Danne Stayskal: Life through synaes­the­sia-colored eyes

By Eric Howald, June 19, 2014

A radioactive spider bit Peter Parker. Superman was strapped to a rocket and launched from a dying planet. Danne Stayskal has a better origin story than both of them.

Stayskal was a teenager when her mother asked her to help her twin sister with her math homework.

“It was plainly obvious to me that yellow plus yellow equals red, but normal people need to know it as two plus two equals four,” said Stayskal, 34.

Staystal is afflicted – or quite possibly, gifted ­– with a condition known as synaesthesia. The short version is she possesses linked senses. She can hear light. She perceives sound as colors. Every letter and digit has its own hue.

When it comes to math, Stayskal perceives the number 112 as white-white-yellow.

When listening to others speak, words emerge as colors in specific spaces within her field of vision. (All of this was verified by researchers at Vanderbilt.)

“Most men’s voices come across as red. Women’s voices tend to be more purple. The color and position come from the pitch. The saturation comes from the timbre. The luminosity comes from the volume,” Stayskal said.  She perceives her own voice as orangish because she hears it differently from within her own cranial acoustics.

The more difficult-to-live-with aspect of her superpower is light converting to sound. She has to wear sunglasses if she’s in direct sunlight because of the sound emitted from the axis of our solar system.

“It’s a high F-sharp like a sixth octave. It sounds kind of like squealing brakes,” Stayskal said.

Like many people with synesthesia, Stayskal is drawn to creative fields. When she’s not giving TEDx Talks, (you can find her first one here) she makes a living as an artificial intelligence engineer and white hat hacker tracking down security flaws in clients’ information systems. She’s also a classical guitarist, another pursuit enhanced by her supersenses, and she can tune her instrument by the color its strings emit when plucked.

“I grew up in Texas and most of the music I heard growing up was either rock or country. The vast majority of four-piece music comes to me in reds, browns and oranges that hang out in the bottom of my peripheral vision,” Stayskal said. “It’s really visually boring.”

Classical music – and, more recent genres, like electronica and shoegaze – with its varied pitches, timbres and volumes use the entire available palette.

That explosion of color will be on full display during Stayskal’s TEDxSalem talk. She will demo an app she’s developed that translates sound into light, and perform with a guitar rigged to immerse the audience in the experience of linked senses.

“They will literally be able to see what I see,” Stayskal said.

Like all good superheroes, she wants to share his gift with the rest of us.