Synaesthesia and the Spectral Locomotive.

Image by Artur84 courtesy of


Last year, I was delighted to take part in a wonderful magic realism blog hop organised by Zoe Brooks, (you can see the short story I wrote for it here.) Check out the links at the bottom of this page for other great blogs by fantastic authors on the hop.

In the previous blog hop, I included a short story, as I didn’t really know what I had to say about the genre. I felt at a loss I suppose. Many others had, and have posted excellent pieces about magic realism, and considering how flexible the genre is inherently, there might feasibly be as many personal interpretations as there are grains of sand.

With this in mind, I thought I’d try this year to talk about what draws me personally to write magic-infused stories, and to enjoy reading them. The answer is perhaps more clinical than you might think. Apparently my brain is hard-wired to see fantastic things.

I have a condition called synaesthesia. Here’s the wiki page. I can’t explain it all that well in terms of the science of it, but essentially it means that my sense are a little more interconnected than they might ordinarily be in most people. I like to use the metaphor of a ghost train, stopping at stations that would have been long since shut down in other  minds. In my brain, strange pathways led to strange places. Smells become sights; colours and emotions and tastes all intertwine.

For example, when I smell a perfume, it also manifests itself as a colour in my mind’s eye. The same perfume will always bring to mind that colour, in the same way that if I asked you to tell me what colour the grass was, you would instinctively think green wouldn’t you?

Chanel make a perfume called Chance. I used to wear it all the time, but my mother (who is also a synaesthete) wasn’t a fan. One day we both realised that the reason we disagreed over the smell was because it was a very light shade of blue. As a child I had loved the colour, but my mother couldn’t stand it. As far as I know, synaesthetes won’t usually see the same colours or patterns for the same things, but sometimes these overlap. So, a lot of synaesthetes might see the letter O as white in colour for example.

Some synaesthetes have only one type of sensory overlap, such as that of colour-numbers/letters. I happen to be blessed (or cursed) with a wide range of sensory entanglements. Numbers and letters have colours, genders and their own personalities. (I thought I was just a little crazy until I realised that some other synaesthetes personify numbers too-phew), whenever I hear music I see patterns, shapes and colours. Emotions have colours (grief and all bitter-sweet feelings are purple). When I touch something hot or cold, that also manifests itself as a colour, and when that something is too hot or too cold both sensations look exactly the same to me, they are both yellow.

Certain words have an amazing power to bring tastes into my mouth, “emerald” being the strongest of these. Whenever I hear or say the word, I experience a rush of sweetness, a bit like syrup, on the back of my tongue. I once heard that these taste sensations are frequently linked to childhood experiences. I think perhaps I was watching The Wizard of Oz, eating a lollipop when the Emerald City scene came on, and now the association is with me for life. Lucky for me it’s a pleasant one!

I could go on and on but I won’t. This is supposed to be a post about creativity, not neurological conditions. I wanted to share this because I wanted to show how magic for me is not so unlikely or remote a thing. I live in a kaleidoscope. When I hear music or conversations the patterns and colours soar around me in great arcs. I sit in lecture theatres and coffeeshops and have to try and not be engulfed in rainbows. It can be terribly beautiful. Terrible because the sensory overload I occasionally experience can tip me into anxiety attacks. Beautiful, because I live in a world where monotony is just impossible.

I recently discovered that, when given the choice, I will rely on my synaesthetic responses over my normal ones. If a friend asks me “can you hear that?” I won’t listen, I will look to see if I can spot the shapes the sound makes. Perhaps vibrations trigger these patterns then, as I often see the shapes before I am aware of any sound. Because of this, I can’t imagine what I would do if I woke up without these strange hallucinations. How would I feel my way around the world? I suppose I would adjust, but it would be like loosing a limb.

When I write about magic in everyday life, it’s because the concept lies close to my heart. I see magical things all the time. Every time someone speaks, or a band plays, or someone hurts me, or makes me happy, I see things that are unique to me. Ghosts are everywhere. Ghosts of sentences, or dogs barking. Ghosts of emotions. When someone talks about “a smile lighting up a room” for me it’s really true. When someone smiles naturally and unselfconsciously it makes me see a giant sunflower, with huge petals opening up, it brightens me too. That may sound horrifically corny, but it’s what I see.

I suppose the one thing my condition and my writing have led me to wonder, is what is magic now? The term and its implications for society have meant so many different things throughout history. Magic can have both positive and negative and (perhaps more rarely) neutral connotations. It represents the wondrous, the heinous, the mysterious, the things we don’t understand. Nowadays it is taken more metaphorically. We say “oh when we got engaged it was just so magical.” I understand that my synaesthetic experiences can be explained by science, but that doesn’t stop them from feeling any less magical to me.

