Miguel Botelho, 38, of Portugal, is not one for broadcasting his synesthesia gifts—nor does he like needles.
Getting a tattoo with the Greek letters for "syn" was a very personal and considered decision for him. I'm honored, then, that he opened up and shared the story behind it and a little more about himself recently. The Greek meaning of synesthesia is "joined sensation," and so his tattoo is the "joined" part.
Why/when did you decide to get a synesthesia tattoo? It's brilliant!
MB: I'd always wanted to get a tattoo. I had never taken the initiative because I'm pretty scared of needles to the extent that I'd rather be sick for several weeks than having to take an injection. Ironically, my mother is a nurse.
Just over a year ago, I was having a coffee with a dear friend of mine and she told me she was thinking about getting a tattoo, to which I impulsively said "if you do, I'll make one too!" So, once she really did, it was the time to face my needle phobia and I would have to tattoo something with real meaning to me and, being something intimate, I did not want it to be too much explicitly so I decided to use the prefix "syn" from synaesthesia in Greek characters which is (σύν) .
Do lots of people ask you what it means?
MB: My closest friends know that I am a synaesthete as well as the meaning of this tattoo, but since I am a very reserved person about my neurological condition, when some curious asks me, I just say it's a personal thing or sometimes I say it's my sixth sense, which makes them a bit confused. Since it is a small tattoo, it passes easily unnoticed.
Where do you live?
MB: I'm from Portugal and I live in a beautiful city in the north called Oporto. I suggest everyone who doesn't know to have a look for photos on google or videos on YouTube. You will love it!
What is your profession?
MB: I am a musician and a financial markets trader as my primary job. Music is my passion.
What forms of synesthesia do you have?
MB: Among others, I have sound to color, smell to color, taste to color and I have personality to color. I belong to the group of people who see "auras" around people. Since I consider myself a skeptical person, I rather call them halos or glows. I recently discovered that I also have mirror-touch and honestly, I don't know if I have any more forms of synesthesia, because it is something that I see and feel as normality and until I discover the differences, I think I am like the others.
When did you first realize it?
MB: When my primary teacher told us to draw our family, friends, etc., I painted their colors around their bodies. My classmates laughed at me and my primary teacher thought I was really awkward and even called my parents to tell them that I had some cognitive problem. So, although it was much later that I found the exact name of this form of synesthesia (personality-color) it was quite early that I discovered that I was a synaesthete. My grandmother, who died before I was born, had exactly the same form and, given the lack of knowledge and information at the time, she was considered insane by some people and some kind of a witch/healer by the others so, since my childhood that I had been advised and educated to keep my synaesthesia in secret as a way to protect myself.
Personality-color is a form of synesthesia that only a few years ago was accepted by the scientific community and even today I believe that many people who say they have the ability to read the human aura are actually synesthetes.
I discovered that I had sound-color when I began to study music (I was 11 or 12) and consequently all the other forms that involuntarily activate my vision sense. Even today I am not sure how many forms of synesthesia I have, since, for me, it's normal and I don't know what it would be like to enter into the mind/body of a non-synaesthete in order to figure out the differences.
How do people respond when you talk about it?
MB: Actually, it's something I try to keep personal. Only the closest people know about it. It arouses a lot of curiosity and, initially, it was quite harder for me to explain and, I believe, even more harder to understand. Some friends of mine, sometimes, as a joke, ask me the color of a certain person and if I consider that person a good or bad guy according to their color.
The musical notes transmit to me different emotional states according to their colors, and the same happens with the color of the people.
A brief example: I do not like the dark pink of the B note, it makes me sad; diminished chords and scale make me angry; some chord progressions make me quite anxious; Other keys cause me joy, others sadness; Others euphoria, etc. I can not hear the Ride of the Valkyries by Wagner, the initial part almost causes me a panic attack... The same goes for people -- I try to avoid people with darker colors; Blue and green people give me good feelings; yellow and red, the most common colors, do not cause me major changes on an emotional level; etc. Usually people have a predominant color that very rarely changes over the years but the same person may have more than one background colors and these may change more easily.
Over the years I have been establishing patterns in terms of personality traits according to their colors, and even within the different shades of each color I can sense some changes. Imagine a friend of mine of blue color, if one day I see him with a darker blue around him, even if he seems thappy and smiling, my perception leads me to believe that something is wrong with him.
I could write much more about my synaesthesia, but it would take many pages and I'm trying to keep this interview brief and concise as possible.
So far, I have only met a person with a personality-color form quite similar to mine, who has become my true friend and who has taught me and helped me a lot to understand it. I am talking about the psychologist, author and talented painter Jan Hunt Dawson.
What do you think synesthesia means from an evolutionary perspective?
MB: Just one simple word: empathy.
Forms like personality-color, mirror-touch, etc. make us more empathetic, and certainly the greater the ability of people to put themselves into the position of others, the better our society and, consequently, our world, will become.
Any links to your work you'd like me to include?
MB: This is a little song I wrote about the dark side of synaesthesia:
And this is a song of my band (FRYO - Quero mais):