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Thursday, 3 January, 2002, 16:18 GMT
'I can see sounds'
For Jane Mackay, sneezes are turquoise and Friday is chequered. She has synaesthesia, a neurological condition which mixes up her senses. Here, the former GP-turned-artist, of south London, explains her colourful world.

Sounds, words and numbers just throw images into my head. 'Jane', for instance, is quite orangey-red with a yellowish tinge on the 'e' at the end.

Affects up to one in 2,000 people
Runs in families, particularly women
Some see sound, feel tastes, or hear movement
Painters David Hockney and Wassily Kandinsky had synaesthesia
As did author Vladimir Nabokov
Asking when did I realise that I'm synaesthetic is like saying, 'When did you realise that you weren't colour-blind?'

It takes a very long time to realise that others may not experience it like you do. Some people think I'm making it up.

One of my earliest memories is that I could tell the difference between Canadian and American accents because the Canadian accent is more yellow.

And my sister and I used to argue about our colours for the days of the week - my Wednesday is a lemony-yellow with angles in the middle of it, hers is green.

It's really hard to explain where I see the colours. It's almost like I see what's in front of me with a colour filter in front of it - but what I'm looking at in the physical world doesn't change colour.

Newsreader Brian Perkins
Brian Perkins: Colours of his name and voice clash
I can find it very hard to remember names if the colour is at odds with some defining characteristic of the person.

Brian Perkins, the BBC Radio Four newsreader, has an amazingly rich, chocolatey-brown voice.

Yet 'Perkins' is a rather wishy-washy yellow-green, so I always forget his surname.

Art for art's sake

I've always loved painting, and have done it all my life. But I also love the sciences, so I was a GP for 20 years. It took five years to decide to give up medicine.

On New Year's Day last year, I threw my stethoscope in the Thames to mark the beginning of my career as a full-time artist.

Kandinsky et al line Jane's studio walls
Postcards of artworks inspired by synaesthetic principles
I paint largely, but not exclusively, orchestral music - sometimes I transfer my synaesthetic images completely to the paper, sometimes I use them as a starting point."

But what really sparks me off is change and contrast.

My printer, for instance, started jamming recently and the sound turned pink, quite an opaque pastel pink. I hadn't been aware of any particular colour for the printer because the sound is so routine, but the change got to me.

It's the same with music. Modern music; music I haven't heard before; someone hitting a wrong note; noises-off - I get tremendously strong synaesthetic experiences from all of those.

I had a wonderful sneeze once, from someone sitting behind me in a concert. It was a really lovely turquoise that came across my shoulder in a triangular sheet.

See the music

This academic year, I'm the artist-in-residence for the Cambridge University Musical Society.

Jane's sketches of the wind orchestra rehearsing Illyrian Dances
Sketches of the first, top, and second rehearsals of a piece by Woolfenden
I sit in on all their rehearsals, trying to capture the synaesthetic images I get from the music in a very sketchy, annotated form.

I tape the rehearsals, so I can go back over the images. From these sketches and tapes, I work up paintings in my studio.

People often ask me if I get the same images each time I hear something, and the answer is yes.

But you can hear music live, or on CD, or in a sectional rehearsal, and that can change the colour and shape of it all together.

I think most people must be at least a little bit synaesthetic.

After all, our whole language is littered with synaesthetic images - we're always talking about warm sounds, sharp colours.

If you've got a story you would like to tell to Real Time, click here.

Jane Mackay
"I've had a very white colour picking up a hot cup"

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