Humans of UD: Molly Martin

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Photo by Michelle McDaniel.

Molly Martin: Sophomore psychology major from Houston, Texas.

Sophomore Molly Martin lives in a colorful world, viewing art in a unique way in which few can participate.

Martin possesses the experience of synesthesia, a psychological condition involving the crossing of two or more senses in the brain.

“For me, I have sound and color synesthesia, so certain sounds produce colors in my mind’s eye,” Martin explained. “If I’m looking at something, I don’t see any. It’s just when I don’t have a visual stimulus my brain supplies those things.”

“I did actually learn from Dr. Churchill that babies are born synesthetic,” she added. “As your brain develops, the different senses are separated out into different parts of your brain. The people who have synesthesia —– their brains just don’t separate out in the same way. That’s the basics of synesthesia.”

Martin took her first psychology course during her senior year of high school. The teacher mentioned synesthesia briefly in the section on sensation and perception, and explained the condition. Martin recognized the symptoms for herself, and began to experiment with music.

She listened to her favorite CD from her childhood, “Bach for Babies,”, and was intrigued to find that the colors she remembered still came to her while listening to the music as a high schooler.

After listening to the CD again, she wondered if the appearance of color with audio was an uncommon thing, and discussed it with others; when most people replied with unusual reactions, it occurred to her that perhaps not everyone experiences the world as she does.

“For me, honestly, it’s just a party trick,” Martin said. “I don’t find that it’s a super significant part of my understanding of the world. It’s just kind of fun to talk to someone and say, ‘hey, by the way, your voice is purple,’ or whatever. It’s interesting the connotations [you’d expect] certain sounds to have and then those do or don’t line up.”

Martin finds classical and instrumental music to be the most colorful, especially that of Bach. For example, the composer’s Brandenburg Concerto no. 5 shows itself to be pink, teal and purple, and is geometric as well.

“Really, it’s just a fun thing and interesting to play around with,” Martin said. “I find that a lot of Bach’s music manifests itself in my mind as shapes. Triangles and crescent moons. There are a lot of lines and slashes.”

Martin has sung in choirs and enjoys painting. She’s attempted to combine the two types of art by painting what she sees within music, but has been unable to find a medium in which she can successfully portray the colors she sees.

“I think that would be really cool if I could, and I haven’t yet found a way to express it because it’s temporal,” Martin said. “As the music progresses, the colors don’t stay the same the whole time, so I have to find a way to make a progression of time visible on a canvas. That’s something I’ve played around with.”

Martin finds that speaking voices are unusual in that they’re frequently a slash of color, as opposed to most music, which is a wash of color with details thrown in. People’s speaking voices tend to be more vibrant than music, although music tends to be more consistently colorful.

Although she easily sees color in others’ voices, she finds it difficult seeing the color of her own voice unless listening to it in a recording.

“My voice tends to be a spectrum from burgundy through icy blue, and it depends on the amount of bravado and the kind of music I’m singing,” she recounted. “So when I’m doing stuff in a lower register, it tends to be more red tones and purple. My classic voice is generally lavender. It has a very specific shape, and then if I do more classical music, especially if I do very straight tone, it gets very white and blue.”

Martin doesn’t see her synesthesia as something that affects her daily life, but something small and fun.

“There’s that little thing, the intrusive thought in my brain that says, ‘what if you are faking this,’ but I don’t think I am because it’s how I perceive the world,” she said. “I feel like that’s a thing with anything that’s slightly different about you, that your brain is always going to go, ‘but what if you’re wrong and you’re normal, but you just want to be special.’”

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