Synaesthesia, migraines and creativity

It was only about two weeks ago that I found out I’m a bit weird. I was listening to an episode of BBC Radio 4’s All In The Mind (listen), part of which was dedicated to synaesthesia. I didn’t realise that something I experience all the time actually qualifies as a mild form of the condition!

But what is synaesthesia? Nature defines it in the following way:

An unusual ‘mixing of the senses’ in which a stimulus in one sensory modality (for example, a sound) elicits a percept in another modality (such as visual perception of a colour).

All In The Mind explained that this definition can be widened to include something both I and my mother experience: conceiving of time as being physically and spatially located. It’s difficult to explain this in words, and my perspective and view on time changes depending on the period I’m ‘looking at’. To give you some idea, however, here’s something like what I ‘see’ when I think of the period of human history:

The above is a very quick and rough sketch – what I actually see is a lot ‘thicker’ and 3D. As you can imagine, this has its benefits and is probably one reason why I’m a History teacher! :-p

I didn’t think anything more about this until I listened to one of the series of TED Talks entitled A Journey to the Center of the Mind by Vilayanur Ramachandaran. Towards the end of his (fascinating) talk, he mentioned that ‘creative’ people (artists, poets, etc.) are eight times more likely to experience synaesthesia than ‘normal’ people. He explained the condition as probably being due to a malfunction in the gene that ‘trims’ ‘the connections that exist initially between all parts of the brain.

So I wondered… perhaps there’s a link between synaesthesia and migraines? After all, I experience ‘aura’ when I have a migraine – something like a less extreme version of the picture below, usually starting with patches of coloured light:

Sure enough, when I looked it up I found several references, including this one. Now I’m no painter or poet, but I am fairly good at metaphors and making links between (often fairly diverse) subjects.

I’m firmly of the belief that, especially when it comes to the brain, things cannot be studied or considered in isolation. Although I want to do further research, I’m fascinated at the possible link between synaesthesia, migraines and creativity (in the form of associationism). Perhaps, like autistic people who are fantastic mathematicians or artists, migraines have their associated upsides…

Do you experience synaesthesia? Perhaps you see numbers or days of the week as being certain colours or, like me, conceive of time in a sensory way. Do you also get migraines? I’d love it if you could share your experiences! 🙂

(Image credit: My Brain on MRI by CaptPiper @ Flickr)

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  1. How DO other people perceive of time? I always see a year as going from left to right downhill with me facing downwards..in some ways not dissimilar from your diagram of the past. I don’t think I have any migraines/synaesthesia and am interested to know how others see a year too.

    • I didn’t think I had synaesthesia either until I listened to that program! I suppose if you’ve always conceived of something in a particular way, you *would* see it as ‘natural’. However, my wife and father don’t conceive of time in this way and they come from science and mathematics backgrounds respectively.

      I must stress that the poorly drawn line diagram in my post isn’t intended to show time going ‘downhill’. It’s more like a 3D ribbon, really. It’s all very interesting…. :-)

  2. I had to have a little chortle! Check out my post on the subject. I was in my twenties before I realised that not everyone thinks that flavours have colours and vice versa. For example, turquoise tastes like soap, and green tastes like bean sprouts. Don’t know why. They just do.

  3. Oh, and I forgot to mention – I have only had two ‘proper’ (painful) migraines in my life. But more than one day a week I get that peculiar visual disturbance in my peripheral vision which my opthalmologist diagnosed as painless migraines (apparently very common – far more so than the bliding headaches… thank goodness!)

    • Yes, my aura is painess – it’s only when it disappears that I know I’m in trouble and a darkened room awaits… :-(

      It’s funny how we don’t really discuss these things and just take it for granted that everyone conceives of the world in the way we do, isn’t it?

  4. How DO other people perceive of time? I always see a year as going from left to right downhill with me facing downwards..in some ways not dissimilar from your diagram of the past. I don't think I have any migraines/synaesthesia and am interested to know how others see a year too.

