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Music by VICE

Synesthesia on Psychedelics

A first hand account from someone with synesthesia (they hear colours and see music) who took some psychedelic drugs and freaked out extra hard.

by Wayne Gehret
May 9 2013, 5:36pm

"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe."
-Replicant Roy Batty in the film Blade Runner

I was in my elementary school library perusing the modest stacks in search of a science report topic.  It was a small rural school but the library wasn't half bad.  As a sci-fi obsessed, nerdy ten year old who aspired to what little nonconformity could be had in such a place, I was in search of an unconventional topic—something edgy.  No volcanoes. No space shuttles. Renewable energy was totally out of the question. The school librarian wisely suggested psychic phenomena as my best bet if I wished to venture beyond the frayed edges of accepted science while still remaining on school property.

One book in particular seemed to have everything I needed, a one-stop-shop for the aspiring grade school paranormal investigator. Clairvoyance: check. Telepathy: check. Telekinesis: hell, they had an entire chapter devoted to the famously crafty spoon-bender and personal friend of Michael Jackson, Uri Geller (who no longer claims to have supernatural powers). 

But it was the appendices of this book that grabbed my attention.  Here, laid out, was an assortment of less controversial but well documented outliers of human ability: Polynesian firewalkers, Indian gurus who are to able forego food and water for extended periods of time, and the notorious vagabond mystic and trusted confident of the last Tsar of Russia, Grigori Rasputin, who had been able (likely by means of hypnosis) to stop the bleeding of the hemophiliac Tsarevich Alexei.  And then there was a section on synesthesia, a condition whereby two or more senses are linked, most commonly manifesting in the form of colour association for letters, numbers, and musical pitches. As I read the entry my ten-year-old mind came to two equally profound realizations. One, while I had always experienced this colour association for letters, numbers and pitches, it now dawned on me that most other people didn't. Two, this was no "condition" or quirk.  As far as I was concerned I had a goddamned super power.

Fast forward a little over a decade and I'm perched in the nether regions of the Worcester Centrum on New Year's Eve watching the members of the band Phish descend from the ceiling through a thick cannabis haze, lowered down on invisible wire harnesses, clad in diving suits and scuba gear.  They're opening the show with Frank Zappa's Peaches en Regalia. Violent technicolour explosions are going off inside my head. My synapses are being carpet-bombed with way too much data. It's a shit-storm of sensory overload and I'm trying my best to keep it together. You see, I've taken some acid of the windowpane variety. A single hit is an undeniably adult-sized portion. I took two "just to be safe", whatever the hell that means. In musical terms this particular Zappa piece could best be described as "busy". It's an unrelenting blitzkrieg of pitches, chords and odd rhythms—fun stuff, but not your typical toe-tappin', head-bobbing jam band fare. Manic guitar licks and angular keyboard riffs are setting off brilliant streams of tracer rounds in my field of vision, a counterpoint to the booming artillery fire of bass and drums detonating overhead. I'm inclined to run for cover.  

As the concert progresses I'm experiencing the music on a molecular level. It's profound, at times moving. But it's taking a lot of effort to process. I'm literally seeing every single note of every song whether I want to or not. Each is a burst, a plume or a line of brilliant color superimposed on my visual cortex by my drug-addled brain. And my brain is quickly becoming fatigued from all of this extra heaving lifting. While the pyrotechnics display is breathtaking there is no escaping the fact that I am hostage to it.

I stay and take in the show for as long as I can stand it but as I feel my spine, brain stem and attached nervous system nearing the point of outright mutiny I have no choice but to leave the arena. Time to head out into the cold (no re-admittance) to ride out the remainder of the trip in the comfort of my Ford Tempo. I'm hopeful that I'll be able to find the car and even more hopeful that my buddies will remember to find me after the show. It is snowing really hard and I am glad. Snow deadens and absorbs sound—it's the perfect respite from the audio-visual onslaught I've just endured.

After the show I meet up with my friends and we find our way home in the wee hours of the morning, not before getting pulled over by the state police, who for some reason (a mountain of paperwork perhaps?) think it best to let us off the hook with a stern warning and a few wisecracks about our dilated pupils. The next stop on this mind-bending, teeth-grinding joyride is six hours of rocking back and forth in my apartment hugging my knees and repeating the mantra, "Please God, let me go to sleep. Please God, let me go to sleep".  (There are no atheists in the foxhole of a shitty acid comedown.)  Every sensory organ in my body is burned out, every neuron a tiny abrasion, sore to the touch. Well after the sun has risen I finally doze off and sleep like the dead for the better part of two days.

