Friday, July 20, 2007

Synesthetics

Not long ago, I realized that not everyone sees letters and numbers in color, and that this phenomenon of seeing colors has a name: synesthesia (or synaesthesia). The term refers generally to a coupling of two or more senses, and supposedly it is a neurological condition that runs in families. I have the most common form, called grapheme, or color synesthesia.

Recently, my daughter and I were browsing in a book store, and I encountered a book for ~10-13 year olds about a girl with synesthesia. I was intrigued by this book until I read the plot synopsis, and then later read some online summaries and reviews of it. The synesthetic girl in the book (A Mango-Shaped Space/Wendy Mass) is ashamed that she has color synesthesia, and keeps it a secret after a humiliating episode at school. Apparently, math and foreign languages make no sense to her because of her synesthesia.

That makes no sense to me. Seeing letters and numbers in colors makes me have irrational likes and dislikes of particular words and numbers depending on how the colors of their various components look together, but if anything, it helps with language and some basic math skills by providing additional visual information. As a kid, spelling and vocabulary came easily to me, I think in part because I could see the letters/words in color. Each letter and number has its own distinct color, by the way. For example, to me, "s" is always a particular shade of green, and this helps me see/remember words no matter what the language. Perhaps this phenomenon also contributes to my fondness for writing, as it adds to the aesthetic effect.

Because I was annoyed that the book about the synesthetic girl treated synesthesia as an embarrassing disorder, we didn't get the book, even though I'm sure it has a happy ending. I have read that some synesthetics have the condition so intensely that the effects can be dizzying and confusing, and perhaps that is what the book is about. It seems a bit extreme, however, to compare synesthesia with obsessive-compulsive disorder (as one review did). Fortunately for me, color synthesthia makes many words and numbers beautiful (except when a "u" is next to an "a"..).

31 comments:

gs said...

That's interesting, FSP. I'd known of a synesthete composer but hadn't realized that the condition is relatively widespread.

Anonymous said...

I've always been kind of jealous of people who see numbers and letters in color. It seems like it would be really beautiful.

Jenn said...

The book is, in fact, not very good, and I really don't think it was written by a synesthete. I own it, though, because I do think it's cool that more people are becoming aware of it. My mother discovered the term before I was born, in an article somewhere, and realized basically as soon as I started talking that it explained a LOT about me, but most synesthetes don't realize not everyone is like them until they're adults. (I just figured other people weren't looking hard enough before I knew!) Most people, however, seem to come across the term in a drug-related context (or did before the internet allowed synesthetes to connect).

But yeah. The book doesn't make a lot of sense, and is probably more interesting/gratifying to a kid who's having trouble in math than to a kid who's a synesthete.

One of the most interesting things I've read that mentions synesthesia is Oliver Sacks's essay "The Colorblind Painter" in An Anthropologist on Mars, where brain damage causes a man to lose all sense of color, both visually and in his mind's eye, and this also causes his to lose his musical ability, as it was strongly linked to his color-music synesthesia. Very strange indeed.

Anonymous said...

aw, I'm jealous too! (I'm also jealous of my color-blind friend. I wonder what that says about me...)

I'm curious, when choosing names, for example for your daughter (or cats or projects), do the prettiness of the colors together influence your decisions?

Female Science Professor said...

Yes!

Marciepooh said...

I'm one of the jealous. I've always wondered what words would look like with color or how music would look.

I guess it could be overwhelming in some cases. I have to say I'm not sure I'd want words to have smell of taste, that could make reading a bit nauseating.

scarlettscion said...

My friend getting a physics PhD says his "condition" is actually immensely helpful--like having color-coded notes without any effort. It makes memorization much easier for him, actually. The handful of people I know with it do not find it to be a handicap at all, much like you. Strange book. Personally I always *wanted* to have synesthesia.

Ambitwistor said...

You'd probably hate reading about the Chautauqua movement, then.

Marina said...

I have a question for you: if you always see letters in different colors, can you recognise when a word is written in red (e.g. for emphasis in a text written in black)? Would that word stand out to you as it would for us non-synesthetes?

Female Science Professor said...

Colored fonts can swamp out the effect, it is true. I see the most intense colors in spoken words (mine or others') and in my thoughts.

Lisa said...

You see words when people talk to you? Now I just feel boring . . .

blop said...

"A noir, E blanc, I rouge, U vert, O bleu"
so starts one of the most famous poems of Arthur Rimbaud

James said...

To me numbers have colors. I used to think it was caused by something mysterious in my very mathematical brain, but then I told someone the colors and they pointed out that they were just the colors on the number wheel of the board game Life.

v./ said...

I have the same thing! But to me, s is yellow. And not only letters, but sometimes words as a whole have a shade. Even mathematical functions! Like sine is yellow but cosine is light blue. And I agree with you, this has always helped me to remember names and dates.

AngryMan said...

You should've burned the store down. That'll learn 'em!

sandy shoes said...

Holy cow! I've never even heard of this before.

I'm thinking about all the the ways this would influence learning. Another tool for memorization would be handy, but I might also go nuts with the additional level of input.

Talk about shades of meaning. Fascinating.

wendymass said...

