Archive for the ‘synesthesia’ tag
My husband, Oscar, and I recently combined our last names after getting married. Beyond the ordinary awkwardness of having to introduce myself by a new last name and sign with different letters, plus the burden of having to explain to confused people that, yes, my husband changed his name too, I also have to deal with my name changing colors.
My name used to be:
And now it’s:
This is a significant change. Those aren’t just the colored pencils I happened to choose. Those are the colored pencils that represent as closely as possible the colors that those names are. The names are those colors and there is nothing I can do to change that. This is because I have a condition called synestesia.
The word comes from the Greek “syn” (together) and aisthēsis (sensation or perception), referring to the crossing of multiple types of sensory information. Some people see music or smell touches, but the most common type is where people automatically assign colors to graphemes (written symbols such as letters or numbers). This is called grapheme -> color synesthesia. Some people project the colors; that is, they see them out in the world, while others just see them in their mind. I am off the latter type.
Growing up, the fact that every letter, number, and word had a color—an absolute, unchangeable color—seemed to me a useful and enjoyable fact of existence. It never occurred to me that this was unordinary or that in the medical literature I was known as a synesthete.
I loved my systems and colors so much, having learned to use them for remembering words, visualizing numbers, and even teaching concepts to my third grade students, that I never felt the need to question where this came from. It wasn’t until I was 23 and visiting my then 8-year-old cousin, Keilee, that I learned that it was not universal. I was in the backseat of my auntie’s minivan as we drove through the desert, past the deep red sandstone of Red Rocks Park outside of Las Vegas. I picked up and read the back of Keilee’s book, Mango Shaped Space by Wendy Mass. It described, in dramatic terms, a girl who saw colors for all numbers and words. I thought, “What’s so dramatic about that? I do that…” and then it occurred to me to ask, “Wait, does this mean not everyone does that?”
For whatever reason, I didn’t revisit the thought again until I was 27, on a Spring Break climbing trip during graduate school with some classmates. Oddly enough, we were driving through Red Rocks Park after a day on the sandstone and our friend Becca was describing her synesthesia as a crossing of multiple senses, such that she sees music and sees colors for everything. I described to her my colors and she told me, “Yeah, that’s a mild form of synesthesia.” I was so excited to have a name for this experience, or condition, or, as I like to call it half-jokingly, superpower.
My good friend Virginia Speciale, a Special Ed & bilingual ed teacher, just finished reading Mango-Shaped Space and asked me to describe my synesthesia to her. This is more or less what I told her:
“I love it. The colors are absolute, meaning I can’t just willfully go and change them. Two is blue and there’s nothing I can do about that. Virginia is green because of the V and Speciale is yellow because of the S, although the reddish dark pink of the L sort of seeps through near the end. Ginna [her nickname], however, is light orangeish brown and Gina [her other nickname] is a slightly darker brown. I think this is because the N is a lighter and more orange brown than the G, so the double N in Ginna changes the color some. Shunashee [the nickname that only I call her] is very decisively yellow.
Usually the first letter decides the color of the word but some middle letters have an influence, especially green letters like K & V. W is also green, but it’s weaker & lighter and therefore does not exert the same influence. Oki [my husband’s nickname] is green, despite the white O starting the word, while Oscar is white and yellow.
Vowels are white, except Y. But y’know, Y plays for both teams, so that probably explains it.
As for numbers, usually I see the distinct color of each digit even in multi-digit numbers, and especially in dates (today is a very gray & blue set of numbers, but, to give a more interesting example, the Fourth of July next year will be yellow/orange/blue.) However, if I am thinking of periods of years, there is a dominant digit’s color that determines the color of the entire number. The 1900s are maroon. The 1800s are brick red. The 2000s are blue.
If I am thinking of precise years, the last digits’ colors show up. The 60’s, as a decade, are all green and the 70’s are all yellow and so on. If I think of a specific year, such as 1574, it’s 3 different colors (green, yellow and orange.) 2011 is blue and silver.”
I read recently that in addition to grapheme -> color synesthesia, that there is another type that describes the way I see: number form synesthesia. This is described on the Wikipedia page as “a mental map of numbers, which automatically and involuntarily appears whenever someone who experiences number-forms thinks of numbers.” I have always had a very useful and, indeed, involuntary way of organizing numbers visually in my head.
This drawing can’t really capture it, but it at least shows that numbers under 100 are as though under a roof; they are inside. The numbers climb up towards 100, segmented by the tens, each of which has its own color. I found this enormously helpful in arithmetic, and parts of it are certainly in line with the recommendation for kids to draw number lines and segment them by the tens. This is probably because synisthesia doesn’t exist in a vacuum; our brains make via visuals and colors out of the graphemes we learn in school. I learned to think about ones, tens, and hundreds, so I imagine my mental map was derived from my early mathematical education.
Similarly, I learned to first associate colors to English words. As I learned Spanish words, I began to associate colors to them. Unlike English, though, Spanish words usually reveal more of their colors to me. For example, tener is mainly blue, but for some reason that orange/brown N stands out. Pusiste is pink, yellow, blue, and white. English words are rarely so multi-colored. I wonder if this has to do with how late in life such associations were made, or the amount of consciousness I learned to have about the endings of Spanish words in order to conjugate verbs correctly or have adjectives agree with the noun or use the right gender.
I have no idea how this association-making would change if I began to learn Arabic, Farsi, Hindi, or Cantonese. I don’t remember what it was like to begin to associate a color to a brand new letter, and so I don’t know if it would happen as I learn a new alphabet or not. Nor do I know if synestetic children growing up with character-based written language have the same process of color association.
I actually know very little about the science of synesthesia. It’s just exciting to learn that other synesthetes (it’s fun to have a new label for myself)experience what I do, but in their own way. And, of course, a minority of synesthetes experience it in much more vivid and intense ways, with colors projected in front of them for music and words. Virginia, ever a Special Ed teacher, asked me to reflect on any ways in which it has hindered me academically. Honestly, I can’t think of any, and my mom told me yesterday that the reason she never looked into it or told me that it was unusual when I was a child was because it didn’t seem to cause me any problems. However, I would be interested to hear if some forms of synesthesia can be debilitating. My experience of it is just useful and beautiful, and I hope I can pass it on to our future children.