top of page

DIVERSITY: Living with synesthesia

“I usually have the talk with my students when, in my popular music classes, I talk about psychedelic rock because that means I have to talk about drugs and of course acid,” said Virginia Lamothe, an adjunct instructor of music and dance at Belmont University.

LSD is derived from an ergotamine, intended as migraine and seizure medication for the absent seizures Lamothe controls with prescribed counteractants.

However, she doesn’t need drugs to experience a neurological phenomenon of overwhelming sensory stimulation as a synesthete.

“Acid is a drug that can make someone experience something like synesthesia,” said Lamothe.

Synesthesia is unique to the individual and involves experiencing multiple sensations from a stimuli. Only 1 out of every 2,000 people experience synesthesia; however, the neurological phenomenon is more common among epileptics.

“In the beginning of a seizure, I get a pleasant feeling like I’m floating or falling. I’ll see little sparkling things and then everything gets really shiny and bright. It’s usually right after the pleasure that I experience the pain,” said Lamothe.

Luckily, she doesn’t go completely into full seizures since she recognizes the initial migraines have auras. If Lamothe starts experiencing a pleasurable and colorful feeling, she immediately takes her medicine.

After participating in a study with other synesthetes, Lamothe learned the researchers saw multiple areas of the brains light up on an MRI simultaneously.

“They told us they saw areas of our brain light up all at once. Instead of just the language center, the language and vision centers light up,” said Lamothe.

According to her neurologist, since her brain is backwards, LSD would not be “hippie fun” but calm her synesthesia since the drug was originally intended to treat people with severe epilepsy.

Since childhood, Lamothe has experienced color-graphemic, chromesthesia and spatial sequencing– all different types of synesthetic perceptions.

Color-graphemic synesthetes associate color with words, letters and numbers.

“I remember being sent to the principal for quietly and politely refusing to color the letter ‘A’ with a yellow crayon, since to me the color of ‘A’ is red,” said Lamothe. “They thought I was just being naughty and couldn’t understand how uncomfortable and disconcerting it is to color the letter with the wrong color.”

Due to the lack of understanding about epilepsy in the ‘80s, Lamothe was in a special education program. She was a very quiet and distracted child since she was always experiencing sensory input. Her parents seemed disappointed in their daughter’s constant sensory preoccupations and desire to be alone. Nobody, including herself, realized how intelligent she is until right before graduate school.

“Synesthesia got in the way of how I came across to people,” said Lamothe.

Although it has taken almost her entire life, Lamothe is able to turn off or turn down the colors and sensations.

“Certain things as a child were almost debilitating,” said Lamothe.

Having grown up in an old house with a vintage bathtub, the first time Lamothe showered slightly traumatized her. Although Lamothe practices personal hygiene, she needs the light and fan off while showering.

“I can only handle one sensory input at a time because of the sensory overload of the water hitting me, the light coming through the bathroom window and too much noise,” said Lamothe.

It is especially important for Lamothe to “turn off” her chromesthesia while teaching class. Chromesthesia involves hearing color associated with sound. The timbre of the instrument and tonality of music make certain colors come to mind. For Lamothe, the bowing of a violin is a gold like a sunset while the plucking of a violin is either green or blue.

“Music has always had color and all sound can be exciting or calming and have texture or weight,” said Lamothe.

While earning her doctorate in musicology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, chromesthesia helped Lamothe learn a few tricks.

“If the pitches to me have color, then I recognize the tone row. The same things with melodies,” said Lamothe.

With 12-tone music, where the composer doesn’t use traditional major or minor scales, Lamothe can pull out the pitches based on the colors she sees in her mind’s eye.

“To me, it’s just a weird, colorful and musical puzzle game. It doesn’t mean that I’m a musical genius, it just means that some things are quirky,” said Lamothe.

To her husband’s chagrin, Lamothe gravitates more towards cultural and performance theory rather than music theory although she can hear the different colors of tone rows, inversions, retrogrades and retrograde-inversions.

“In a Bach fugue, I can recognize the retrograde because I know it’s the same thing but backwards and it is blue,” said Lamothe.

When Lamothe first started working at the Vatican library, she received a universal calendar as a gift. Universal calendars predict when Feast Days are going to happen through the centuries. But Lamothe realized she didn’t need to use the calendar because she can keep dates straight in her head.

She organizes and sequences time due to her association of colors to the days of the week, months and hours. Lamothe’s perception of time is called spatial sequencing.

“In my mind, February is a dark red, but, when we get to April, it’s pink so I can make the association between the colors,” said Lamothe.

As a little girl, she found it hard not to match her outfit to the color of the week. As an adult, she can rationalize wearing a red-patterned scarf on Wednesday even though Wednesday is green.

Although the lack of color-coordination doesn’t overwhelm Lamothe anymore, the elevators on campus irritate her.

“One of these days I’m going to switch all of the numbers and colors on the elevators across campus so they’re right,” said Lamothe.

This article was written by Courtney Bellush.

0 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page