In the BBC documentary Derek Tastes of Earwax people with synaesthesia discussed their experiences, which vary widely. Some literally see music as colours and shapes. Some see spoken words spelled out letter by letter on a colourful tickertape, as they are spoken. Some experience a powerful taste when they read or hear or say a particular word.
We're not talking about imagination or poetry (though poets are rather likely to have synaesthesia): this crossing of the senses is strong, real and involuntary.
Hard to know how many people have the condition: some say 1 in 100, others say 1 in 2,000.
Implications for web design
Do we care, as readers, writers and publishers of web content? Yep. The commonest form is attaching a colour and shape to single numbers or letters of the alphabet. The BBC Guide to LIfe, The Universe and Everything says:
If a synaesthete associates the colour yellow with the letter 'E', then they may see the colour overlaid on the letter, or experience a flickering effect between the synaesthetic colour and the original text. This may explain why some synaesthetes develop a dislike of coloured text, for instance on the Internet.
Abstract sequences made concrete
Here's my personal version of synaesthesia acknowledged on another page of the marvellous BBC site:
For some synaesthetes, certain concepts that come in sequences - such as days of the week, months of the year, decades, letters, numbers, and so on - are experienced in a particular spatial orientation. [...] they might see the numbers one to ten from left to right, then ten to 20 going upwards, and 20 to 30 over their right shoulder, and so on.
That's not my personal 3-D pattern for numbers. As far as I'm concerned, numbers 1-10 rise vertically on my left. 10 is at eye level. Then the numbers track to the right horizontally to 20, where they swivel on a hinge and go off at a 2 o'clock angle to 29. 30 starts a new line above 20. Stop me before I drive you mad. Seeing it is so simple. Describing it is another matter.
So I was amazed when the documentary showed a digital version of what synaesthete Heather Birt sees: 1-100 arranged in an almost identical location and topography. How did the BBC get inside my head?
What's that got to do with the web?
Well, Dr Jamie Ward reckons that synaesthesia might survive because it enables us to deal with abstract sequences like numbers and days of the week in a concrete way using our senses. He believes this arrangement is common to us all, but most people are not aware of it.
So I'm wondering whether we are all now building a 3-dimensional, concrete model of the abstract sequences within the web. Forgive me but I find this fascinating.
When I click on a web link and a new page appears, I somehow 'believe' that the next page is sitting under and behind the original one. My son confirms that he pictures the same thing. Unconsciously we create a concrete 3-D model of something our ancestors never had, something abstract
If you say, page 187, I see a (roughly) 300-page book in profile, and picture a bookmark at the right point. What is the equivalent on the web? We can't use the same language, as in page 187 of a web site. But are we all visualising web pages stacked up like book pages, behind the computer screen?