Friday, January 18, 2008

The letter R is purple

Did you see this article on synethesia in Salon this week? In it Alison Buckholtz describes her lifelong association of numbers and letters to colors. In her mind
numbers have always had their own color -- not just the number itself (though that, too), but the very character of the number, its presence in the world, is a color. An obvious, intrinsic color. Five, for example, is orange. Two is yellow. Seven is green. It is as natural and unchangeable as the color of someone's skin.
I have this! I've always experienced my numbers, many letters, and a few key words as colors, intrinsically, irrevocably, but before now I'd never heard of anyone else who experiences them this way. Aside from disagreeing with her specific number/color linkages, more on that in a minute, this article comforted me, and made me feel a little melancholy. Like Buckholtz, I've thought of my number/color thing as a weird thing about me, something to spin into a self-deprecating dinner-table anecdote, not something to cherish, even nurture. And while I've used the word synesthesia to describe my experience, I didn't know that's actually what I have. I always thought it suggested a cognitive disorder, or a really mild case of a.sperger syndrome.

Here's her technical explanation for it:
Synesthesia is a neurological phenomenon in which activation of one sensory processing system (e.g., numbers or written language) leads to the automatic engagement of a second, distinct sensory processing system (e.g., color) to create a "crossed" sensory perception. For example, as in my case, numbers appear to have their own colors. Or, in other forms of synesthesia, sensory processing is "crossed" with emotion processing, imbuing letters, words, days of the week or months with their own personalities.
According to the article women and left-handers are more likely to experience it. I am both. My form of synesthesia involves color and the processing of emotions, particularly with numbers. The numbers 1-5 are girls; 6-9 are boys. 1 (yellow) and 2 (orange) are toddlers. Everyone likes them because they are cute and don't ask for much. 3 (purple) is saucy, mostly because she doesn't know enough about the world yet to be shy and retiring like 4 (pink) who embodies every negative stereotype of extreme femininity--she is passive and so, so pink. 5 (red) is a tomboy who can take care of herself. She likes to hang out with her boy cousin 6 (blue). When they have sleepovers they become 11 (looks like two sleeping bags side by side). 7 (green) is lucky (kind of obvious, I know), but 8 (light baby blue) is a horror, the most hated and detested of all the numbers. He embodies every negative stereotype of normative masculinity, only his is a failed masculinity: he is a soft, squishy, round bully who takes sweet little four and swallows her up, TWICE! 9 (deep purple/black, because he has three inside him three times, something which somehow didn't bother me the way the 4/8 debacle did) is the oldest cousin. He doesn't have to try to be cool: he is cool, which makes him a good, non-threatening kind of guy who actually has some power.

Synethesia is neurological, but as the drama of my numbers shows, it reflects how biological and environmental influences are impossible to untangle (I'm not saying that quite how I want to, but I want to publish this and don't want to wait until I can say this more cogently.) Maybe this is what I mean: my way of seeing numbers as colors might be neurological, but how I see colors reflects my own nascent perceptions of the world, especially my understanding of gender roles and intra-gender dynamics. Certainly it reflects an early understanding of the connection between male brutality and failed masculinity. My numbers are cousins because I was raised in close contact with my 13 cousins, who formed my earliest social group, my positioning among them my earliest self-identification. I was the eleventh of the fourteen grandchildren and though I felt safe with my cousins, I always understood that, as one of the youngest, my place was to watch and learn, not to call attention to myself. I think I related most to 2, aspired to be 5, feared I was 4.

Sometimes my synesthesia causes me to mix up letters/colors/numbers. I still stumble over 3/R/purple and 4/Y/pink, as those pairing are interchangeable in my head. So I'll write an R when I mean to write 3, for example.

My months have colors too, but I suspect that is because of elementary school bulletin boards more than anything--February is pink, March is green, September is burnt orange. But sometimes the logic of my number narrative creeps in: January is yellow I think because it's the first month (1 is yellow, remember?), which means June is yellow, too, because it starts with J. Or maybe it's because June is the daisy month, and daisies are yellow.


Blogger squadratomagico said...

So... do groups of eight things have negative overtones for you too, or just eight as the symbol 8 ?

The only thing I can think of right now that approaches this it my strong sense that years are squares. Winter is the top; spring is the right side, summer the bottom, and fall, left. Right now, we're right on top of the square.

7:31 PM  
Blogger Dr. Medusa said...

Hi Margo. I don't think I've ever commented, but we've "met" at Crazy Medusa's.

