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Synesthesia, ADHD and a look at what it means to be normal

eglaser's picture

We all see the world differently. We physically see the world differently. When I look at a painting or even just a group of people I will perceive it in a completely different way than anyone else. This statement in and of itself should not be surprising but, for many people, it is. Society has created the illusion that there is one normative state, one way of seeing the world and that if you do not have the same mode of perception you are in some way flawed. This paper will explore the impressions of four different people as they experience the same two art pieces a painting by Van Gogh titled “Wheatfield with Crows” and a song called “Brighter than Sunshine” by Aqualung. It will explore the different ways of experiencing art with the hope of reinforcing our discussion on the differences in perception that are present in different people.

Of the three individuals interviewed for this paper two are synesthetic and one has severe ADHD. All three are between the ages of 20 and 21, are female and attend college. One is a psychology major, one an art major and the other an English major. These three represent what are considered to be abnormal ways of viewing the world. Despite the commonality of these neurological conditions, ADHD affects approximately 4.1 percent of adults in a given year ( and Synesthesia is estimated to be as common as every 1 of 23 people (Sacks, 179),  they are still treated as something wrong rather then another mode of seeing the world. I used myself as the control in this instance as my way of perceiving the world has always been construed as ‘normal.’ Where my three interviewees have been labeled with differences I have never been given any label in terms of how I perceive the world. I am a relatively blank slate (as far as this society is concerned).

For Karen , Amy, and Natalia(names changed at the request of the interviewees), these conditions are normal and very important to their definition of who they are. When I pressed Karen about her ADHD she finally exclaimed, “It’s me! It’s all just me!” even though she was treated differently by peers and teachers growing up she still considered herself to be “normal” and could not understand why she was singled out. Both Amy and Natalia had very little understanding of how their perceptions of the world were unusual. Natalia explained that until she began talking to me about this paper she did not realize how very differently she saw the world then I did.

“Try changing the color of the sky” she said, “look out the window, let’s say the sky is purple and the trees are pink. Ok? Do you see that?”
“Natalia I don’t see it that way, I can’t do that, I can not physically do that, I don’t know how.”
“It’s easy! Just change the colors.”

All three casually dismissed the way they saw the world as “normal.” As Karen put it, “but everyone has that… You don’t feel that? You’re weird.” To all three of them I was the abnormal one.

Even when their way of perceiving the world overlapped it always did so in different ways, even though Amy and Natalia are synesthetic and associate colors with what they can see it can be vastly different colors. I for instance am red, orange and black to one of them and green and earth tones to the other. When comparing colors Natalia said that she “completely disagreed” with all of Amy’s colors. When they were asked to listen to a song and view a work of art the variety of responses was astonishing. The same two pieces elicited highly subjective responses. Van Gogh’s painting I selected because I knew that there was an emotional aspect to the painting, it is the last painting he did before he killed himself and it is of the field he committed suicide in. The song was selected as a slow love song, relatively simple (to me).

Van Gogh’s painting, “Wheatfield with Crows” elicited a variety of responses in each individual. Karen, after a brief pause responded, “It makes me feel very sad, it’s very full of despair…just look at it, everything is completely out of control… like you’re about to be caught in a huge storm… it’s terrible.” She reacted to it on an emotional level and immediately connected with the emotions of the piece. She did not discuss the brushstrokes or the colors used, she empathized with the painter and the emotional impact of the piece. Amy discussed how she could feel the texture of the brushstrokes under her fingers. “I know what this would sound like,” she said, “F-sharp.” She also associated this piece with the color orange. Natalia saw this painting and immediately leaned back in her seat with a sharp exhalation. “I see red, there is red everywhere.” She felt herself enter the painting, “I am in there and everything is moving… The colors are darker then they are… it’s like they are saturated…I can feel the wheat… the birds disappear though.” She engaged with the piece as a full landscape she could enter, touch and interact with. When I first saw this panting I felt like there was a weight in my stomach something about it felt unsettling to me but the brightness of the wheat and the green grass made it interesting to look at. There was a general sense of negative emotions but it was very muted. All of us looked at the same picture and saw it in different ways. Amy focused on the color orange, Natalia on the color red, Karen focused on the swirling darkness of the sky and I focused on the bright yellow of the grass. When looking at this painting what do you see? I bet it is very different.