  5. I didn't think I had synaesthesia either until I listened to that program! I suppose if you've always conceived of something in a particular way, you *would* see it as 'natural'. However, my wife and father don't conceive of time in this way and they come from science and mathematics backgrounds respectively.I must stress that the poorly drawn line diagram in my post isn't intended to show time going 'downhill'. It's more like a 3D ribbon, really. It's all very interesting…. 🙂

  6. I had to have a little chortle! Check out my post on the subject. I was in my twenties before I realised that not everyone thinks that flavours have colours and vice versa. For example, turquoise tastes like soap, and green tastes like bean sprouts. Don't know why. They just do.

  7. Oh, and I forgot to mention – I have only had two 'proper' (painful) migraines in my life. But more than one day a week I get that peculiar visual disturbance in my peripheral vision which my opthalmologist diagnosed as painless migraines (apparently very common – far more so than the bliding headaches… thank goodness!)

  8. Your description of seeing time in a 3D ribbon reminded me of audiosurf (http://www.audio-surf.com/) which some have described as a synaethesia simulator. It’s probably the closest I will get to that experience!

    Also worth checking out the first 10 mins or so of Stephen Pinker’s lecture at the RSA where he discusses how we use language to in relation our everyday perception of time and space, even though it is theoretically completely wrong. I wonder do your perceptions of time affect the way you talk abouti it, Doug?

    PS Please be warned, Stephen goes on to discuss swearing at length in that lecture, so if you choose to listen from minute 13 onwards, expect to hear every expletive in the world said repeatedly!

    • Thanks for the link to Audiosurf, Ian! I remember reading about it, but never got around to playing it. I’m downloading the demo now… :-)

      The link to Stephen Pinker’s RSA lecture is here:
      http://www.thersa.org/events/vision/vision-videos/steven-pinker

      I suppose the way I conceive of time *does* affect the way I talk and write about it. I used to presume that my students could ‘see’ time in the way I can. However, I realised fairly early on in my teaching career that they can’t – so my room is adorned with multiple chronologies and timelines! :-)

  9. Your description of seeing time in a 3D ribbon reminded me of audiosurf (http://www.audio-surf.com/) which some have described as a synaethesia simulator. It's probably the closest I will get to that experience! Also worth checking out the first 10 mins or so of Stephen Pinker's lecture at the RSA where he discusses how we use language to in relation our everyday perception of time and space, even though it is theoretically completely wrong. I wonder do your perceptions of time affect the way you talk abouti it, Doug?PS Please be warned, Stephen goes on to discuss swearing at length in that lecture, so if you choose to listen from minute 13 onwards, expect to hear every expletive in the world said repeatedly!

  10. Yes, my aura is painess – it's only when it disappears that I know I'm in trouble and a darkened room awaits… :-(It's funny how we don't really discuss these things and just take it for granted that everyone conceives of the world in the way we do, isn't it?

  11. Thanks for the link to Audiosurf, Ian! I remember reading about it, but never got around to playing it. I'm downloading the demo now… :-)The link to Stephen Pinker's RSA lecture is here: http://www.thersa.org/events/vision/vision-vide…I suppose the way I conceive of time *does* affect the way I talk and write about it. I used to presume that my students could 'see' time in the way I can. However, I realised fairly early on in my teaching career that they can't – so my room is adorned with multiple chronologies and timelines! 🙂

  12. I haven’t thought about this for years, but when I came across a description of the phenomenon 10-15 years ago, I realized that there was an explanation for my peculiar tendency to associate colors to the letters of the alphabet (fx. e is white, i is yellow, p is blue) and to consider weekdays in terms of even/uneven (Tuesday, Friday and Sunday are even, the rest uneven).

