Aisling Keenan‘s life is more colourful – literally – than most. Here, she writes about her neurological condition, synaesthesia, and interviews artist and photographer Rebecca Fahey, another synaesthete, about her unique artworks.
Explaining synaesthesia to people who don’t have it is tricky. Which is why, maybe, outside my friends and family, I didn’t explain it to anyone until I was well into my late twenties and had the confidence not to be entirely understood and still feel comfortable.
I ‘found out’ I had synaesthesia when I was 15 when Trinity College went on Radio One looking for people who experienced it to take part in a neurology department study. I wasn’t sure I had it, but the ‘symptoms’ they described sounded like something I’d always experienced.
Long story short, I have it, and ‘it’ basically involves a cross-wiring of the senses. A subtle but important difference in the way my brain works. I see numbers, letters, words, days of the week and months of the year in colour. During the study, they knew I had it because I could pinpoint exact shades of certain colours from a selection of hundreds.
A unique aspect of my form of synaesthesia (of which there are five or six – Charli XCX, Kanye West and Pharrell Williams all have the musical version!) is that I also see people in colour. I don’t claim to be psychic or have any special ability with auras, and I don’t physically see people are blue or green, but I get a ‘minds-eye’ view of their colour, letter, number etc. I describe it often as an advanced intuition. I have an extra way to get the measure of someone.
It’s rare that I would meet someone else with synaesthesia, or even hear about them, so when I saw an article online about NYC-based Irish artist Rebecca Fahey and her incredibly similar synaesthesia experience, I had to connect with her.
As soon as you click through to Rebecca’s website, the colour jumps out at you. In a way, I thought it represented well how life can often feel to a synaesthete. A wave of colour, constantly.
“My personal experiences with synaesthesia started from such a young age,” says Rebecca. “I always saw numbers and letters as colours, even talking to people I would know what colour they were when speaking to me. It did get me into some trouble in the school system because I used my ability to learn, and teachers just didn’t understand.
“I was even given out to profusely for “colouring” in my maths/English books, but I was actually just trying to use colours to help me with my maths work. I didn’t know any different, that’s how I saw everything,” she continues.
I know my school experience was dramatically altered by the condition – maths took me twice as long as it took my peers, but I did really well with art and languages because of the elaborate colour system involved, for me, in each.
Rebecca grew up to become an artist and photographer, and I wondered if synaesthesia could be more helpful to those already of a creative bent.
“When it comes to my art, I tend to use my way of seeing colour to coordinate my work,” Rebecca told me.
“When I see one of my models, I like using colours that I feel represent them with my synaesthesia. Its the same experience with my graphic design work, I like using colours I see the letters and numbers as. A lot of my work is saturated and loud. I like exploring cooperation of the senses, making viewers have an overload of sensitivity when looking at my work,” she explains.
An overload. That’s sometimes what the synaesthetic experience feels like – you’re going beyond taste, smell, sight and into something louder, brighter, bolder. It can be intrusive, it can be tiring in big crowds (maybe that’s why I’m terrified to ever try hallucinogenics? I’m… already tripping?) but it can also be a huge pleasure to have, and can add so much to your lived experience.
In a way, I envy Rebecca’s work because it is a visual representation – and a beautiful one at that – of what it sometimes feels like in my head. I asked her if she thinks her work helps her denote her condition to others.
“I feel it depends on the person who views my work, everyone has such amazing interpretations. When audiences look at my work, they definitely get a sensory overload of vibrancy and that’s what I want. To visually stimulate the audience who views my work,” she says.
“When it comes to my art, I have experienced a lot of different interpretations, a lot of misunderstandings, confusion, and interest. I have endured a lot of misconceptions with my synaesthesia, as trying to explain it can be difficult. Some believing it’s nothing. But then again a lot of enthusiasm too, and wanting to know for example ‘what colour do you see me as?’ or ‘what colour is this song?'”
If I had a euro for every person who’s asked me what colour they are, I would have long since bought a private island.
For Rebecca, and for me, having such a rare condition is, by and large, a great thing. Rebecca describes having it as ‘a gift’ and that’s definitely something I’ve learned to feel over the years. As much as I might hate that when I add two and two together I get ‘pink’ instead of four, and that my mam is blue and my auntie Louise is purple and that can get difficult to articulate, I love having it.
Rebecca says: “Synaesthsia has definitely enhanced my experience in terms of how I view things. And I’m so grateful for it. For me having synaesthesia has been a gift. I use colours to express myself and show how I see the world. Growing up in the Irish school system was difficult as I felt too unintelligent for it. But now it’s something that I’ve embraced, I feel lucky to have what I have.”
I don’t know if there’s a school system in the world that’s prepped to deal with it, but that’s small potatoes when you’re living life in endless technicolour.
All images by Rebecca Fahey.