The mingled senses of Daniel Burnell

Student’s experience with synesthesia informs his writing and creativity

Under emotional duress, Daniel Burnell has described himself as a smooth round blue stone in the rain.

Student’s experience with synesthesia informs his writing and creativity

Under emotional duress, Daniel Burnell has described himself as a smooth round blue stone in the rain.

A writer, his stories are replete with bizarre imagery—bird-plumed girls and talking sharks and raspberry women.

As a child, the number five was always orange.

Like one in 23 people, Burnell experiences synesthesia, a neurological condition that causes involuntary mingling of senses.

“I was an awkward kid,” he said. “[S]ynesthesia was just another example of how I felt different.”

Linked to creativity, synesthesia is eight times more likely to occur in the brain of an artist. It takes myriad forms, runs in families and varies in intensity.

Vladimir Nabokov, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Duke Ellington were all synesthetes.

Burnell, a 37-year-old Arts and Letters senior, struggled to describe the synesthetic perceptions that have been dwindling since childhood.

As an adult his synesthesia is nearly gone, which he blames on drug use. Yet its lingering effects are unmistakable.

Burnell mostly experienced color synesthesia, called grapheme, that causes numbers or letters to appear tinged; this is possibly because of cross-wiring between the areas of the brain that send and receive messages about colors and the areas that control messages about numbers or letters.

He remembers asking a kindergarten teacher in Seaside, Ore., if the number five was always orange—and he remembers the classroom laughing and the teacher not answering.

Marked as “weird,” Burnell turned inward.

Although he is certain being synesthetic never ruled his life, he easily shared how he was a solitary child, choosing the Seaside woods over friends and preferring inner fantasy to communicating the complexities of sentience.

He doesn’t hesitate to say that his writing—which a peer describes as undoubtedly odd and unsettling, though imagistic—is informed by his early synesthetic experiences.

“My attraction to symbols could be a byproduct of synesthesia,” Burnell said. “I was already used to things standing for other things, and I need that extra layer of complexity.”

He writes, by and large, through metaphor.

The importance of symbols is evident even on his skin. Tattoos run up both his arms, the most eye-catching one a kraken. A mythic sea creature of giant proportions, it floats, lackadaisical, on his inner forearm.

Burnell has an actual phobia of sea creatures but, like his synesthesia, he has accepted the thing that would otherwise mark him as strange.

A fast talker and a self-described mumbler, Burnell talks in sweeping allusions to films and music.

The way in which he shares stories of his childhood gives richness to the summers he spent in tepees in the Aleutian Islands with his parents, who were clam-diggers and cannery workers.

A storyteller and a laugher, Burnell talks forgivingly of his drug-using parents, his own reclusive childhood and his emotional sensitivity.

“I don’t like the word ‘weird.’ I think creative freedom is a better expression,” he said. “The way that I perceived the world and ideas [as a synesthetic kid], and how different I felt, helped me embrace creativity and fantasy. It helped free me to be more experimental in the way I see the world, the way that my characters see the world and the way my writing describes the world.”

Admittedly sensitive and highly empathetic, he is an easy crier.

“I cry at pretty much every movie that exists. I also get embarrassed for people I don’t even know,” he said. “For example, I’ll get teary because someone is singing a song and they’re not very good and I’ll think, ‘Aw, they’re singing that so sweet.’ I think because I was raised by my mom I never felt weird about my outpouring emotion.”

Burnell owns his emotional response to the world.

“A lack of empathy is the biggest problem in the world,” he said. “So I’m glad that I feel.”