Paulo Coelho

Stories & Reflections

Changing sound into color

Author: Paulo Coelho

“Let’s stop for a bit. I can’t stand this orange color!”
Where is the orange color? We are at the Trastevere in Rome, and all that I can see are the bars, the people in the streets in this early frozen spring, all this to the sound of church bells ringing. It’s almost night-time on a cloudy day, so we can’t even blame the sun for the optical illusion.
I am strolling with an actress I have known for some time, but we have never had the chance to have a proper conversation. I stop as she requested, but only out of politeness, since this well-balanced professional woman must be crazier than I thought.
We go into a restaurant to have dinner. We order risotto with truffles, and a good wine. We chat about life, and once again she comes out with an absurd comment:
“This food is rectangular!”
She noticed the alarmed expression on my face. Rectangular food?
“You must think I’m crazy; I’m not. At a certain moment in my life I thought that I was color-blind, that I got colors all mixed up. I went to the doctor and discovered that I have a common neurological disorder.”
When I got back home I immediately started to research on the computer and was surprised to find out something that I had never heard of before in my life: synesthesia. A condition in which the stimulus of a certain sense provokes perception in another. Those who suffer from this type of disorder confuse sounds with smells, sights with taste, colors with touch (not necessarily in that logical order).
Some scientific studies claim that the vision of auras in human beings was born there; I disagree with these studies, for I believe that all of us really have an astral body that can be seen when we alter perception. But what fascinated me most in my research was to find out that what we perceive through our five senses is not an absolute truth. Synesthetic people have a notion of the world completely different from ours, though this does not prevent them from leading a relatively normal life. My actress friend works on Italian TV every day, and says that she eventually became used to it.
Delving a bit deeper into the matter, I discovered a study in the British journal Cognitive Neuropsychology. A team of researchers from University College in London, headed by Dr. Jamie Ward, went even further: some synesthetics can perceive colors in emotion-laden words such as “love” or “son”. The vast majority of them end up associating someone’s name with a certain tonality. Ward describes the case of a girl identified as G.W., who simply by hearing certain names had her field of vision entirely covered by a certain color associated with that word.
I learn from an art magazine that the halos that we see around the heads of saints may have been created by some synesthetic painter in days of old, then repeated by others without anyone wondering about the reason for that circle of light. The 1965 winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics once said in an interview: “when I write equations on the blackboard, I note the numbers and the letters in different colors”. One article explains that Feynman belongs to a group of persons for whom the number two can be yellow, the word car may taste like strawberry jam, and a certain musical note may evoke the image of a circle.
Ward says that synesthesia is by no means a disease: “quite unlike psychiatric disorders, synesthetic people have none of their basic functions compromised, but they do have a positive symptom which most other human beings lack”. The big problem lies in school-age children, who cannot understand why they feel things differently from others.
To my great surprise, some studies point out that one on every 300 people is synesthetic (although most say that the ratio is one in every 2,000).
The next day I called my friend and asked what sensation she always associated with me. “Gentle” was her answer.
Well, synesthesia can’t always be logical!

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