And that, gentle reader, was my last experience with LSD. 

Under more normal circumstances (i.e. not tripping) synesthesia is a much more subtle thing, or at least that's how it is for me. I sometimes forget it's there at all. When I look down at the keys of a piano it's like my mind places a translucent overlay across the keyboard, which gives each key a barely noticeable hue. The colours I see are more like memories of a color - the way you remember the color red when you visualize an apple.  After years of reading, writing and studying music I've learned how to tune it out during times when it could be potentially distracting.  Conversely, I've figured out how to crank it up whenever I think it might come in handy. 

Early in life synesthesia did cause few minor headaches. A prime example: in grade school if I were to blow through my math homework assignments too quickly I would sometimes make seemingly careless errors because I associated certain numbers (like four and six) with similar colors (both shades of blue). I would simply mistake for one the other. It was a bit awkward the first time I tried to explain to my parents exactly why the numbers 4 and 6 were so easily confused. Mercifully they both happened to be musicians and educators and their curiosity outweighed any feelings of concern or alarm. 

In fact my parents helped me turn my synesthesia into a parlour trick of sorts. My mom and I had a little game—I'd sit facing into a corner and she would play notes on the piano. Based on the colors that popped into my head, I could identify the pitches. A was violet, E was orange, G was brown and so forth. And each note consistently produced the same color each time I heard it without fail. With a bit of practice it was nearly infallible. Perfect pitch they called it, though I came to loathe this phrase after having read Lord of the Flies—the book's antagonist, choirboy/sociopath Jack Merridew, brags about having perfect pitch before embarking on a murderous descent into a Hobbesian state of nature.

Later on in music school I honed the pitch aspect into something more useful, mainly as a tool for quickly learning pieces of music by ear. This was particularly helpful on transcription assignments, which involved hearing a piece, identifying all of its components—melody, harmony, rhythm - and writing it all out.  It was just a matter of decoding the music into colors in my mind (this part happened automatically), keeping track of those colors and the order in which they were received and outputting the data in the form of musical notes on paper.                       

After the great Phish on acid incident, I did manage to have several markedly more pleasant experiences involving psychedelics and synesthesia. Mushrooms were a safer, more practical alternative to acid as the dosages were easier to regulate and increment as needed. During my twenties my best friend and I ran a small recording studio out of the basement of our apartment. I have quite a few fond memories of late night 'shroom-fueled jam sessions with plenty of killer weed, bourbon, and hard cider on hand to soften the impact of the psilocybin.  These less intense episodes were still quite stimulating without the sheer brute force (and accompanying raw nerves) of an LSD trip.  Also I found that if the evening's events were to include loud—I mean concert loud—music it was altogether more enjoyable to be the one creating and executing the music as opposed to merely listening to it passively. I'd play an A on my electric piano and a fountain of soft violet would spring forth. Make it an A minor chord with a G and an E and the violet fountain would soar upwards like a comet, adorned with radiant orange fringes and a brownish tail of glowing embers. Control, specifically the ability to make the music stop at will, seemed to be key. Most of all it was fun. Using my fingertips to generate music—music that could be seen—made me feel like the fucking Sorcerer's Apprentice with a payload of psychoactive fireworks strapped to my back and ready to deploy. 

Now I do acknowledge that these descriptions of visualizing sound might not sound terribly unique. The anecdotal “free light show” has always been an integral part of psychedelic lore ever since the days of Jefferson Airplane and Timothy Leary. I think it's safe to say that with a little help from modern chemistry it's possible for anyone to experience sensory cross-talk on a scale of faint and fleeting to cosmic and life-changing. What seems to be unique among synesthetes is the consistency; the same pitches usually trigger the same corresponding colors (though the color assignments tend to vary between individuals). This raises some interesting questions. Do psychedelic drugs impart a degree of temporary synethesia to non-synesthetes? If so, to what extent do pitches correspond to a fixed color scheme? I suspect that a sizable contingent of dutiful VICE readers would be willing to research the subject and share their findings in the comments section. After all it would be in the name of science.

Photos by Bill Letourneau.                     

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