Synesthesia & Creativity: Eyra Norman, Alex Bygrave & Joseph Bugdale | Hosted by Millie Norman

Synesthesia is a condition by which the stimulation of one sense simultaneously triggers sensation in one or more other neurotypically unrelated senses. This can manifest in multiple ways: some synesthetes see colours as a result of sound, while others may connect shapes with taste. !GWAK creatives Eyra Norman and Joseph Bugdale, who both experience sound-to-colour synesthesia, and Alex Bygrave, who experiences sound-to-colour, sound-to-taste, and names-to-colour synesthesia, speak to us about the ways in which being a synesthete impacts and intersects with their creativity.


EYRA NORMAN

Eyra is a classically trained singer and artist, creating paintings based off her synesthetic experiences of music.

Synesthesia paintings by Eyra Norman. Left to Right: 'Morgen' by Richard Strauss; 'Both Sides Now' by Joni Mitchell; 'The Four Sea Interludes: Movement 3, Moonlight' by Benjamin Britten; 'Rapsodia Nusantara No.10' by Anada Sukarlan.


HOW DOES YOUR SYNESTHESIA MANIFEST?

My Synesthesia is my connection of Sound to Colour (in the form of colour washes and patterns in my peripheral vision), as well as sound to temperature in extremities, such as to my fingers, toes and nose! All the colours and patterns are affected my the timbre of instruments, harmonics (overtones and undertones within a note), harmony, the harshness or softness of the sound, and general day to day noise, like footsteps. My synesthesia is also deeply affected by my over sensitive hearing, so I get more colours because of other random noises I hear, like the buzzing of a plug socket in the next room to me, or someone breathing.


HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN EXPERIENCING SYNESTHESIA?

I have experienced it all my life, but I just assumed it was something everyone had. I didn’t realise it was unique to me until I was 12 years old.


HOW DOES IT AFFECT, SPEAK TO, OR AMPLIFY YOUR CREATIVITY?

With regards to my creativity, my synesthesia works like a sixth sense in both my creative fields. As a Classical Singer, my synesthesia enables me to go further than just the emotions in relation to the music, the text in the score and musical directions given to me in the music. Colour and timbre are often talked about in music, but not in the context of synesthesia - so I have the privilege of being able to think about both the literal (synesthesia colours) and lateral concepts of colour in music. When it comes to my painting, since they are all based off of what I see in music, my synesthesia does play a huge role.


IS IT POSSIBLE TO SEPARATE YOUR CREATIVITY AND YOUR SYNESTHESIA?

In music I can separate my synesthesia. I often do this to help me learn my music without basing all of my learning off of what I am seeing in my vision (but when I first choose a piece of music, I let my synesthesia take over so I can truly feel and understand the music in a more personal way). It also helps me to keep my singing “on my body”. I do like to paint other things, and therefore it doesn’t affect me when I normally paint, but since all my paintings are based on my synesthesia - I choose not to separate the two.



ALEX BYGRAVE

Alex, who experiences three types of synesthesia, is a writer from the USA.


HOW DOES YOUR SYNESTHESIA MANIFEST?

So I have three types, which isn't uncommon (most people have two or three): sound-to-color, sound-to-taste, and names-to-color. The first one is probably the most common one -- known as chromesthesia, when I hear music, it translates into colors in my mind's eye. Kind of like an old Windows screensaver, but less fluid, idk, it's weird to describe. The second one is more on a case-by-case basis because it usually manifests with people's voices. Like, one of my best friends speaks and I taste peanut butter, or another one speaks and I taste strawberries. That kind of thing. The last one is that every name has a color attached to it, just sort of like...intrinsically. Like, when I picture the name in my head, it's just sort of...in a specific color that just makes sense, and it looks weird if I try to change it to any other color. And the color can change from person to person, so I consider it more like an aura? Like for instance, your name is kind of like...pinkish purple, like a magenta almost. But for another Millie that I personally know, her color is black, even though you have the same name.


HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN EXPERIENCING SYNESTHESIA?