The song “Brighter than Sunshine” by Aqualung is a very uplifting song to me, it speaks of love in a positive, happy way. It always makes me smile. Karen had a similar reaction, “Its very relaxing, very chill, when you first get that sense of it, but it’s also, it’s also happy, it’s like a quiet exuberant happiness. It was kind of sweet. Of course I associate it with when you are in love, that wonderful bright ball of happiness in you.” Amy and Natalia however had very different responses. Amy said that it was a red song. “The singer’s voice was so red. The beginning note was yellow… it was a combination of warm colors.” Natalia could only take the first 20 seconds or so of the song before exclaiming, “turn it off, it’s too much.” As soon as I did she began explaining the series of images that sprung to her mind when she listened to the song. “People dying” she began, someone slitting their wrists lengthwise and darkened blood coming out. Stylized vibrant red roots coming out of the cuts. That then switched to a girl with black hair being blown around by the wind. She explained that the woman looked like she was made of paper cutouts. Lastly a man walking through a field full of saturated color which gave way to a man holding a yellow balloon. The song is a love song but it impacted completely differently on Natalia and on Amy then one would suspect.

Not only do we all see the world in different ways, we see that difference as normal. Natalia is a painter and when I complemented her on her unique style she just shrugged and replied, “I just paint what I see.”  Because of the way she sees the world she is capable of creating beautiful works of art. Amy is a composer. She explained that, “in music there are some chords that are all green or all red and even though a classical musician wouldn’t put them together they work well in my head.” Karen also creates art but finds that her most creative, interesting works come when she is off her medication and can fully express herself. A large part of the way our society functions is by forcing others to see the world in one way. That is clearly impossible. Even in one small group of individuals the world looks and feels completely different. When we instead embrace the different ways people view things we receive amazing works of art, innovative forms of music and inspiring acts of creativity. Who can say now that normalcy even exists on a large scale? Who can say now that we want it to?

For an image of Van Gogh’s “Wheatfield with Crows” this is the link I used during my interviews.

Link to the song “Brighter Than Sunshine” by Aqualung

"The Numbers Count: Mental disorders in America." 4 Feb. 2009. The National Institute of
Mental Health.

Sacks, Oliver. Musicophilia Tales of Music and the Brain. New York: Knopf, 2007.


Sarah's picture

I'm not sure about this, is this a form of Synesthesia?

The only thing I can smell in the painting is the wheat field it smells like clay and looking at the sky in the painting makes me rember how it feels to jump into a pool on a scorching hot day
the road smells like cedar and pine

I also can see music not in the way you may think It's like a music video my mind has fabricated for a song, like choral songs that were in italian very old songs, I could see what the song meant and the emotions that ran through them, I could feel the emotions of these charechters, as if I was myself and the person in the song like an outer body experience but not this all happens when I'm on stage, the fact that I'm on stage 90% of the time escapes me, all I can do is sing and project my emotions I see in the movie in my mind

I also can look at letters and numbers and say what I think they look like

like a letter and a number may look like human traits like the 1 in the picture is aggravated at the T.

giving human traits to inatimate objects is quite strange to me

I have ADD as well as a learning disability called visual motor integration disorder

I don't know if that plays any role but I'd thaought I'd mention it

like this test
of remote viewing I don't know how much of Psychic abilities go I don't know if I believe in all that, but I got strange results

I also can create beautiful works of art in my mind but I am not good at drawing so they never can be put down on paper sadly, I also have very vivid dreams 80% of the time I remember them, I even remember some dreams from years ago.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Perceptual variation

Very interesting.  To help, here's "Wheatfield with Crows"

For some other places to notice different people's responses to the same images see