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Finding the Words

When we try to put our experiences into words, and the words unlock new experiences

This may sound odd, but I never seriously thought that I might have synesthesia before I joined an email list for synesthetes.

I mean, the thought crossed my mind when I tried to tell an ex-boyfriend I don't like old video game synthesizer-music because it's uncomfortably fuzzy like dollar store reindeer horns and he looked at me like I was nuts. I thought: maybe it's synesthesia? Nah, this is so normal, I'm sure everyone experiences something like it and my boyfriend is the odd one for not understanding the textures of sounds. Anyone who speaks of timbre and sound quality must be saying the same thing with different words.

In a sense, they probably are.

Many years post-boyfriend, I was searching high and low for another person whose brain responds to its soundscape by warping flavors (similar to synesthesia, but not the same thing). That's how I connected with the Synesthesia List. I sent out an email to a thousand strangers with a description of my brain-thing and various examples, seeking fresh insight and hopefully another like me.

No such person responded. But a conversation began, and in the course of this conversation with a thousand strangers, I noted that highly textured sounds seem to have a greater effect on flavor. Some remarked that my description of textured sounds resembles associative synesthesia.

Associative synesthesia takes many forms, and these associations are not like the association we make between red solo cups and drunk frat boys. The solo cup association is indeed very powerful. It's enough to stop me from ever drinking out of a solo cup at a wine club release party. But I can still drink from a red solo cup without a flock of drunk frat boys running through my mind. I can't even imagine sounds without their shapes and textures, aside from the limited soundscapes that are distinctly texture-less. I simply don't know what it's like to hear old video game music without the fuzziness of fake reindeer horns besieging my brain. Associative synesthesia is an intersensory connection that happens, automatically and involuntarily, in the mind.

Since then, I've found myself considering, every time I listen to highly textured music or noises: How would I describe this to someone else?

Describing sensory experience is tricky, and the act of description forms a feedback loop that changes our very experience of the thing being described. Consider wine. We can describe wine aroma by rating fundamental features (fruitiness, earthiness), or by comparing it to specific things (apricot, daffodils). Those specific attributes are drawn from our daily experiences, our preferences, and a vast trove of scent memories that lie dormant until the nose coordinates with the brain to recognize a familiar smell.

Every winemaker has their own vocabulary for describing wine. Much of it is shared with the rest of the wine world. And yet, much of it is a personal, unique collection of descriptors that the winemaker returns to again and again. A friend often mentions the scent of leather in red wines. One of my favorites is daffodil. I smell it in Chardonnay. And while naming a scent allows me to see the wine with sharper resolution, my vocabulary also defines my sensory landscape. I smell daffodils because daffodils are a familiar part of my sensory world, because I have encountered that scent before, recognized it and named it, and it is therefore easy for me to think "daffodil".

The "daffodil" descriptor was acquired through the work of wine analysis. Before I learned to describe wine, I never smelled daffodil in anything but a daffodil. It's not the wines that changed, but rather, I did.

We listen to music all day in the winery. It's how you get through long hours of tank cleaning. Whenever a wildly textured song comes on, often something electronic, I find myself pausing in the seat of the forklift to search my mind for descriptors befitting the texture, compressibility, temperature, shape, and density of the sounds.

Developing a tactile vocabulary is about as easy as developing an olfactory vocabulary. Some sounds can be stuffed in a broad category (rubbery, slippery, chalky, small and ball-shaped, vast and space-filling), but the category is never enough to capture what I'm feeling. Other sounds defy categorization- only a specific descriptor works, such as the sticky-smooth texture of velvet covered in cobwebs. If I try to reduce it to "sticky and smooth", it doesn't capture the feeling. Still others are impossible to compare to any particular thing because they defy the laws of physics. What's rubbery like a grocery store checkout conveyor belt, light as air, and fills the space all around you? Nothing I've ever encountered outside my brain. And yet, that's just how it feels. 

While I'm searching for words, I feel like I'm forging paths through an uncharted landscape, one that I've always inhabited but never mapped, and I'm re-discovering familiar territory. In some ways it's just like discovering the term "daffodil" in wine, always there but never recognized. Naming the textures helps me see them more clearly.

Even so, I fear these paths could become ruts into which I fall by routine. Will the words limit me, even as they expand my understanding of the experience? Words are crucial, and yet, some part of this experience is transcendent.

"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent" -Wittgenstein

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White Noise

I owe a lot to you, White Noise. I just wish you wouldn't ruin all the good flavors and smells.


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