Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Weirdy or Synesthete?

Since the time she learned her alphabet, my youngest daughter has insisted that she sees the letters of the alphabet, as well as numbers and words, as colors. That’s nice, dear, was my typical response the first thirty times. Her insistence about the sensation was matched only by her consistency about which colors represented which letters. Still, I figured it was some kind of early memory that mapped these letters and numbers to these colors. 

Then I heard about synesthesia. I’m not sure where or when I first heard of it, but I was attracted to the name because it seemed the root was the pretty esthete and syn always brings things together nicely. Turns out, the root is aisthesis, which means perception, and synesthesia is a neurological condition in which signals cross-over different parts of brain to make essentially joined perceptions of the sensory data. It’s fascinating! While studies so far do not rule out the impact of strong early memory mapping, it is thought that everyone is born with a form of synesthesia, but only some who have reinforced the condition retain it.

Here is an example of some of her neurological cross-overs:

A is pink or reddish
B is sort of blue
E is kind of green
O is white
V is purplish
W is orange
Y and L are steely
Z is black
1 is whitish
3 is bluish purple
5 is blue
49 is orange AND dark, dark green

Even numbers are yellow-green
Odd numbers are blue to purple range (thus she called those colors her odd colors)

Words also have colors associated with them, but the colors blend, or will shift to be in concert with the colors of the other letters in the word.  For example:
Alisyn (a light yellow-green)
Allison (a whiter yellow-green – because O is white, dur.)
Purple is purple, but the r in it stands out as red.

Additionally, she describes sharp pains as high notes, and dull pains as low notes. This makes sense to me.

When I told her that there was a name for this type of extra mapping, she thought it was very cool.  When I told her it was probably different parts of her brain making random connections between themselves, she said, Great! I’m a freak!

But this is what Dr. Eric Chudler says in Neuroscience for Kids,

Many researchers are interested in synesthesia because it may reveal something about human consciousness. One of the biggest mysteries in the study of consciousness is what is called the "binding problem." No one knows how we bind all of our perceptions together into one complete whole. For example, when you hold a flower, you see the colors, you see its shape, you smell its scent, and you feel its texture. Your brain manages to bind all of these perceptions together into one concept of a flower. Synesthetes might have additional perceptions that add to their concept of a flower. Studying these perceptions may someday help us understand how we perceive our world.

That sounds like an interesting idea to her mother who tastes metal and feels the ridges of a spiral bound notebook on the tip of her tongue in an imagined lick whenever she speaks the word cling.

So who’s the weirdy? (By the way, weirdy must be spoken as if by Mickey Rooney in Night at the Museum.)

It turns out that there are many forms of synesthesia. Here, Oliver Sacks talks about musical synesthesia:

More interesting to me is that the extra connections might not be so arbitrary after all.

Give this little random shape-name test a try:

Which shape is named Bouba and which is named Kiki?

It’s obvious to me which is who. Is it clear to you? As explained in Wikipedia,

In both the English and the Tamil speakers, 95% to 98% selected the curvy shape as "bouba" and the jagged one as "kiki", suggesting that the human brain is somehow able to extract abstract properties from the shapes and sounds.

The rounded shape may most commonly be named "bouba" because the mouth makes a more rounded shape to produce that sound while a more taut, angular mouth shape is needed to make the sound "kiki". The sounds of a K are harder and more forceful than those of a B, as well. The presence of these "synesthesia-like mappings" suggest that this effect might be the neurological basis for sound symbolism, in which sounds are non-arbitrarily mapped to objects and events in the world.

The human brain is endlessly fascinating. For example, Stephen decided to try to use the iocane powder logic in answering the question when I showed him the shapes, but that’s another issue entirely.

So as to weirdy or synesthete, I say why limit yourself? 


Trey Peden said...

Fun fact: the painter Kandinsky was a synethete.

Lynne said...

In the Neuroscience for Kids link, it was reported that Richard Feynman was also a synesthete.

What I mostly got out of all this is the desire for two new dogs so I can name them Bouba and Kiki. Maybe I should stick to something with less of a commitment, like fish, in case I don't find the names all that amusing for long.

Dawn said...

This is an interesting subject to me. For as long as I can remember, I have always associated specific genders to letters, numbers, and colors. Until about 2 years ago, I thought everyone did it. Then it somehow came up in a conversation with my husband. Only when my husband stared at me as if I were a freak did I realize that it was unusual. I started asking around to see if other people did it. Interestingly, my younger brother also associates genders with letters and numbers (though his don't match mine), but he is the only other person I have found who does this.

Lynne said...


Something I read suggests that synesthetes have more "hooks" to hang their thoughts on. So if you're trying to remember something, you have another avenue to potentially get to it than someone without this condition. This is a good thing.

I like the idea that everyone had/has this, just some reinforce it. Except to aid in memory and the fact that it can be downright fun! it seems rather inconsequential.

My daughter was hoping to discover that it impedes math work. Sadly, that very claim is made by some of those reporting they have it. I told her that's interesting, but no excuse.