    What’s new to me is the association of migraines – my childhood memories are punctuated with countless hours spent in darkened rooms, but as I grew older, the number of attacks decreased, and now I have one app. every other year. It’s a family thing: my father, his mother and his sisters all suffer/ed from it, so I consider myself lucky that my affliction is as mild as it is. From time to time I experience some sort of ‘aura’, but since it hardly ever leads to migraines any more I haven’t paid any attention to it until now.

    I’m pretty creative, mostly in a down-to-earth, practical kind of way; I’m very sensitive to colors so I color code EVERYTHING. I’m very good at visualizing spatial arrangements (I once dreamed of becoming an architect), but I can’t remember left from right and always have to look at my hands to decide which is which.

    Will be pondering this . . .

  13. I haven't thought about this for years, but when I came across a description of the phenomenon 10-15 years ago, I realized that there was an explanation for my peculiar tendency to associate colors to the letters of the alphabet (fx. e is white, i is yellow, p is blue) and to consider weekdays in terms of even/uneven (Tuesday, Friday and Sunday are even, the rest uneven). What's new to me is the association of migraines – my childhood memories are punctuated with countless hours spent in darkened rooms, but as I grew older, the number of attacks decreased, and now I have one app. every other year. It's a family thing: my father, his mother and his sisters all suffer/ed from it, so I consider myself lucky that my affliction is as mild as it is. From time to time I experience some sort of 'aura', but since it hardly ever leads to migraines any more I haven't paid any attention to it until now. I'm pretty creative, mostly in a down-to-earth, practical kind of way; I'm very sensitive to colors so I color code EVERYTHING. I'm very good at visualizing spatial arrangements (I once dreamed of becoming an architect), but I can't remember left from right and always have to look at my hands to decide which is which. Will be pondering this . . .

  14. Interesting connection. I’ve never thought of a connection between migraines and synaesthesia before, but that colourful house you’ve included is almost enough to bring a migraine on for me! If I do have any form of synaesthesia that comes along with the auras, it’s in regards to smells. During a migraine, real smells seem accentuated, especially during the aura, and I smell things that I know are not there (usually wet asphalt…which is why, I think, I particularly dislike that smell in reality…or boiling potatoes that have been allowed to boil dry and have started to burn – both of these smells are putrid yellow in colour). The two real smells that feel as if they wrap me in coolness and are the colour peach during a migraine are the smell of cut grass (which usually I start sneezing at) and the smell of a campfire (which usually I start wheezing at). Those two smells and their peach-inducing qualities work better than any drug on the migraine pain.

    The only other colour connection I have is colours for certain subjects, but I think that had more to do with the binders we were trained to use in grade 5. However, we were trained to use green for science, and that was most definitely wrong in my mind: science is indisputably orange; languages are green. (Language Arts = red; math = yellow; social studies = blue, for the record.)

    • I’m sorry, tgidinsky: math is definitely not yellow, it’s brown (probably because 1) I’m terrible at math, 2) I hate brown, and 3) yellow – along with purple and red – is my favorite color; science IS green, whereas languages are blue. Social studies are gray and language arts are orange :-)

      I guess I assign colors to more things than I originally thought – your list made me realize that. Thanks!

    • I have Migraines and synaesthesia. I am also very interested in finding a link between the two. I actually assign personalities, sexes, and colors to numbers and letters. For example:
      the number 4 is an ugly male, but is nice sometimes. the number 8 is an evil male.
      I am an artist.

      Accentuation of smells are a normal side effect of migrains, you’re supposed to be much more sensitive to smells.
      I see language arts as yellow.

