THE BLOG
07/28/2013 10:57 am ET Updated Sep 27, 2013

Synesthesia: Colors to Spare

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Like the delightful Neil Harbisson, I also associate color with sound, except it's in my own head. I am a synesthete. My brain neurons either overlap or have a lack of chemical inhibition which causes me to have the trait of blended senses. Some researchers say we are all born this way but that there is a pruning back of these connections at about four months for all but about four percent of people. As a result, I navigate a world of extraordinary spectra that is an embarrassment of riches when compared to Mr. Harbisson's color-free experience: there are lit, motile, tactile and temperate hues of unending subtlety all around me.

A digital designer seeking to create a website palette from a "real, live synesthete" recently contacted me to listen to a piece of French underground music called "Les Métamorphoses Du Vide" by Chapelier Fou and translate it to color. The floodgates opened. The violins inspired a right-to-left parade of navy blue dashes that felt like a piece of slate brushing against my hands and right forearm. The plucky harp sound which came next was vertical, lemony columns, illuminated and glass-like, smooth and cool against the right cheek of my face, drifting from top to bottom in my visual field. The synthesizer notes that followed were mostly white, milky, dripping wet bubbles, popping up and disappearing. The cello portion was wavy, mocha and hot and appeared from floor to ceiling. These images were out in front of me but they did not block my ordinary vision. When I have moments of self-consciousness about how this sounds to other people, I remind myself that very accomplished people like Geoffrey Rush, Tilda Swinton, Vladmir Nabakov, Duke Ellington, Billy Joel, Itzhak Perlman and possibly even Marilyn Monroe were or are synesthetes. I also have colored numbers, letters, days of the week and months among other synesthesias.

In a famous story from the annals of home renovations in my family, I troubled a painting contractor and broke the local Sherwin Williams store's record for the number of paint samples on a single project -- I rejected 32 of them before settling on the perfect shades for the exterior of my house. -- Maureen Seaberg

I think synesthetes are the most persnickety color theorists on the planet -- we sometimes even debate the correct color for each letter of the alphabet amongst ourselves. As there is no Rosetta Stone for our trait, each synesthete has his or her own associations and we tend to be very, very attached to them as they are mostly consistent over a lifetime. They serve as a mnemonic when memorizing dates or phone numbers and are even like spell check since we'll bristle when something's "off" in the colors of a word. The neuroscientist and author, Dr. David Eagleman, did not give multiple choice color answers like orange, yellow-green or red for his widely-used test of synesthesia's validity, his online Synesthesia Battery. He instead incorporated a custom color bar and let participating "synnies," as we call ourselves, pull down just the perfect shade of persimmon, chartreuse or scarlet, click and send.

In a famous story from the annals of home renovations in my family, I troubled a painting contractor and broke the local Sherwin Williams store's record for the number of paint samples on a single project -- I rejected 32 of them before settling on the perfect shades for the exterior of my house. Never mind that I only wanted the "bland" colors of beige and almond for the historic Arts and Crafts overlooking New York City's harbor -- it had to be the right beige and almond; more pink than yellow in both cases, with undertones of periwinkle for the beige -- and the right mix of coolness and warmth -- to match its shape.

I may also be a "tetrachromat" -- a person, always a woman -- with an extra cone for color perception. Normal people can perceive a million colors; tetrachromats are believed to see 100 million and are also known to be very particular about their hues. I recently sent a DNA test of my saliva off to Dr. Jay Neitz's lab at the University of Washington in Seattle after getting a high score on an online test. (Fun synchronicity: Dr. Neitz and Neil Harbisson are both at the meeting of the International Color Vision Society as I write this). There may be a connection between synesthesia and tetrachromacy but it needs to be studied more. My only brother is color blind, which is often the case with tetrachromats -- as though there's just so much color to go around in the family gene banquet and I took an extra helping that should have been on his chromosomal plate. I was happy to participate in this test because Dr. Neitz and other researchers wish to develop stem cell therapies for the color blind based on their work with tetrachromats. I hope I test positive and can be of service in the future -- it would be a chance to share my seemingly infinite rainbow with other people.

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