Synaesthesia - Anyone else writing about it?

Hi everyone,

No, I don’t have it myself (before you ask), although someone close does have a handful of types. One kind I’ve not been able to find out from anything online, is whether ‘sixth-sense’ synaesthesia is a real thing. The idea being along the lines of having my fictional character able to discern in colour other people’s feelings as triggered by their thoughts or actions. (Like I would find it useful sometimes to know when people are being serious, or just kidding / being funny. And no puns please about some jokes being ‘off colour’, which I’ve just done now, haha!)

I’m thinking this would be a useful trait for a detective/investigator type. But the character might stumped as well when faced with a socio-path that feels nothing? Would there be a colour for that, you think?

Appreciate your thoughts.

As far as I know, it’s a legitimate disorder(?), anomaly, found in about 1-2% of the population and congenital. You’re born with it, or it’s a nascent trait that develops early on. I’ve read a couple of books wherein a character - usu. not the MC, can “see”, or “smell”, or “hear” quite literally a varying scope of trouble. Most recently, I skimmed a preview and the main could smell “death” upon a character who was to/would die. As far as encountering a psychopath and their color, a kaleidoscope, of course! The biggest issue I’d have with this device in mystery/etc, is the vague cheat factor. In another genre, I could see a useful interest.

Hey farriz,

This sounds like an interesting idea. As for whether it’s plausible or not, I’d say it is. daniel mentioned people who can smell death on others. My dad can do that, and I’ve experienced it too. I broke a vertebra in my back years ago, and it affected my sense of smell, so I can’t really smell most things, but I can smell death and fear.

As for experiencing people’s feelings in alternate ways, I usually experience others’ emotions as something almost tangible in the air. Anger is hot. Anxiety is heavy. Happiness buzzes. A lie leaves the air feeling taut, while honesty clears that tension. Fear clouds the air, like a heavy fog, and when an old friend is close (even if you can’t see them) the air is charged - like happiness’ buzz amped up really high. I’ve been in places so crowded with anxious or angry people that I hurried home in tears unable to process so many others’ heaviness at once.

When I was a lot younger - through no adult in particular’s fault - I was temporarily around a man who made me very uncomfortable. The air felt prickly around him - like needles prodding my away from him. Later I found out why. He had acted inappropriately toward other kids. It wasn’t something I could explain back then and have only in recent years come to terms with how I experience certain things.

In terms of your character, perhaps someone who feels nothing could be gray - like a blanket of white-noise. If emotion is color, lacking it would leave the carrier colorless.

It’s an interesting idea and a real condition. Synaesthesia is basically when one sensory input triggers another when it normally would be considered unrelated, but a synaesthete’s brain triggers the connection thus allowing them to hear colors, see sounds, and taste textures. I think it’s a way of cross processing information, having automatic connections between sensation and knowledge that others don’t. They can understand things at a different level (wavelength) that the average person can’t access.

One of the most memorable examples I know of for a character having this trait is from the TV series The Librarians. Cassandra is one of three individuals chosen to be a Librarian. They track down artifacts, solve mysteries, and save the world every week. She is a main character and makes much use of her synaesthetic traits which manifest in similar ways to what you describe though not exactly the same. At first she isn’t able to keep the connections from spiraling from one to the next creating an endless pathway through her senses. As the series progresses she learns how to control her abilities more which leads to some interesting plot points.

I think this would be a very useful talent for a detective character. Especially in how you describe it. Most cases of real world synaesthesia (or at least suspected cases) occur in people who are very creative or inventive. So an inquisitive, empathic detective would be a believable synaesthete.
(I feel like I’ve said the topic word over and over, but it’s one of those words that’s just fun to say)

Dear Daniel, dtill and Dess,

This is great!

  1. Yes, the genre-crossing issue is a concern. (I’ve been reading ‘The Agatha Christie Miscellany’ by Cathy Cook which recounts how in the 1920s detective genre writers of the day included in their ‘rule book’ that —(i) supernatural solutions are not allowed; and (ii) the detective must not be helped by either lucky accident or by intuition.

But with science having progressed, might what was considered ‘intuition’ before be viewed now as rationalised thought (by a select mind)? Maybe the trick would be to make it something that the reader can also participate in i.e. be able to deduce from the information provided about how the character’s synaesthetic skills operate. In think also that giving synaesthesia this scientific / less touchy-feely treatment could help to make synaesthete’s themselves happier about sharing their abilities.

Further as relates to the detective genre, the said synaesthete is presently envisaged as a side-kick (to a MC who is more an early Sherlock Holmes-type).

  1. 'Anger is hot. Anxiety is heavy. Happiness buzzes… ’ —It would not be hard to give these feeling colours! I also like the ‘colour-less’ concept in that if the character is accustomed to reading people’s emotions from colour, than the absence of emotion would be something that would confuse and put her off balance. The white noise could be ‘explosive’ in its burst of colourless-ness. Trying to think now, too, of when she might encounter Daniel’s kaleidoscope!

I’ve had such ‘prickly’ feelings too. The air sizzles and in the quiet your own breathing sounds very loud of a sudden, but you can’t explain why. It’s just creepy and you want to run.

  1. I’ll have to go and find The Librarians. Sounds a bit like Harry Potter learning how to hone his magic skills. I’ve read that synaesthetes can also train. Many don’t, however (as far as I know), preferring to keep it hidden. I wonder if synaesthetes themselves like the word? (And what does that make us, the nons? Will have to find a word akin to Muggles now.)

