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Children's and Young Adult

The best books on Synaesthesia

recommended by Lydia Ruffles

How does someone with synaesthesia see the world? How does it contribute to creativity and expression? Author Lydia Ruffles recommends books and suggests an intriguing list of artists who may have been synaesthetes.  

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Lydia Ruffles

Lydia Ruffles was educated at seven schools, three universities and three drama schools. She has travelled in about 50 countries, written lyrics for around 50 songs, and failed approximately 50 driving tests. She’s had ten jobs (ranging from dressing up as a mermaid to leading corporate crisis communications) and been an insomniac since she was two. Lydia is a graduate of the Faber Academy.

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Lydia Ruffles

Lydia Ruffles was educated at seven schools, three universities and three drama schools. She has travelled in about 50 countries, written lyrics for around 50 songs, and failed approximately 50 driving tests. She’s had ten jobs (ranging from dressing up as a mermaid to leading corporate crisis communications) and been an insomniac since she was two. Lydia is a graduate of the Faber Academy.

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Your YA novel, The Taste of Blue Light, was partly inspired by the onset of your own synaesthesia – could you tell me a little more about this?

The original seed of the idea for the novel came a good few years ago when I was in the Tate Modern looking at Rothko murals and had my first experience with synaesthesia. During a migraine headache I noticed that I was experiencing a very strong reaction to the reds and the darks in the painting, as well as to the noise from an installation in the room next door.

It was a very strange experience and I fictionalised it for a really pivotal scene in The Taste of Blue Light. The main character, Lux, is a 17 year old artist who suffers a blackout while she’s doing an internship at a gallery. After this she starts dreaming in red, apart from other strange symptoms, and her life starts unravelling. It’s a story of her trying to get to the bottom of what has happened to her. I think most people intuit that it’s some kind of repressed trauma, an event that happened that she has forgotten about.

Her experience or what happens to her in the book is quite different from what happened to me. Of course, I did draw quite heavily on some of my own experiences. In terms of synaesthesia, in The Taste of Blue Light, it’s synaesthesia as a pathology, a symptom of something.

The book is also an exploration of the idea of creativity and how it can be influenced by love, friendship and developing a better understanding of ourselves.

Can you explain a little more what synaesthesia is?

Synesthesia is a perceptual condition. I’m not crazy about the word condition, because it makes it sound like a disease, but in the absence of any other word to describe it, let’s call it a condition. In this the senses become blended or overlap. For example, take hearing. In a synaesthesiac, stimulation of one sense can trigger a simultaneous response in another sense. So sound might have a colour, shape or a taste attached to it as well as the sound itself. There are thought to be about 80 different kinds of synaesthesia, if you include the various overlapping between the different kinds of senses.

Some are more common than others. Some people will just have one or two of them, some might have more. I’ve heard varying estimates of how many people are thought to have the condition. The statistic that I hear most is four in 100 people, so it’s a rare-ish condition. Most people that have it are born with it. Mine actually developed as a result of a migraine, which happened about 7 years ago. I think that is slightly more unusual.

“In a synaesthesiac, stimulation of one sense can trigger a simultaneous response in another sense. So sound might have a colour, shape or a taste attached to it”

The kinds that I have are some words having tastes. Then I have some associations between colours and emotions and others between sounds and emotions. Those are the main kinds, for me. There’s also another type of synaesthesia—people can’t really agree on whether it’s a type of synaesthesia or whether it’s something else—called “misophonia”, which is to do with your reactions to certain sounds. Having extreme reactions to some noises. That’s it in a nutshell.

We can all be moved by music, moved to tears or joy … how is a synaesthetic response different?

The type of people who have specific relationships with sounds, which would include music, might associate the sound of a trumpet with the colour orange or a specific feeling. When they were listening to that music, they might see a path of orange, or just have a projection of the colour orange, either in their mind’s eye or somewhere in their field of vision. It’s not hallucination. It’s just that sound is that colour for those people.

There isn’t always a consistency in how different synaesthetes feel, smell, or see a specific thing. Someone might think the number nine is a cheeky blue number and others might think it’s a shy, pale yellow. This is where it all gets quite abstract and really interesting.