  15. Interesting connection. I've never thought of a connection between migraines and synaesthesia before, but that colourful house you've included is almost enough to bring a migraine on for me! If I do have any form of synaesthesia that comes along with the auras, it's in regards to smells. During a migraine, real smells seem accentuated, especially during the aura, and I smell things that I know are not there (usually wet asphalt…which is why, I think, I particularly dislike that smell in reality…or boiling potatoes that have been allowed to boil dry and have started to burn – both of these smells are putrid yellow in colour). The two real smells that feel as if they wrap me in coolness and are the colour peach during a migraine are the smell of cut grass (which usually I start sneezing at) and the smell of a campfire (which usually I start wheezing at). Those two smells and their peach-inducing qualities work better than any drug on the migraine pain.The only other colour connection I have is colours for certain subjects, but I think that had more to do with the binders we were trained to use in grade 5. However, we were trained to use green for science, and that was most definitely wrong in my mind: science is indisputably orange; languages are green. (Language Arts = red; math = yellow; social studies = blue, for the record.)

  16. I'm sorry, tgidinsky: math is definitely not yellow, it's brown (probably because 1) I'm terrible at math, 2) I hate brown, and 3) yellow – along with purple and red – is my favorite color; science IS green, whereas languages are blue. Social studies are gray and language arts are orange :-)I guess I assign colors to more things than I originally thought – your list made me realize that. Thanks!

  17. I can connect to this post. I understand how you see time.

    And the aura, I got my first one while trying to buy bread about 20 years ago and have been receiving them a few times a year since. When they begin to cluster, if I receive a few in a short period of time, I know it is time to slow down and think about what is clouding my vision.

    The connection to creativity, hmmm – do you mean creativity in general or a specific creative event? I am a teacher. I paint. I make jewellery. All creative outlets for me.

    • On further thought, is this a funky syndrome or merely an indication that we use multiple modes of learning? For example, visualizing a timeline is natural for someone with a visual learning preference.

      Then again, autists think visually all the time, as do people with dyslexia – one of the reasons written language can be so difficult to access has to do with the inability to create a visual for prepositions and articles. So there is evidence of differing neural pathways in how the brain creates meaning.

      Interesting stuff, for real. Hot. Great implications for learning.

  18. I can connect to this post. I understand how you see time. And the aura, I got my first one while trying to buy bread about 20 years ago and have been receiving them a few times a year since. When they begin to cluster, if I receive a few in a short period of time, I know it is time to slow down and think about what is clouding my vision.The connection to creativity, hmmm – do you mean creativity in general or a specific creative event? I am a teacher. I paint. I make jewellery. All creative outlets for me.

  19. On further thought, is this a funky syndrome or merely an indication that we use multiple modes of learning? For example, visualizing a timeline is natural for someone with a visual learning preference. Then again, autists think visually all the time, as do people with dyslexia – one of the reasons written language can be so difficult to access has to do with the inability to create a visual for prepositions and articles. So there is evidence of differing neural pathways in how the brain creates meaning. Interesting stuff, for real. Hot. Great implications for learning.

  20. Doug, saw a documentary about Synesthesia last year. I think it was part of a series on the senses. I was intrigued. I suffer migraines a few times a year. During the initial onset of the migraine I smell and taste metal ~ like the taste of an old tea-spoon. One migraine, four years ago, left me in hospital. I was out the next morning. My family was concerned that i may have had a stroke. I have heard about the auras yet I have never experienced it myself. Cheers, John.

  21. Doug, saw a documentary about Synesthesia last year. I think it was part of a series on the senses. I was intrigued. I suffer migraines a few times a year. During the initial onset of the migraine I smell and taste metal ~ like the taste of an old tea-spoon. One migraine, four years ago, left me in hospital. I was out the next morning. My family was concerned that i may have had a stroke. I have heard about the auras yet I have never experienced it myself. Cheers, John.

  22. Have you ever considered acupuncture for your migraines? I have helped a lot of patients become migraine-free without the side effects of medication. You should look for a good acupuncturist in your area.