Thanks so much, all.


David Baldacci uses this for his character Amos Decker (starts in Memory Man) who has synaesthesia (the ability to sense an atmosphere/a feeling in color) and also has hyperthymesia (perfect recall). In his character’s case it came from a football injury, which ended his career and almost his life. He is now an FBI agent. These characteristics work well for his character who has some other interesting side effects from the injury, like being totally socially inept, but very focused on solving problems.

Good to know, Neil, Thanks so much!
Memory Man is on my hit list now too …

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Re Memory Man, just found it at my local library —It’s got a list of rave reviews!

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It would make a fascinating character for sure. I’m interest to see where you go with it.

As for naming non-synaesthetes, you could go to Greek which is where the word itself is built from. Just a thought.
I’ve always been one for matching the root language meaning and the sound of a word to invoke the desired mental idea.
(ie. Muggle sounds very basic, not bad, just basic. And makes me think of the word muddle which is how some non-magical or non-fantastical being people muddle through life without the wonder of magic)

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Dear Dess,
I’ve looked it up now … ‘muggle’ was a word before Harry was even born. The Cambridge dictionary online says it’s a person who does not have a particular type of skill or knowledge.
Eg. sentence: When it comes to knitting and sewing I’m a total muggle. (Which true about me also.)
And they list the meaning the word has taken on in the JK Rowling books. Imagine — we could come up with a word to be added to the dictionary one day!
I like your idea about the sound of the word as well (‘onomatopoeia’ or something? Sounds like what it means.) I’ve not studied Greek myself, but do have Greek friends … I’ll think on it more and get back to you.
Or if you come up with something first, I won’t fight you for copyright :wink:

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I think you’d definitely want to choose a word based on the tone and other factors for your novel, like age target of readers. You’re right that ‘muggle’ is a very basic sounding word for a more grown-up detective novel but it perfectly suits the first Harry Potter novel that was written primarily for middle-grade readers. :slight_smile:

I know very little about the condition/ability, beyond simply being aware that it exists. So I would not presume to offer any validation or refute of a sub-set such as you’re proposing (other than the fact that you’re writing fiction, so it doesn’t have to truly exist).

However (and this is why I’m offering my two cents’ worth to this post), purely looking at the science of colours, white is comprised of the full spectrum of colours and black is the absence of any colour, whilst the remainder of the rainbow of colours that our eyes see (unless colour blind or similar) is the reflection of colours that are not absorbed by whatever we are looking at. Technicalities aside, I would think that the greater the emotion/s the brighter and more vivid the colours would be, in effect approaching the white of ‘all colours’ and conversely, a psychopath supposedly devoid of emotion would appear very dark, devoid of colours and virtually (or entirely) black.

There are many books out there (usually fiction, but plenty of people say they can visualise auras in real life) where characters’ auras can be seen by the protagonist and/or their secondary support, and usually the evil characters are depicted as having black auras. So as an accepted ‘trait’ this would work in my opinion.

Dear Kas & All following,

I love ‘two cents’ worths’, they always throw up such invaluable comment! —Thank you.
And, so … Where does it leave us? Although I’m yet to read Memory Man (collection is on Tues. because of Covid restrictions), I have done further research online, as summarised below:

  1. Ideasthesia is the scientific term that better describes when concepts evoke perception. It’s ideasthesia when a feeling (a concept) triggers the perception (seeing colours) … and many types of synesthesias are indeasthesias (!) Example: If tasting something sweet makes your big toe hurt that’s synesthesia (or possibly diabetes). But if when you think of something sweet [a thought/concept] and you see the colour blue [a perception], then this is ideasthesia.
    Since feelings [a concept] causes the character to see colours [a perception], she will have ideasthesia.

  2. People with synesthesia have been called ‘synesthetes’. But ‘ideasthetes’ doesn’t roll off the tongue as smoothly.
    Playing off the words’ meanings and sounds (and what other words they also sound like), I’m toying with the word ‘Totus’ for people with this type of intuition and feelings-triggered ideasthesia, and those without it (being ‘****totally asynesthet**e’) would be referred to as ‘Toast’. It’s not any meaner than ‘Muggles’, surely!

  3. What colours for what feelings (and lack thereof): The current thinking on ideasthesia seems to point to the designation of colours being according to individual preference i.e. what the ‘Totus’ decided to label as sad, happy, painful, being deceitful, secretive etc. —as originally triggered at her/his earliest recollection.
    So, like those with what’s said to be the most common form of synesthesia (grapheme-colour, which is when you see alphabets in designated colours), one might see ‘A’ as pink, whilst another is adamant that ‘A’ is always lilac (or whatever other colour depending on the individual synesthete).

Can’t say I don’t like the idea of the character being empowered to call non-Totuses, ‘Toast’. All ideas are welcomed.

Thanks again

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I should probably mention that ‘totus’, whilst I initially thought only means ‘complete’ (in Latin), has also been given the following meanings:

  1. Teleprompter Of The Unites States —Is this really a thing? (Not the machine, but the use of the term?);
  2. totus porcus, a fake latin translation of ‘to go the whole hog’;
  3. totus tuus, meaning ‘all yours’ when signing off letters in Latin, also Totus Tuus for ‘All Thine’ a motto and beautification anthem of a former Pope.