthesia page and "synnies" flock to it.

What if you threw a party and nearly 2,000 people showed up? That's something like the experience of Syed Jaffery, once a lone synesthete in the neurological wilderness, and now den father and  diplomatic moderator and referee to 1,800 synesthetes from around the globe.

Syed Jaffery
Syed Jaffery, creator of a new Facebook page dedicated to synesthesia.
Courtesy Syed Jaffery
The newly aware "synnie" decided it would be fun to have a conversation with a few like-minded experiencers so he started the page with the title that just grabs you: "I Have Synesthesia: I'm Not a Freak, I'm a Synesthete." Soon he had a dozen participants, then 100, then 1,000.

The vibrant forum is an open discussion in which synnies can pose questions, share their colored alphabets and musical notes, post related artwork and generally find community. Researchers also participate and add their points of view and openly seek test subjects there.

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I had to ask Mr. Jaffery more about himself:

When did you find you were a synesthete? Which forms do you have?

It was by happenstance when in a conversation during a car ride at lunch in 2007 I found out what grapheme synesthesia was. I thought it was interesting and could lead to deep creative thoughts, but felt left out since I don’t have this ability to sense colors from text. I just happened to mention that instead of visualizing colors to letters and numbers I had a “weird” way of viewing time, where the months and the days of the week appeared in a geometric arrangement in space. Not literally of course, not that I could see this but it was how I always imagined it, visualized the month or day of the week. Within that little conversation I learned that indeed it was another form of synesthesia called Spatial Synesthesia.

 

Syed Jaffery's Synesthetic Calendar
This is how Mr. Jaffery sees his calendar synesthetically.
Courtesy Syed Jaffery
Elated, I wanted to find out more and did a little bit of research on Google. I did so with excitement, some concern and with a bit of skepticism, all wrapped in the question of what this meant for me. I created the Facebook group shortly after within a week sometime in the fall of 2007, I believe. I wanted to know who else out there had this, if it affected their abilities in a positive way, meaning if they explained things differently such as during math problem solving, navigating from point A to point B, or if it influenced their artistic outlets. I also wondered if they [other synesthetes] suffered from their ability or if it interfered with their daily lives somehow, as if it were too much some days. I felt if I could find others and read about their experiences, then I could learn more about myself. The dialogue in the group has been enlightening so far. I I have learned so much from the discussions of the many forms of synesthesia. It is amazing how we all view the world in special ways.

How was this received by your friends and family?

Well, with a raised eyebrow. It was not a rejection of the idea but as if it was a new sense, the 6th sense if you will, being described to them. I was not met with hostility but just positive curiosity. I really don’t discuss this generally with people, as well it never comes up in conversations.

What inspired you to start the FB page?

In my research of synesthesia, I learned the great inventor Nikola Tesla is suspected to be a synesthete. Already being an admirer of Tesla and finding out about his synesthesia further motivated me, in fact it was the tipping point towards creating the group. I wanted to tell others of this because even though synesthesia is so blandly included as part of the neurological conditions taxonomy, there is a more personal and relatable side of this ability and by that I mean there are other great figures in history that were synesthetes. I remember thinking that others with questions or concerns about their own abilities would find this information useful and might even put their minds at ease knowing that great people have done great things and this ability might have helped them to achieve such greatness.

Are you surprised so many synnies showed up there? How many now? 1,800 plus?

I am surprised at how many members found this group and joined on their own accord. I didn’t have to market this group out there. I had no motivation to do so as I was looking for others who were also curious about synesthesia and were actively looking for answers themselves. I hoped those curious minds would come find their way to my group, join and start contributing their experiences. Luckily, that is exactly what happened, and now with well over 1800 members, there are many conversations from satire to more serious issues about synesthesia being discussed every day. The group has really become a community and everyone’s tenor usually is positive and one of confidence bolstering towards everyone. It is what I call a safe community and I advocate care in our discussions to ensure we all can contribute openly without judgment. This is especially important to the success of learning from each other to have a safe place where we can discuss this ability which most of us keep private. I am proud to say that in this virtual world of blog trollers, and alike, we are doing OK and our members still feel our group is a safe community to share their thoughts.

