Hearing an image: living with a touch of synaesthesia

Certain images make sounds.  Not sounds that could be mistaken for “real” sounds – no, more like the hint of a sound.  That’s been my life for at least the last ten years.  Or maybe I’ve always been this way, I don’t know.  The reason I don’t know is because it’s like a background noise that I’ve lived with for years – so subtle that I hardly notice it’s there.

When I slowly became aware that this was something unique to me, I figured it was just due to an overactive imagination.  But the noises are really odd.  A sort of humming or clicking sound when I look at complex circular shapes, for example.  At least, I think that’s what I hear.  I don’t really know, because it’s so faint as to be almost imperceptible.  OK, fine, I thought to myself at the time.  Maybe I just “think” I hear these things because to have something like synaesthesia (like Nabokov, Feynman, etc.) is to be unique and special.  Maybe all these sounds were just some strange form of “wishful thinking.”

The event that finally pushed me to accept that my image-sounds took place just when I’d started graduate school.  It was late afternoon. I was on Wikipedia, brushing up on trigonometry.  As I stared at this animation, I realized that it was making a sound.  Clearly, definitely, making the impression of a sound – lower when the ball was at the bottom of the circle, higher when the ball was at the top.  I sent the link to a good friend of mine and asked if it made him think of a sound.

He “heard” nothing.

Since that day, I’ve done my best to figure out what triggers the “sounds” that I hear.  It seems that motion, especially circular or wavelike motion, can bring it about.  Static circular shapes can occasionally trigger it.  However, one of the most noticeable is a pretty girl smiling – that sounds like sand blowing across the ground in the wind.  Unique and definitely hard to connect with the stimulus, that’s for sure.

Being slightly synaesthetic is rather mundane, actually.  It’s hard to talk about your experience because no one else really shares it.  My brother in law suggested that it might help me “see” more in an image than non-synaesthetes do, but I suspect not.  I simply get the information two different ways.  The sounds are so hard to pin down that to this day I sometimes wonder if it’s all just imagination.  And then I’ll glance at some object, thinking of nothing in particular, and I realize that I’ve got a faint suggestion of a sound to go with it.


About glossarch

The word "glossarch" doesn't exist. At least, not yet. But let's pretend it does for a second. The first part is "gloss," a word that comes to us from Ancient Greek via Latin and English. It means "language." The second part also comes from Ancient Greek and can mean "having power over." So "glossarch" means simply "language controller." So what am I doing making up words? Well, I made up an entire language once. It's called Angosey. So I'm the Glossarch of Angosey. I'm currently a doctorate student in volcano seismology (a branch of geophysics). I enjoy writing fiction and poetry, launching balloons, programming, and hanging out with my lovely wife! Follow me on Twitter! Writing and language creation: @glossarch Balloons and science: @bovineaerospace
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One Response to Hearing an image: living with a touch of synaesthesia

  1. I don’t hear sounds associated with images, but I think I am very sensitive to the quality of sounds and to sound in general. I notice sounds like the clacking of cottonwood leaves and the susurration of pine needles — people I’m with don’t seem to notice in ghs same way I do.

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