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.