From an early age Kate Leckie, a Trinity graduate from county Wicklow, would get frustrated feeling like she had to write her name in certain colours.
Many years later during a philosophy lecture she finally realised why: Kate has synesthesia, a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sense can cause an involuntary reaction for another sense; meaning that those with it can see, hear or feel numbers and words, depending on the type they have.
Hannah Popham: You were recently interviewed by the Irish Times about your experiences having synesthesia, how did that come about?
Kate Leckie: "I am a part of a Facebook group called 'The Synnie Squad' which is a group of synesthetes from around the world, where we basically talk about differing synnie experiences. It’s from there that I've learnt the most about synesthesia and all the different types! The author of the article in the IT posted in the Facebook group asking for Irish synesthetes near Dublin so I decided to get in touch with him and help him out! I've participated in lots of studies (from online questionnaires to physical ones.)"
How did you first realise you had synaesthesia?
"I first realised in second year college during my philosophy of psychology class, my professor was taking an angle of 'how do we know this world is real and not an idea', and was bringing things like dreams and the fallibility of the senses, and so synesthesia was brought up. He was discussing colour-grapheme synesthesia (which I have) where people have colours for words, numbers and letters and I had a bit of a 'sit-up-in-my-seat' moment and thought 'wait, not everyone has this?' The professor was writing a study on synesthesia and its relation to philosophy and thought perception etc. so I went to his office a few times to discuss it."
Describe your experience of synaesthesia?
"So basically, when I think about a certain letter, word or number, a colour comes to mind. It’s not always an immediate forethought, like if I'm thinking of how to spell the word 'necessary', I'm not consumed by the thoughts of the colours in the word, but they're there in the background. So when I think about numbers for example, I just get an inherent feeling about the colours they are. Like five is blue, like a dusty turquoise pale blue, and three is pink, quite bright. I don't see these colours out in the real world, but more in my mind's eye.
"These colours can often affect how I feel about the numbers/letters. For example the letter 'p' doesn't really have a colour. But its kind of purple, but mostly doesn't have a colour. And that means I really hate the letter 'p', it feels very distrustful and just, wrong. Another experience is the random 'bonus synnie moments' where its like your senses cross, but only for a moment. For example I was walking down a beach and smelt something I didn't know, but the smell was very purple."
How did it affect your time in college?
"It was definitely a plus in my philosophy of psychology class and exam because I could relate to synesthesia and use it in my exams and essays. Where my synesthesia affected me most would be when I would use the synesthesia to help me study.
"I guess it also affected me socially in a way, it was always a kind of cool thing to bring up at 5am after a night out and you're having your deep drunk conversations, how senses get crossed and one could use it to argue that the world is just an idea in our minds etc. Having synesthesia helped me realise that there is no "typical mind" - everyone perceives differently, remembers differently and so that helped me be less judgemental and close minded about people."
Did it make anything in college more difficult for you? Did it make anything easier?
"I have a very visual memory so I would remember a page of my notes by the colours used on it - I still remember the colour combinations I used in first year college for my world religions exam (blue and orange for Jainism, purple and orange for Hinduism, red and orange for Sikhism etc.). That was extremely useful, but also a hindrance because all of my notes had to be neat and in the correct colours or else something would feel off about it and I would feel uncomfortable studying. Obviously I couldn't colour every letter or every subject in the myriad of colours I wanted to colour them in, as that would take days, but I would decide on certain colours that felt right and do them in that, but it would still take quite a bit of time, so most of my time studying in college was actually just rewriting notes from class but in colour/neater - which I enjoyed, but took up time."
Have you ever connected with others who have the condition? What has that been like?
"Through the Facebook group and Tumblr, I read a lot about other people's experiences and questions and I'm often overwhelmed by them. Sometimes I feel envious of other people's synesthesia, getting to see colours when listening to music, or having personality-colour seems so cool! But most times I'm glad that I have quite a simple and easy to live with synesthesia because there are those out there who can really struggle with it, if places are too noisy, with too many lights or colours, all the senses can collide and cause sensory overloads for the synesthete and it sounds awful (almost similar to a panic attack).
"A great moment I had actually was when my father read the article I was in, and when he was finished he said that for him his months appeared on a clock, but it wasn't really a coherent time progression, which is a form of synesthesia! Sort of temporal-location synesthesia.. So that was cool! I wasn't really surprised because synesthesia is usually genetic."
Follow Hannah on Twitter: @bananapop2.