This is kind of funny actually. So I've been experiencing it my whole life, but I kind of like...forgot about it, if that makes sense? Like I never learned what synesthesia was, so all of those weird sensations of tasting things when people spoke or seeing colors when I listened to music kind of faded into the background and just became like extra senses to me. I stopped paying attention to them and so they just became part of the scenery. Then, in college, I learned what synesthesia was and I was like "oh cool haha" but then I realized that I had it, and have had it for all these years. It was a bit of a shock, because all of a sudden I was hyper-aware of it all again, so it was like I was experiencing it for the first time. So even though I have (now very vivid) memories of experiencing it as a child, it's one of those things where it's like your brain just sort of unlocks or dredges up a memory or a moment that it's been keeping from you. I'm much more consciously aware of it now that I know what it is, though.


HOW DOES IT AFFECT, SPEAK TO, OR AMPLIFY YOUR CREATIVITY?

Well, to be totally honest, at first I was like "why couldn't I have been a painter instead of a writer???" because chromesthesia is so cool and I wish I had the talent to properly express what I can see in my head when I listen to music. I mean, I can draw it, or scribble it down in crayon or something (and I have tried) but it's just not the same. However, I have learned that it can impact my writing in not necessarily important, but interesting, ways. My sound-to-taste synesthesia doesn't really do much haha, but my other two kinds can heavily inform what I choose to name my characters in the fiction I write. For instance, if I'm writing a short slice-of-life piece, I can pick out a few songs that fit the vibe to help me while I write -- you know, like every writer does. But if those songs happen to be very skewed towards specific colors, then the character names I pick kind of have to have auras that match or complement those colors, or else it feels strange. To give a specific example: I wrote a flash fiction piece about two years ago, and the songs I listened to to help myself write it were very in the blues, browns, and greens. So when I was constructing my characters, I needed to build their personalities and names so that their auras were also in those color spectrums. Anything else just didn't feel right, and it ended up making my piece a lot stronger because the characters felt more alive as a result.


IS IT POSSIBLE TO SEPARATE YOUR CREATIVITY AND YOUR SYNESTHESIA?

Definitely. One of them isn't even related to my creativity at all, it's just annoying sometimes when I go out to eat with friends haha. But with the others, although they're helpful in informing my writing and character-building process, they're not completely vital to my creative being. But it's cool. It's always fun to tell people what their auras are, haha.



JOSEPH BUGDALE

Joseph is a visual artist from the UK.


HOW DOES YOUR SYNESTHESIA MANIFEST?

My synesthesia means that I interperet music as colour. Sometimes shapes, as well but primarily colour. Different songs have different patterns of colour, some are primarily one or two colours, others are kaleidoscopes. I often see songs as one large colour with ribbons or splashes of other colours flowing or bursting through it.


HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN EXPERIENCING SYNESTHESIA?

I became aware of my synesthesia 8 years ago when I started volunteering as a lighting technician. My attention was drawn to it by people saying they had liked my lighting effects and asking what was behind my choices. I realised that there had been no consideration, no thoughtful planing, no decision-making of any kind. To me, the music was those colours and patterns, it couldn't have been anything else. All I did was try to match the lights to what I was seeing, or hearing, or something inbetween.


HOW DOES IT AFFECT, SPEAK TO, OR AMPLIFY YOUR CREATIVITY?

I'm mostly influenced by it creatively when I'm lighting live music (unsurprisingly). It is helpful, as it means I don't run out of inspiration; however it can get repetitive as many bands have a consistent sound throughout. It also means when bands have specific instructions for lighting, it often won't match what I see, which is strangely jarring.


IS IT POSSIBLE TO SEPARATE YOUR CREATIVITY AND YOUR SYNESTHESIA?

Bizarrely, it's not something I use in my art a great deal, though I have created a few abstract paintings trying to replicate what I experience. Most of my artistic output has nothing to do with my synesthesia. A future project I want to do is to draw or paint a specific image whilst listening to music and see how that affects what I do.