Fascinating post. I have number-form synesthesia, which means I see numbers and ordinal sequences (months, days of the week) in very specific spatial patterns. It sounds like you have it too, squadratomagico. I see the months in an ovalish rectangle, and we are on top of it right now. I've read that it's genetic. My mom has color-grapheme synesthesia, which is what you describe in the post but yours sounds much more complex. So interesting.

8:12 PM  
Blogger Margo, darling said...

I love these comments, and I am so happy to hear about your forms of synesthesia. Squadratomagico, I have no aversion to groupings of eight (the Walton children, for example, made me very happy), just the symbol 8.

I too see months and days of the week spatially. I see the year stretching from right to left, as though someone laid pages of a calendar side by side. Right now we are at on the far right side of the year, with December way off in the haze of the left. As I imagine individual months, I see them from above, as though I was standing at the top of a calendar looking down, with the weeks unfolding from right to left--Sun/Mon on the right, Fri/Sat on the left. I have a really awful job-market-angst era poem trying to describe this tucked away in a journal. You know, because the days and months were reeeaaallllyyy long.

I see days going from bottom to top. Morning is the bottom, midnight is the top and then the early morning hours inch back down to the bottom for sunrise.

12:03 AM  
Blogger squadratomagico said...

You should have been a mathematician! Just think of how soap-operatic your research would be.

On another note, I wonder if those with various forms of synesthesia are more artistically inclined than others? Having rich color (and in your case, emotional) associations with things that normally are regarded as abstractions would seem to suggest highly-attuned visuality (new word! yay!).

11:41 AM  
Blogger What Now? said...

Interesting! I had a student years ago who had color synesthesia with numbers; he didn't think of the numbers as having personalities as you do, but he was a math major and did see his math work as having serious aesthetic qualities. I assumed that he must be some sort of mad math genius, but then years later there was an article in the Washington Post on synesthesia, and I suddenly realized that he was unusual but hardly alone. I'm glad you have a new sense that you're not alone in the way you look at the world.

12:46 PM  
Blogger adjunct whore said...

wow, this only confirms how incapable of thinking spatially i really am. disturbing,actually. but when i found you again, margo, i looked at your first post, which was another version of this one. i remember thinking, huh, you think you know someone a bit and then they write eloquently and passionately about their theory of numbers, letters, and colors and realize you know and understand nothing.

8:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A former gf of mine was a neuroscientist, and she did some research on this subject. Apparently some people also perceive smells as shapes (one man talked about how he could tell when food was cooked enough because it had the right number of points). She likened it to turning on the windshield wipers in your car and having the lights go on instead. Not dangerous at all, but some sort of wild, fascinating crossing of neuronal wiring. And yes, it can be associated with artistic creativity.--CD

10:21 PM  
Blogger dr. m(mmm) said...

In case you have further interest, Brian Massumi talks about synaesthesia in several chapters of his book, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Duke UP, 2002).

5:11 PM  
Blogger Adriana Velez said...

I think we've had this conversation with each other in the past -- synaesthesia, too. I think, maybe, that's what tripped me up so much in math class as a kid, though I think if I (and my teachers) had been clever enough to work WITH it, it could have actually helped my understanding of math.

I wonder if anyone at Bank Street or Teacher's College is looking into that?

10:44 PM  
Blogger Heather said...

I have this, too. For me, it manifests in a few ways:

Numbers have genders and personalities, and are either dominant or submissive in respect to other numbers (i.e. 4 is female, 3 is male, and 8 is male — but 8 is less masculine than 3, who’s younger than 8 but could probably beat him [8] up)

Days of the week are always envisaged as squares (perhaps like calendar boxes) and always positioned to my left and moving in that order: Saturday < Friday < Thursday < Wednesday < Tuesday < Monday < Sunday < Saturday (I’m always standing on Sunday, sometimes straddling Saturday; also, the coming weekend (the Saturday at the far left) usually has some sort of border or something that I can’t quite make out that distinguishes it from the weekdays, usually in brown. It’s almost as if it were slightly raised with a wooden frame.)

Some people automatically have colors for me. For example, a guy I used to know was always navy blue. (The funny thing is, I later learned that his horoscope sign was associated with the color navy blue.) Not all people have colors for me; some are clear.

Forks, knives and spoons have genders (but, whereas knives and forks are always male, spoons alternate between female and asexual).

Weird -- never knew it had a name until recently.

11:51 PM  
Blogger jfpeterson said...

Oh my!! I have a similar thing that both Margo and Heather describe - numbers having their own personalities and some being dominant over others. They're gendered, as well. It's stronger with numbers, but I do this also with letters. No colors, though...wish I did. :)
I always assumed everyone did this. I wonder if more people have it than we think.

1:13 PM  
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