  23. Melissa Techman

    March 7, 2009 — 1:52 am

    Hi, Doug, a children’s book within the last few years, Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Maas, has a main character with synesthesia. Also, I remember years ago in college, as part of study avoidance, reading a Joyce Carol Oates novel about a math prodigy with synesthesia. Anything to do with perseption is fascinating……

  24. Ive only recently realised that I am suffering from migraines (as opposed to being completely crazy). I have strong aura symptoms including visual hallucination and difficulty expressing myself verbally. I’ll get a sensation that feels like my brain is itchy, and then for anywhere for a few minutes to hours it will feel like my brain has a slide projector inside, and that its fast forwarding through hundreds of brightly coloured slides. External stimulus- eg people talking to me, ambient sounds, music somehow gets muddled up with the coloured pictures, and suddenly become part of it, so you asking me how my day was could trigger a series of colourful patterns that to me seem some how related. I also go through periods where I feel as though in some kind of trance, and that’s when I seem to do my bet writing. Its a relief to think this might be somehow bound up in migraines, I hadn’t thought to connect the two. Thank you.

  25. I have synaesthesia and migraines.  I associate sound, numbers, personalities and time w color and lines.  Being a musician I don’t really see this as a problem except that when I get migraines its basically like experiencing all of the colors I see with an extreme, uncontrollable intensity.  Its great to see this article and comments and know that I’m not the only one!  Thanks!

  26. I picture periods in time, days of the week, as well as vocabulary words in school as either cool or warm colors based off of the feeling they give off! I also base a lot of tastes off of how things in the past smell to me

  27. Wow… so glad I found this. Many abstract things have “maps” for me; the yearly calendar is a racetrack, steep and dark in Nov, bright and flat in Dec., then downhill and white from Jan-March. April turns red and gets wider; May is translucent and ‘wispy’; June-July are ‘hard’ and thick. August is underwater; the track slowly climbs from September back up through the darkness of October, then back again into Nov. It’s all very clear in my head; pick a date, and I see it on the track. Number “lines” too: negative numbers are a large fan-shape of white and black (like a river delta) funneling up to zero; as the numbers climb, the number line goes through distinct shapes, colors, and textures. It makes math easy for me; I can ‘see’ the place on the line.

    I’ve had migraines my whole life; no pain, just the aura. I’m 46; I have a migraine, on average, twice a week now. Lots of visual disturbances, some cognitive difficulty (can’t find words, communicate clearly, etc.), some numbness in my hands and face.

  28. I have sound-colour, grapheme-colour, taste-colour, smell-colour, sound-taste, and a few other types of synaesthesia. For an example, W is orange, Tuesdays are light green, bitter things taste gray…
    I have had synaesthesia for as long as I can remember, and a constant headache from around the time I noticed my synaesthesia was getting stronger.
    Since June or so of 2014 I started experiencing chronic migraines, and now I get a migraine every day.

  29. I have had sound-colour, smell-colour and taste-colour synaesthesias all my life. They were natural to me and I discovered they were odd when I studied psychology extensively. However, I only had migraines for 24 years (ages 10 to 34), then they left and I got severe clinical depression, which I have had for 30 years. My synaesthesia has been the same throughout and I think my creativity is stronger without migraines but may be just the benefit of years lived giving me more to base creative thoughts on. I also had virtually eidetic imagery from the beginning of my consciouness until I was about half way through university, when I noticed it was leaving me. So I had to learn a new method for learning! It was surprisingly difficult and I didn’t learn how to “study” (instead of merely reading something once and knowing it) until I started a Masters degree in my 50s. Now figure out all that! I have been recognised as creative in visual arts fields, mathematics/statistics, general problem solving and with words without being an absolute genius. I am definitely NOT autistic though I have worked a lot with autistic/Aspergers people and can figure out how to get on with them OK. Although I have always been good at maths I cannot think numerically without pictures! In order to understand statistics I have to see in my mind, like graphs, how altering one factor can affect another and with some concepts (like path analysis or non-linear regression) it has taken me a long time to comprehend how the maths works. Although I have never been an engineer I can quickly see in my mind all the factors that need to be accounted for in, say, building a bridge or a habitat on Mars. I wonder what the hell goes on inside my head?!

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