When Dressgate went viral back in February, it ignited a discussion about perception across the Internet. People were realizing that the world as they see it does not always match the way others see it. I learned this lesson several years ago when I discovered that most people do not perceive something very basic the way I do. I have grapheme → color synesthesia, which is a fancy way of saying that I see letters and numbers in color.
Grapheme → color synesthesia is the most common form of synesthesia (“union of the senses”), which means that some of you reading this post likely have it. If so, you probably also thought it was normal and not worth mentioning to anyone for much of your life. When I finally started talking to people about it in my 20s, nobody I spoke to had ever heard of such a thing, but in January of 2002 I happened to catch a segment on 60 Minutes II called A Sixth Sense and everything fell into place. Finally, I had a name for this condition and realized that others were having a similar experience. While I see letters and numbers in color, some synesthetes taste words or feel music as a physical touch on their skin.
I’ve read repeatedly that synesthesia runs in families, but nobody in my extended family seems to have it. Although many of the colors I see can be traced to a large box of Crayola crayons that my sister and I shared as children, she did not acquire the condition. This was about the time I was learning to read and write, so I’m certain that the association between letters, numbers, and colors was formed during this crucial phase of development.
People are often confused when I say that I see letters and numbers in color, and I find myself at something of a loss to explain. I can see the actual color of these gray letters against a white background as I type, but the individual colors are there too. It’s a mental overlay, and yet that is too simplistic an explanation. More than just seeing with the eyes or with the mind, it’s a knowing. I somehow know that 8 is red and S is dark blue. It’s strange to contemplate that other synesthetes see these numbers and letters differently. How could 5 be anything but purple?
Aside from making the world a more colorful and interesting place, the primary benefit of having synesthesia for me has been in the area of memory. I find it easy to remember names, phone numbers, and dates, because of the color impressions they create. As a result, I have unintentionally memorized more than a few Social Security and credit card numbers over the years. I also love to look at license plates and street numbers as I drive or go for walks, because it’s fun to see all of the different color patterns.
In the years since I first heard the term, synesthesia has become popularized through the TED Talk and New York Times Bestselling book Born on a Blue Day by autistic savant Daniel Tammet, who has several types of synesthesia. I encounter more and more people who are familiar with it, including one young woman who, as a child, physically saw letters and numbers in color before the experience became more of a mental perception as she grew older. Only recently, I discovered that other experiences I have always taken for granted are also forms of synesthesia: chromesthesia (seeing colors when musical notes and/or keys are being played), spatial sequence synesthesia (perceiving months and dates in space), and ordinal linguistic personification (associating numbers, days, months, and letters with personalities).
But I’m not going to get into the science of synesthesia here or expound on every little detail of my experience with it. I’d rather you take a moment to consider your own perception of everyday matters. You may find that your world has a richness beyond the norm and that you have something important to contribute to our understanding of the brain and consciousness so that we can all lead more colorful lives.
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