For me, magic is an every day thing. Sudden visions appear and disappear all around me and I walk through them, because I’m too busy and I can’t afford to get distracted. I don’t want to be run over, or I don’t want to miss my bus. Sometimes I allow myself time to enjoy them. I’ll put on my favourite songs and watch the patterns they make as they form and swirl around. Then, I collect the things I see and incorporate them into stories. Being a synaesthete has many draw backs, but I know I’m lucky. I rarely run out of inspiration, because my dreams are all around me.

This post is part of the Magic Realism Blog Hop. Twenty blogs are taking part in the hop. Over three days (6th – 8th August) these blogs will be posting about magic realism. Please take the time to click on the link below to find out about the other posts and remember that links to the new posts will be added over the three days, so do come back to read more.







22 thoughts on “Synaesthesia and the Spectral Locomotive.

  1. That’s a really wonderful article Eils. Now I won’t underestimate the meaning of sensory overload! Xx


    • Thank you 🙂
      I’ve wanted to write an article about this for ages, but kept shying away from it. It’s such a hard thing to explain properly. I wish I knew more of the science behind it but I hope I managed to convey a little bit of what it’s like to have the condition to this bizarre extent!

  2. This is such an interesting read. I must admit that I had never heard of synaesthesia until you told me about it. I have no idea how you manage to focus!

  3. What a terrific blog: moving, fascinating, insightful. I worked with a synaesthete years ago, and wish I had understood better what life must have been like for him. He was an artist and art historian, and he felt very much that his synaesthetic experiences were strongly connected to his creativity. The scientist in me values your narrative as more evidence that we understand too little about the brain still, while the writer in me envies your experience of the world in all its multi-sensory wonders. Thank you for sharing this with us.
    Evie Woolmore

    • Hi Evie – I just left you a long reply on here and then it vanished! Apologies if it pops up again…I was just saying how much I enjoyed your post on the blog hop and how it’s great that we were in sync, both writing about sensory experiences and magic realism! I agree with you that there’s a lot about the functions of the brain we still don’t understand. I find those spooky coincidences you mentioned fascinating. I think a lot of people can relate to that feeling of knowing someone will call beforehand, or thinking of someone and then bumping into them in the street. Being a synaesthete does make me appreciate the complexity of the brain and how unfathomable it seems! If you ever want to know more about synaesthesia just give me a shout. I’m always happy to answer questions, especially for writers who want to know more about what it’s like to have the condition. Anyway, thanks for sharing and for reading. Best, Eilís

  4. A Moving article. Letters, personality, a person’s smile! I have sore cheeks from smiling as I read this. Your life is magical realism, a painting with moving and ever-changing colours, a dream door wide open to the waking world. Thank you for sharing a significant part of your life with us. Magnifique Eilís.

    • Thank you for the wonderful comment Percy! Delighted that it brought a smile to your face 😀 That’s what writing is all about eh! Thank you for reading.

  5. This was an inspiring article, Eils– truly, your experience is the experience of MR. What a fabulously unique perspective. There is a fabulous book called HALLUCINATIONS by Jon Ronson — that delves into all matters and types of hallucinations (for lack of a better word) people have– from the most obvious the majority of us know about– to the most subtle or obscure most have never heard about. It is a fascinating read. Many thanks for sharing your story with us.

    • Ah thanks for the book recommendation! That sounds like an interesting read, I’ll check it out. Thank you for reading, and for the kind comments 🙂

  6. Aside from educating me today, you have left me just a tad envious. I cannot imagine the richness this adds to your life. That’s not to say that I fail to see the possible drawbacks as well. But I do think it must add greatly to the inspirations for writing.

    • Hi Yvonne, thank you for reading. You know I grumble about it sometimes but really I can’t complain. Synaesthesia is a real joy most of the time! Growing up I just assumed that everyone saw things the way I did. It was a big shock to learn that they didn’t. And you’re right it is so handy when I have writer’s block, all I have to do is stick some music on or take a walk and ideas just pop up all around me!

  7. An enjoyable read, thank you. 🙂 This, in particular, caught my attention:

    ‘When I hear music or conversations the patterns and colours soar around me in great arcs. I sit in lecture theatres and coffeeshops and have to try and not be engulfed in rainbows. It can be terribly beautiful.’

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