Perhaps we should begin by talking about Wednesday is Indigo Blue because this book tells us what synaesthesia is in detail.

I first picked this book up because it’s endorsed by the late Dr. Oliver Sacks, the brilliant neurologist, natural historian and historian of science.

Wednesday is Indigo Blue is primarily about perception and people’s different experiences of it. I am by no means a scientist but I did like it for the fact that it’s a comprehensive survey of different kinds of synesthesia alongside research that’s been done into it so far. I found it interesting and quite comforting to see that there is some sort of commonality between experiences. They speak in the book about people’s attempts to rationalise their experiences and that’s something that I can really relate to.

For me, words have tastes. Sometimes those tastes will just be what the word is: pizza would taste like pizza. Sometimes it’s something that on first sight, doesn’t seem to have an obvious link. Some words are much more plausible than others. For example, Sweden has a kind of zingy, citrusy taste. I’ve managed to rationalise that in my mind as, ‘it’s because there’s yellow in the Swedish flag.’ It’s just the way your mind reaches for explanations for things. That’s something that is touched on in Wednesday is Indigo Blue.

There is also a discussion about the fundamental characteristics of someone who is creative. In the book they suggest that people who are creative tend to have good powers of synthesis and they exhibit more flexibility, independence and self-acceptance. They have a higher tolerance for inconsistency. These are attributes that lend themselves to artistic professions.

I think it’s a really wide-ranging book in that way. In addition to being a scientific text it has these philosophical, thought-provoking elements.

I’m really interested to hear how a synaesthetic experience can be used in literature. Tell me about The Velvet Gentleman. 

This is a novella written by Richard Skinner. It’s one of two novellas in the collection called The Mirror. It imagines that the composer, Eric Satie, has died. So far, so true. He finds himself in limbo and he’s faced with the decision of choosing one memory to take with him into the afterlife. That premise allows us to take a trip down memory lane—this particular lane being early 20th century Paris. You get this cast of people from Debussy to Picasso. It’s a really playful story in itself–and interesting as a meditation on creative devotion and the meaning of life. There are many big and important questions handled with wit.

“He talks about green Fridays as being the colour of envy, envy and lies. Monday as being grey ”

Also, Eric Satie is painted as a synaesthete. He experiences his synaesthesia (I believe it’s called “ordinal linguistic personification”) as days of the week being attributed with specific colours and personalities. The book is set over the course of a week. We travel through the days of the week which have different attributes. He talks about green Fridays as being the colour of envy, envy and lies. Monday as being grey, I think he says “as doves and Jesus’s eyes”—which is an incredibly specific reference point.

The reason I chose this is because it is a wonderfully realistic portrayal of how synaesthesia would affect or influence someone on a day-to-day basis. It is a really well executed portrayal of a specific kind of synesthesia. It is also interesting within the context of the story of Eric Satie and 20th century Paris.

Which book would you like to talk about next?

I’d like to talk about The Book Thief. I’ll start with a tiny bit of background to the story. It follows a girl called Liesel, the eponymous book thief of the title, and her life in Nazi Germany. It starts when she’s about nine and follows her for the next six years. It’s a story about mortality, love and language. The thing that makes it unique, and obviously relevant to this conversation, is that it’s narrated by Death, who appears to have synaesthesia.

We’re told in the prologue that when he comes to claim people, the sky is a particular colour depending on the person and that Death can taste the sky. We know that from the very start because he describes this chocolate-coloured sky. I think he says something like, “I do, however, try to enjoy every colour I see – the whole spectrum, a billion or so flavours, none of them quite the same, and the sky to slowly suck on.” It’s been a while since I read this book, but I remember that line very clearly.

“It’s so evocative and a really effective way of using synaesthesia as a literary device in this case, of providing a different way of describing things”

My reading of it is that this idea, that colours reflect the emotion of the human, say something about their character. There’s a lot of food imagery throughout – from the chocolate that we hear about in the beginning to the recurring image of a sky that’s red as soup and has crumbs and pepper in it, and, later the horizon being the colour of milk and cold and fresh and poured amongst the bodies. Other emotions take on other things. He talks about fear being shiny and silver.

