A Mango-Shaped Space

Overview

Thirteen-year-old Mia Winchell appears to be the most normal kid in her family. Her younger brother Zack keeps a chart of all the McDonald’s hamburgers he’s eaten in his lifetime. Her older sister Beth dyes her hair a different color every week and might be a witch. But Mia knows she is far from ordinary. She is keeping something from everyone who knows her: the fact that sounds, numbers, and letters have color for her.

When trouble in school finally convinces Mia to reveal her secret, she feels like a freak. Her family and friends have trouble relating to her as she embarks on an intense journey of self-discovery. By the time she realizes she has isolated herself from all the people who care about her, it is almost too late. She has to lose something very special in order to find herself.

What is synesthesia?

To put it simply, Synesthesia is a condition that some people have where the different senses—touch, taste, hearing, vision, and smell—get mixed up instead of remaining separate. The most common variety is called Lexical Synesthesia, which is where letters and numbers each have individual colors. For instance, someone with this condition might say that the letter “A” has a sunflower yellow tint with a crumbly feel to it. The number 2 might be the color of wet cement.

There are other pairings, like sound-to-vision, where the notes of the violin could cause the listener to see small silver balls raining down in front of them. For others, their synesthesia takes the form of sound-to-taste. The word “cat” might taste like peanut butter, or the name Michael might be hot buttered popcorn. These perceptions feel very real to the person having them.

Most people who have Synesthesia think that surely everyone else sees the same things they do. At some point they inevitably find out that’s not the case—usually by the blank stares they receive when they talk about it. Books like A Mango-Shaped Space are getting the word out about this fascinating condition. Scientific researchers have known about it for over a hundred years, but only recently has it been getting the attention it deserves. One out of every two thousand people are now believed to have some form of Synesthesia, and the numbers may be even higher than that. So go on, ask your friends and family what color “A” is, and see what they tell you!

A letter from David, a 16-year-old synesthete

Hi, I just wanted to say that your book ‘A Mango Shaped Space‘ is really touching and I’m glad that I ran across it because it shed some light on why these things go on in my head.

I’m an associating synesthete and after reading your book I discovered what it was I had.

And when I read Mia’s description of listening to music, I jumped up and down excited like a 9-year-old because it’s description was exactly like how I experience music. Music plays a huge part in my life and thanks to you I finally understand why I experience it in this way.

In fact, I thought everyone was like this until I read your book.

I found your book really accurate, so much that I thought you had it too! I really enjoyed it. I’m showing it to some friends and trying to get synesthesia more known throughout my school. I found a tight-knit group of synnies, a couple that I’ve known for a while but was unaware that they had it too, and we run tests on each other and do games and stuff. It’s really fun!

Again, thanks for the great read. And in case you’re wondering how all these synesthetes keep emailing you, someone put up your email address so we could babble like idiots about how we love your book.

-David (By the way, your name is a forest green with some yellow at the end, like sunlight peeking between the trees)

Memo from Sean A. Day, Ph.D., 
President of the American Synesthesia Association

The taste of beef is dark blue. The smell of almonds is pale orange. And when tenor saxophones play, the music looks like a coiling snake-ball of lit up purple neon tubes.

As both a synesthete and an academic researcher of synesthesia myself, I strongly applaud Wendy Mass’s book A Mango-Shaped Space. It is my hope that this book will be read by every pediatrician and grade school teacher.

Unlike some other current non-synesthete authors who have attempted to create synesthete characters, from the start, Mass determined that she wanted strict accuracy in her depiction of Mia Winchell’s condition, and thus sought out synesthetes and researchers to gain as much of that precision as she could. Mass and I corresponded for months, she burying me with questions and I trying to provide answers and references, clear up misconceptions, tweak descriptions, and give insights into certain lesser-known nuances. Going beyond that, she also joined an international correspondence group for synesthetes and researchers, and kept careful note of the overlaps and differences in what the various group members wrote.

The end result is that Mass’s character Mia Winchell is a very accurate depiction of a teenage multiple synesthete. I greatly appreciate that Mass provided Mia with two of the far most common types of synesthesia, colored letters and numbers (graphemes), and colored sounds, rather than becoming enamored of the far more rare forms, such as synesthetically tasting things you touch or synesthetically feeling different touches on your body for each of the different odors you smell. This makes Mia far more “typical,” and the book much more relevant. Synesthetically seeing colors for pheromones or other chemicals (odors) in the air is far more rare, but also quite within the realm of possibilities; I have a variant of this type of synesthesia myself. Although Mia has a few peculiarities as to how certain aspects of her synesthesia works, all in all, Mass’s depiction of Mia remains wholly within the realm of the possibilities documented in many case reports of actual synesthetes. It makes Mia far more convincing and believable.

I also like the way Mass deals with Mia’s “coming out of the closet” to her family and friends about her synesthesia. Again, Mass handles this matter very accurately and realistically. Such situations are not the experience of every synesthete. For example, since synesthesia is most probably in part genetic, passed down apparently on the mother’s side, there have been many families where one or both of the parents, plus perhaps a brother or sister, were also synesthetes, providing a fairly accepting atmosphere for a teen with the condition. However, since synesthesia is rather rare, and still unfortunately quite unknown to most general medical practitioners and grade school teachers, far more often, the teen is very much alone, facing the often harrowing question of “Why am I different?” The scene in the cafeteria, with everyone asking, “What color is my name?” is very familiar to me, too, and handled quite well by Mass.

For many years, people have asked me, “Why study such a rare neurological condition?” Granting that studying synesthesia is fascinating just because of how bizarre, unusual, and fun certain types can sometimes be, it also holds interest to neurologists, linguists, and other scientists for what insights it may shed on other indirectly related conditions such as certain types of autisms, epilepsies, migraines, schizophrenias, and phantom limbs, as well as providing us in general with sometimes radically new views as to how the brain works and how we shape our cognitive perceptions.

However, to me, these things are quite secondary. What is by far most important to me is that there are people out there—particularly young people—who have one or more types of synesthesia and who have no one around to tell them what is going on, that they are not “going crazy,” nor are they “brain damaged,” and that, although their perceptions of the world are somewhat different than others’, difference is okay. These people need to meet someone like Mia, who also comes to find that being different is okay—and sometimes sort of fun!

We really don’t know yet how rare or common various types of synesthesia are yet. We are, however, quite certain that the numbers are severely under-reported, mainly due to fear of ridicule, ostracism, or worse—such as forced “treatment” or institutionalization. This is tragic, since all forms of synesthesia are harmless and, furthermore, neurologically, may be considered within the realm of “a normal variant” rather than a “defect.” I think my favorite part of the whole book is when Dr. Jerry Weiss replies, “There is nothing wrong with her.”

This book will play a major role towards patching a hole that desperately needs to be filled.

As an aside, however: The sounds my cat Ming makes are distinctly emerald green and sapphire blue, and have never been any shade of yellow-orange!

But that’s just me and my cat. And Mia’s right when she says French horns sound school bus yellow.