When we talked about synesthesia in psychology class, I got to answer questions about my experience. (You can read about synesthesia here). Here are the answers to my FAQs:
What is synesthesia like?
I have grapheme-color synesthesia, which means that I see each letter, number, and punctuation mark in a certain color. For example, every time I see the letter A, it's red. I always see the colors of letters individually - full words don't take on colors of their own. Each person with synesthesia sees different colors.
I also see days of the week as colors and can picture a week in my mind. The week looks like a strip of a calendar - a rectangle made out of squares, and each square is a different color. When I think about what day of the week it is, I picture where we are standing on that calendar in my mind. I picture a year as all the months attached together in a circle, and picture standing on whatever months it is. I associate the months with colors also, but I don't always see those colors when I picture the year - the year is just light and dark, with the warmer months being lighter and the colder months being darker. It looks like the shades of light and dark that you see when you close your eyes. I also picture all the years of my life lined up like the days of the week. These are colored based on the color of my age or grade in school.
When did you know you had synesthesia?
Ever since I was old enough to recognize numbers and letters, I knew that they were colored in my mind. The colors were most prevalent to me when I was first learning the alphabet and numbers, because the colors were part of how I recognized letters and numbers. I didn't think I was different because I assumed everyone else saw things the same way. I was 21 when I first read about synesthesia.
I have always liked bright colors, and most letters are soft shades that I would not have chosen. I can remember trying to re-assign colors I liked to the letters, but I could never make myself see them differently. But I still assumed that I had voluntarily assigned colors to the letters when I was too young to remember, and I couldn't undo it because I had gotten used to the letters as they were. It never crossed my mind that it wasn't my choice.
Isn't that distracting when you read?
It's less distracting to me than it probably sounds. It doesn't look like each letter is a
different font color. If I'm reading something in black print, I still see it in black print - the black is dominant and the colors I see are recessive. For me, the colors are just a property of the letters, that same as the structure of the letters. Once you learn to read well, you start to recognize whole words instead of reading each letter. You still see the shape of the letters as you're reading, but it doesn't distract you from focusing on the content. Colors are the same way - they don't jump out at me any more than the shape of the letters would jump out to anyone else.
What if the writing is colored? What about highlighters?
I can still see the colors if the writing is all one color. Same goes for highlighters. The only time that I can't see the colors is if each letter of a word is a different color, like on a party banner. And I can still read even if I can't see the colors. That said, I never used highlighters, gel pens, or colored note cards for schoolwork because I found them distracting. Not because I can't read the information, but because I'd rather look at the colors. Imagine if you printed your class notes in black ink over a light-colored picture that's really interesting to you. You'd still be able to read you notes, but you might prefer to look at the picture. That's how I am with colors, and I'm not sure whether it's even synesthesia-related or not. I still use gel pens and colored fonts - just not for things that I'll have to study or concentrate on.
Does synesthesia help you at all?
I don't know whether synesthesia helped me learn letters, numbers, days, and months when I was younger. It could have, but I don't have any way of knowing.
Compared to my peers, I have a clearer memory of the sequence of events in my life. I always know in what grade or year events took place, without having to stop and think. The way I see the years of my life lined up may help me to organize my memories. For example: my family and I took a particular beach vacation when I was in fourth grade. The number 4 is yellow and sand is yellow, so I think of fourth grade as yellow and the beach vacation fits right in, almost like it's color-coded. I was 11 in sixth grade, when I was in my first play, Oz (the Broadway version of The Wizard of Oz). The number 11 is green, and I think of Oz as green because of the Emerald City. If the play had been in fourth grade, I could have considered Oz to be yellow, like the yellow-brick road. I also could have colored sixth grade purple since 6 is purple. But 11 and the Emerald City just matched. I don't know if this was a conscious choice or not.
These are the main questions I get asked about synesthesia, and I'm happy to answer more. I'm not an expert on synesthesia itself, but I can answer questions about my experience.