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Life with synesthesia: Toronto man who can see sounds shares his story

The sounds of Toronto's subway system, from bustling trains to chatty commuters, are music to Greg Jarvis' ears – and his eyes.

"It's like a big grey swoosh," Jarvis says, as a westbound train enters Christie Station. "But there's so many sounds within it. Even the clatter of the wheels add a bunch of bumps to what I see... And if the brakes squeal, it adds a streak of electric white to the mix."

Jarvis has synesthesia, a rare neurological condition which links his senses together. In his case, he sees sounds.

"Anything I'm listening to, I'm looking at it," he said.

On Tuesday, I rode the rocket with Jarvis and two other synesthetes to understand how their condition can turn one of the most common experiences in Toronto into something unique.

George, who asked that his real name not be used, is one of only two people in the world known to have acquired synesthesia. He had a stroke seven years ago which re-wired his senses.

"I used to get really bored riding the subway," he said. "But now I just turn on the synesthesia and it's much more interesting."

Unlike Jarvis, George's condition spans multiple senses. The way his fellow passengers look invokes certain smells, while the colours of the station tiles can summon different tastes.

"I can feel peanut butter right now. Don't know why," he says suddenly, halfway between High Park and Keele stations.

Jakub Hladik has chromesthesia, a condition similar to Jarvis' but more closely linked to colour. The notes which herald the closing of the subway doors, for example, bring on a sudden rush of yellow.

"I've lived here for over two years, but the novelty of riding the subway has never worn off," he said. "There's just so many interesting sounds."

The trio met through the Canadian Synesthesia Association, which Jarvis started. The organization hosts monthly meetups for synesthetes and works to counter misinformation about their condition.

"There's this idea that synesthesia is a hindrance," Jarvis said. "We're not overwhelmed by the world we're in. If anything, it's an enhancement."

Types of synesthesia

Grapheme-colour synesthesia: where individual letters or numbers appear shaded with colour. One of the most common forms of the condition.

Chromesthesia: the association of sounds with colours. U.S. neurologist Richard Cytowic described it as "something like fireworks."

Auditory-tactile synesthesia: a condition where certain sounds induce sensations in parts of the body.

Lexical-gustatory synesthesia: One of the rarest forms of synesthesia, this condition causes certain tastes to be experienced when hearing or reading words.

A creative advantage?

Both Jarvis and Hladik work as musicians and producers, and say their synesthesia is a creative boon.

"I can't imagine working on music without being able to see it," Hladik said.

"It helps me to understand music," echoed Jarvis. "It's like I'm seeing all of Beethoven's architecture in front of me as the symphony unfolds."

It's not just music. Notable synesthetes include author  Vladimir Nabokov and painter David Hockney, as well as composers like Billy Joel, Pharrell Williams and Duke Ellington.

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