How old are you, where do you live, what do you do?

I have crossed over in to the 30’s (the 3rd column of age) in my spatial view of age. I enjoy several things, too many to be honest, but primarily design, the outdoors and photography. Drawing was a hobby I was immersed in from grade school to high school and even during the college years. I found M. C. Escher fascinating and now I think my interest in his work might have been amplified by my special synesthesia.

As for a profession, I am a business analyst in healthcare as part of a clinical informatics team. I am not sure how synesthesia applies to my day-to-day job functions, I have not thought about this much. I suppose I do tend to gesture with my hands a lot when describing the flow of information from one point to another, but then again this doesn’t necessarily have to be due synesthesia. I regularly attend a planning meeting where we discuss major changes and when they will be made implemented months ahead of time. I definitely visualize these future dates according to the way I visualize the calendar year. It to me is similar to a running track, oval in shape, and time progresses counter clockwise, with January at the left end and July on the right side of the horizontally aligned oval. It is how I have visualized the year as long as I can remember.

What have you learned from the FB page?

There are so many fascinating forms of synesthesia. Discussions started by synnies in the group usually describe their daily experiences, social interactions, and how their lives overall are affected positively and negatively from their abilities. It is amazing that someone can actually taste colors! A British car show “Top Gear” did a piece on colors of cars with a synesthete who could taste colors. It is fascinating, the idea that senses are somehow linked in our brains. Some synnies see colors to music, some hear music to certain colors, the plethora of types discussed I did not know existed. It almost becomes fiction, reading the real-life accounts of our synesthesia members. It is this collection of dialogue where I continue to add to my knowledge, gained from these self-reported synesthesia experiences.

What do you think of the state of synesthesia awareness today? It is both celebrated and still obscure in corners, yes?

This ability still dwells in obscure corners of general interests amongst people of various dispositions, from the academic to the plain curious person. There may be a growing interest in this fascinating ability as I have noticed musicians using the term synesthesia in their song titles and lyrics. An example would be the song titled “Synesthesia” by The Thrillseekers, which in-fact I am listening to right now and it has me in a good mood. The fact that “Top Gear” featured it in an episode is a sign that perhaps there is a growing curiosity about it. I found myself wondering if the writers of the movie ‘Inception’ might include a special synesthete amongst them, as the character of Ariadne (Architect) played by Ellen Page created these fantastical worlds, much like the M. C. Escher compositions with similar spacial perspective paradoxes. If so, then this would be another example of how synesthesia could be represented in the mainstream and we might not even know about it in the moment.

What still needs to be done in the synesthesia community -- what are you hearing from the page?

Syed Jaffery
Syed Jaffery.
Courtesy Syed Jaffery
Amongst group members, the biggest topic I have seen discussed aside from the comparison of the different types of synesthesia, is the notion of discussing one’s ability with non-synesthetes who may be their friends or family. There are concerns that this doesn’t always go over well and the group members are wondering about reactions synesthetes get when they first talk with others about the different ways they visualize, feel, taste, sense…etc things around them. I agree with the particular interest in this topic, as this ability contributes to our perceptions which could have an impact on our personality and thus bringing it in to the social realm. I can see how this is a very important topic being discussed in our community.

Personally speaking, an issue of concern or rather curiosity is the actual cause and structure of synesthesia and a synesthetic brain respectively. We just don’t really know at this time how synesthesia occurs and what changes take place in the brain to manifest synesthesia in people. One of our more notable group members, Dr. Richard E. Cytowic, is at the forefront of research to find out just exactly this. From my general research on this topic, synesthesia is commonly referred to as a “joining of senses”. It will be interesting to find out exactly how this happens and what implications that discovery might hold for us synesthetes.

Here is the page: http://www.facebook.com/groups/2226778430/?ref=ts&fref=ts

Maureen Seaberg is an author and synesthete dedicated to advancing understanding of synesthesia.

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