Seeing Rainbows in Alphabet City

New York is a city full of numbers, and so it’s a city full of colors. Every day I take the 2 or 3 Train to commute down to 42 Street. Every station on my commute is numbered. 96. 86. 79. 72. 66. 59. 50. 42. But if the express train isn’t moving too slow, and we skip by the stops at the right pace, it’s just stops that end with 2, which is a pleasant little pattern. Walk down into the 30s. Up to the 11th floor.

Coloring numbers isn’t something I notice or think about in any conscious way, though. If you took the subway with me, it’s not something I would think to bring up. For me, it would be like passing 78th St and having a conversation about how 7 is pointy while 8 is round. If you wanted to sum up the experience in a word, however, you’d call it synesthesia, a phenomenon in which people experience a sort of overlapping of the senses. The type I’m describing, grapheme-color synesthesia, is one of the more common forms, the associations of numbers, letters, words, etc. with colors.

Synesthesia – Numberphile | Source: © Numberphile/YouTube

Synesthesia sounds like a pretty distinct condition that would make you experience the world in an utterly different way. That’s what I would have said too, if you had told me about this around 8th grade. At the time, I had no conception of synesthesia; though I experienced it, I didn’t feel that it was out of the ordinary.

The separation between my experience and my classmates’ was so subtle, so unobtrusive, that I didn’t notice a difference until early high school, and that was only because I liked browsing Wikipedia. I must have read through three or four different web pages about it, thoroughly jealous of people who have this gift, before making the connection that it actually described me. From what I’ve read since, middle school/high school age seems to be pretty standard for kids figuring out they have some form of synesthesia. Still others, I’m sure, never find out.

Writing this now, it’s bizarre to think I could easily have gone until now without ever making the connection. Maybe some of you reading this have a form of synesthesia and don’t even know yet it. Now that I know, it’s weird to imagine not knowing, but it wouldn’t make the color any less real.

Colored Numbers on Shirt

Having synesthesia should be a great fun fact to throw around at parties. Many people have heard of it and everyone has some fun pop-culture conception of what it must be like. With a word, I can suggest to someone that I have a wildly different experience from them. The pop-culture association of synesthesia with creatives and artists and psychedelic drugs lends me a kind of mystique, like some sort of innate gift.

Perhaps it’s that very reason that makes me so reluctant to actually talk about it. Bringing it up almost feels like bragging, like I just want to make myself seem more interesting; it’s not especially useful information. And if people are impressed by it, it can feel odd being looked at in awe for something that I rarely even notice. And the conversations that follow almost inevitably follow the same script.

Each of us perceives the world in entirely different ways, most of them impossible to measure. The ways in which we categorize information are distinct, and nearly impossible to articulate to each other.

Synesthesia offers a rare opportunity to actually compare subtle differences in the internal orders of our minds. I can concretely speak to someone about an articulable way in which our perceptions are not alike. And yet, in spite of that promise, I haven’t thought of a better way to use this subject than as a fun fact on Hinge.

Part of me feels like a pioneer in my own head, discovering new terrain my consciousness was oblivious to.

On a personal level, synesthesia comes with “rules,” and they are rigid. I couldn’t “change my mind” about the color of a word any more than you could about the spelling. And seeing the rules “broken” is difficult; if you sent this article back to me with the colors changed, it would probably give me a headache. It already bothers me that I can’t get the different shades just right in Microsoft Word.

ABC in Colors

So if you have synesthesia, and specifically the kind that relates to things like numbers and letters, we probably disagree on at least a couple of them, and me using my color scheme probably pisses you off about as much as yours would me. To offer an example, I’ve asked all three of my sisters if they associate letters with colors. Only one of them responded, and we disagreed entirely:

“Ok, so what color is A?”

A is red.”

“No, it’s not! A is blue.”

I can’t tell you how much it aggravates me to represent A as blue. A has never been and will never be blue. But to my sister, A is a universal truth. That’s how I knew without any hesitation that she has synesthesia too: how mad we got about each other’s alphabets.

As an artist and a writer, and moreover as someone who spends a lot of time attempting to picture and understand people’s perspectives, I’m fascinated by how little I actually know about my own synesthetic experience.

Even now, I don’t know all the “rules” under which my mind operates. Generally, for instance, words take on the color of their first letter, but this is not always the case. Sometimes, a repeated letter will stand out, or a repeated color. But if I think about it too hard, it’s gone. The words for colors take the color of the one they describe, not the word. The months of the year follow the rules, except for May – my birth month.

What color is Tuesday? Exploring synesthesia – Richard E. Cytowic | Source: © TED-Ed/YouTube

And it gets even weirder. Last year, I read a description of another kind of synesthesia called spatial sequence synesthesia (SSS), in which concepts like numbers or days have a spatial dimension. After I’d spent a few minutes trying to imagine what that would even be like, I realized for the first time that I have always subconsciously pictured days of the week and months of the year as having specific “places” in relation to each other. Days move clockwise, whereas months move counterclockwise.