Hi. I just wanted to add my two cents to your comments about my book, A Mango-Shaped Space. The part you mentioned about the main character hiding her synesthesia comes after her friends called her "crazy" as a child when she first mentioned it. This response, and subsequent reaction, was relayed to me by nearly every synesthete I spoke with while researching the book. Once she realizes that other people see the world this way, her opinion of it changes quite significantly. As a work of fiction, it is only one character's experiences, and while they might not have been yours, I've had only positive responses from synesthetes who've read it, especially kids and teens who are grappling with feeling "different". Thank you for writing about synesthesia though, and opening people's minds to it. That's what my book was for, too.
:o)
Wendy

Female Science Professor said...

Thanks for the comment. I know it's obnoxious of me to criticize a book I haven't even read. In addition, you're not responsible for the reviews that describe synesthesia as a disorder. I think we can agree that you picked an interesting topic for your book.

EcoGeoFemme said...

I have difficulty remembering numbers because I think in pictures. So when someone asks me some important number from my research, I have to imagine the graph with the data and try to get enough resolution to see the axis. It'd be great to have a brain wired to give individual digits or letters some other characteristic.

gs said...

I went right by the post's opening words during my first reading, but they surprised me when I scanned the comments and reread the post:

Not long ago, I realized that not everyone sees letters and numbers in color...

Jenn said...

Huh. Wendy Mass says every synesthete she talked to had someone tell them they were crazy. I suppose I was unique/lucky in always having a name for it to give people! People rarely argued with me. :)

No'am Newman said...

Try getting hold of a copy of Daniel Tammet's book "Born on a blue day". Tammet has been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome and also has synesthesia. His description of numbers, letters and words taking on different colours is fascinating.

Steven said...

Wow, I never gave it much thought. The only time I've ever discussed my association of letters and numbers with colors was having arguments with my mother, who also must be a synesthete but who doesn't agree about specific colors. The rest of the family thought we were mad.

TW Andrews said...

Wow, that's interesting. Are letters and numbers colored even when the text itself is colored (i.e. does this override any other coloring that's present, or just text which black-on-white?)

Anonymous said...

When I told my boyfriend about my color synesthesia he bought me a 64-pack of crayons and insisted I write out the alphabet and numbers 0-9... I do wonder if we all got together how much agreement there would be.

Female Science Professor said...

I read that it is common for people with color synthesia to see 'a' as red, 'b' as blue, and 'c' as yellow, but after that it gets random.

Ms.PhD said...

Synesthesia is cool.

But I worry about strong synesthetes watching my seminars or reading my job application packages.

I've worked for several PIs who had an irrational dislike for certain words - seems to me that since yours are particularly personal and unlikely to change, I could easily offend you without knowing it!

Hopefully synethesia doesn't color everything you evaluate, but psychology being what it is, if you have a visceral reaction to certain letter combinations because of the colors they're in, that might influence your reactions somewhat without your realizing it. There must be some names that always make you cringe when you see them!

Random question- do you think there's any connection between synesthesia and your tendency toward extreme motion sickness? Last time I looked up the latest research, it wasn't known whether synesthetes just process colors differently.

Anonymous said...

Wow, so interesting!! I had no idea this existed! I read the wikipedia entry listed by the first commenter, and realized I have the number form! When I was little, I tried to draw out what a week looks like for my parents (actually, it's in 2-week cycles in an oval shape with colors) but they thought I was nuts at the time. I have mental-spatial maps of numbers and time, too (also colored). I always thought everyone must. I think it's why I've always hated dayplanners -- they don't match my mental map of a week, and I don't end up using them.

I'm really enjoying the blog -- I'm also a FSP, and it's great to know I'm not alone. :)

dak said...

i was looking up the term (synesthetics) when I came upon this blog, and I am surprised to find out that I am not that special ;)
I agree with the original post that color synesthetics has helped me learn in most aspects, though I have a tough time remembering people's names that begin with the same letters - Jim, Jeremy, Stan, Sam. In my case the first letter of each word determines the overall word color, and other letters within just give it what I can best describe as "accent sparks"

Rachel. said...

I'm 15 years old, and found out around November last year that I have Synesthesia, though I'm not exactly sure what kind.
I feel sounds; names are in color; I taste what I should smell (Thus, I've accidentally taught myself not to smell things when I breathe. It's almost like I don't breathe at all.).
Everyone's depictions of Synesthesia are different, so everyone will have different 'symptoms', whether they be different colors or different feelings.
I've also noticed that I have an ability to translate just about any language, but not all the time. Also, I can not choose when I want to do so.
I'm not sure if it has anything to do with my Synesthesia, but I figure it might.

andrea said...

I have color related synethesia.....mine have to do with personality and emotion.

jealousy is purple, caring is yellow, etc.
people tend to have these colors too..... not an "aura" but people just show up in color.

i also have letters in color....some numbers, all abstract ideas.
it gets confusing....cause sometimes it's the idea that is a certain color...sometimes it is the word itself, and sometimes it is each individual letter.

Say a man's name is Ken. ....this is a yellow name.
but the man himself is creative and an intellectual (blue/brown)

yellow people tend to be healers and caregivers. but Ken is none of these things.

It turns into me wanting to call the guy Ted. cause all three of those letters are brown. and Ted's....i mean...Kens....personality is brown and blue.

sometimes it makes it VERY difficult to remember names if the name color and the personality color do not match.