It’s so unusual and so evocative and a really effective way of using synaesthesia as a literary device in this case, of providing a different way of describing things.

Which is one of the things that art aims to do, isn’t it? One of the ‘jobs’ of art is to allow us to see the world slightly differently, to open our minds to other viewpoints, however different they might be from our own. Let’s go to the Kandinsky pamphlet next.

Although this one is not specifically about synaesthesia,  Kandinsky, in some of his writings, did indicate that he was a synaesthete. There has been some debate about that. He, famously, is supposed to have heard a hiss coming from his paintbox which I guess was referring to the sound of the colours. There are two parts to this pamphlet. The second part is probably the most relevant. This is the part that’s called “About Painting.” It really gets into the psychology of colour.

He claims that each colour, in terms of the painter’s palette, has two ‘meanings’. The first is the effects on the eye and the second the inner resonance. He was trying to reach a universal translation of colour. He does admit in the pamphlet that it’s not based on science, but on feeling and mysticism. I see it as an attempt to intellectualise synaesthesia.

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There are a good few pages of analysis in terms of specific colours and how they resonate on the soul. I think he calls it their “psychic effect.” Either by themselves or when acting with other colours, they create these visual chords. I know it sounds fanciful or flowery to some people, but I found that really interesting. Not least because I disagree with the meanings of some of the colours that he talks about. You see this a lot with synaesthetes.

He talks about different kinds of colours – for example, sour tasting lemon and shrill singing canary. He sees yellow corresponding in humans to “violent, raving lunacy”, which I just find fascinating. To me, yellow, especially pale yellow, is the colour of curiosity.

To go back to what we were saying earlier about the point of art, in the first part of the pamphlet there is this call to arms for artists to express themselves, their inner selves and not just rely on the material world around them. This obviously led to his commitment to abstract painting.

This leads us nicely on to Sappho.

I’m so pleased you introduced me to this book.

She’s one of those figures that I had some accepted rather generalised knowledge of. Reading this collection of fragments and poetry made me wonder why on earth I hadn’t looked at her in more detail before.

I don’t want to invoke the wrath of scholars everywhere by suggesting that Sappho was a synaesthete, but certainly I find that her work, or what remains of her work, expresses something very akin to synaesthesia.

Obviously, there’s the issue of reading things in translation. I don’t speak the original Greek so have only read translations. We just have to trust that the translation is faithful to the original. It is so ancient that all that remains are a collection of fragments of lyric poetry which were composed to be sung to the lyre. I think there’s actually only one complete poem in there, Ode to Aphrodite, but the fragments in themselves are just beautiful – reflections on everything from marriage to old age, bees and chickpeas. It covers a lot of ground.

“It is poetry and imagery and appeals to our senses by clustering smells, sights and sounds. I can taste and smell it when I read it”

I find it an absolute feast. It appeals to our senses and is so evocative. Even when you’ve got a fragment – some are barely even fragments, they’re tiny shards, just a word or two – they are full of bare feet and tongues and desire and gold and all these things which just make your senses go crazy. They make mine go crazy. You’ve got all this sun and salt and sweat in the Aegean Sea and brides and bridegrooms and blossom of nectar and flowers and colours. I just think it’s extraordinary.

That in itself isn’t synaesthesia. It is poetry and imagery and appeals to our senses by clustering smells, sights and sounds. I can taste and smell it when I read it.

This is one of those books that I now find myself dipping in and out of and will continue to dip in and out of for years to come. Sappho has a permanent spot on my bedside table! 

I like the line: “Cold sweat holds me and shaking grips me all, greener than grass I am and dead, or almost I seem to be.”

It’s fascinating that you picked that fragment. That is the one that I have the most powerful response to as well. In this translation it refers to sweet speaking and lovely laughter. I’ve read another translation, which says something like ‘Close enough to sip your voice’s sweetness, your laughter glittering,’ or something close to that. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything else like it.

There’s something in the way that it is laid out on the page and just these brackets or dashes where words are missing. There is one which I think just has the word ‘youth’ in it. There are nine or ten lines that are indicated as missing. It’s something that we still obviously think about today, however many hundreds of years later. It’s beautiful.

Interview by Zoe Greaves

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