While I was drafting this, I made an additional connection: that the numbers 110 ascend, but 1119 descend. And after that? I have a vague idea… but if I think about it too hard, it’s gone.

In other words, while I was trying to sort out the “rules” of my synesthesia, I overlooked an entirely other type of synesthesia I experience.

That realization was shocking. More than that, it was humbling. I am amazed by how little I know about my own mind. Trying to understand my synesthesia has given me a sense for the geography of my thoughts, the structures around which I chase elusive words and images.

Staring Down at Thirty-One

Usually the notion of exploring the mind is something I would want to talk about in grandiose, spiritual terms. It carries something of the existential. So it’s kind of funny that an idea that feels that huge can be touched on by talking, for example, about what color 3 is.

Since then, I have felt driven to better understand the mechanisms of my synesthesia. What would happen, for instance, if I learned a new alphabet?

I’ve had two chances to test this. In college, I pledged a fraternity and learned the Greek alphabet. Unlike the Roman/English alphabet, I speak no language connected to this one, but many of the letters are similar or identical in appearance to English ones. They have colors, but in some cases I think it’s just because they look like ones I have colors for already. Then I took Hebrew classes for a few months last year. Since then, I have been trying to determine the Hebrew alphabet’s color scheme, but it’s hard to pin down. If I were to become proficient in Hebrew, would its letters be as vivid for me?

I do know that some of my synesthetic associations predate my knowledge of the alphabet — the most notable example being the days of the week. The overwhelming majority of words take on the color of their first letter – but six out of seven weekdays have vivid colors that have nothing to do with their spellings. According to the “rules,” Monday should be orange — but I know it’s blue with total clarity.

The most likely reason for this discrepancy is that my brain solidified the colors of weekdays long before I could spell them. I clearly remember being very young, probably around preschool age, looking at a neon-red sign and thinking of Friday. It’s the concept of Friday that’s red, not the word — and that association “overpowers” the spelling of the word. Some rules take precedence over others.

Perhaps I am just too old to create fully new associations with a new alphabet. But I feel compelled to test this, to know for sure. Testing the boundaries of my mind is an end in of itself, my own limits as a synesthete.

Trying to understand my synesthesia has given me a sense for the geography of my thoughts, the structures around which I chase elusive words and images.

I once read about a synesthete who used the colors of numbers to memorize phone numbers better. This person used their own rules to their advantage, and from time to time, people ask if having synesthesia has any benefits for me too.

For the most part, though, I wouldn’t say so. Phone numbers have colors, but I don’t know if that makes them any more or less memorable. The whole thing has very little impact on my life.

But while I may not notice its presence, I would certainly notice its absence. Sometimes it’s just little coincidences that make something feel a little more… connected. I like that signs for the 2 train are in the right color — same with the 7 train. I like that Israel is a blue word for a country with a blue flag and a blue seal. I don’t notice the ones that are wrong as much as the ones that are right. In college, I had to pick one of three concentrations for my major, and I happened to pick the one with what I thought was the most pleasing color combination. Although it didn’t make the decision for me, it was a nice bonus.

Part of me feels like a pioneer in my own head, discovering new terrain my consciousness was oblivious to. At the same time, it’s hard not to feel a little stupid, when what I’m “discovering” is something that has been true of my thoughts since early childhood.

Seeing Sound: How Synesthesia Can Change Our Thinking (Annie Dickinson, TEDxYouth@Lancaster) | Source: © TEDx Talks/YouTube

That idea that I’m stupid for missing this, of course, is not valid or rational, though I can’t completely shut it out. Rather, I believe it’s a stigma I have yet to unpack. American culture is obsessed with rationality and singular correctness, and treats the mind as something that is easily knowable. So we are taught to reject thoughts and patterns in our minds that don’t have an immediately apparent utility. And in order to view our minds in this way, we take on a sort of tunnel vision.

Our minds are vast and uncharted. Most of the mind will never fully be mapped, hence its intrinsic wonder. And yet, we are conscious beings who enjoy the privilege of being able to wonder at our own existence. Synesthesia may exist near the surface of that existence, but my hope is it might serve as a marker as we look deeper into the water.

My synesthesia serves to remind me that there are other, deeper differences in how each of us experiences the world, that when we look at the world today we don’t all see exactly the same thing. That thought can be alienating and lead us to feel alone. But there is a flip side to that isolation: We also have this beautiful gift of communication, of speech and language and art, that enables us to build new bridges in the space between us. The more isolated our perceptions really are, the more radical the act of communicating becomes, and the more necessary it is that we teach and learn from each other.



Issue.31: Metamorphoses: Through the Lenses of Translation & Adaptation

Both Sides of Blue


Issue.33: Life in Technicolor


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