I learned to read with the help of a children’s program known as “The Letter People.” I remember finding the videos dull and the puppets ridiculous, but the weirdest thing about the Letter People was that all of their letters were the same color.
Knowing that each letter has its own particular hue, it was strange to me that the puppet-makers couldn’t be bothered to pay attention to such an obvious detail. I let it slide, and when it came time to color a Letter Person each week, I made sure to select the right crayon to at least make mine correct.
When it was Mr. W’s turn, I colored him a light blue because obviously that is Mr. W’s proper hue. That day, the rest of my homework assignment involved cutting out pictures of items that start with “W” and gluing them around Mr. W, so I cut out watermelon, windows, wings and an assortment of other objects and then coated the paper and myself in Elmer’s glue.
At school the next day, when I was called on to present my homework, I explained that “W” is blue and listed the items that start with this wonderful letter.
“‘W’ is blue?” Miss Tinga asked. “Why would you say that?”
I was baffled. She was teaching me and she didn’t even know the colors of the alphabet?
But it wasn’t until second grade that I realized maybe my reality wasn’t the same as other people’s. I was doing homework at my best friend’s house when I commented on how strange it was that every math textbook printed numbers in black instead of their proper colors. She gave me the strangest look and asked what I was talking about, and I realized I’d clearly said something really weird. So I shut up about the numbers because I wasn’t about to ruin the life plan we’d mapped out where she’d marry Jonathan Knight and I’d marry Jordan Knight and we’d officially be sisters by marriage. (Spoiler: This did not work out.)
It took another two decades for me to figure out that I wasn’t the only one whose numbers, letters, days and months had colors. I stumbled across an article on synesthesia and my brain was all, “This is a thing! I AM NOT BROKEN!”
Having a name for it and realizing it was totally normal (OK, maybe not totally normal, but at least totally real and not a symptom of a neurological disorder), changed the way I thought about it. Now instead of it being a thing I don’t talk about, it’s something I love to talk about. And talking about it has helped me find other synesthetes and learn about the unique ways they view the world.
Since defining why my world is a little more bizarre and colorful than other people’s, I’ve learned SO MUCH about synesthesia and every year, I take the synesthete battery — which is where I got these nifty little colored examples to the right — so I can see my associations mapped out. (If you think you might be a synesthete, head over here to take the battery and find out.)
I have grapheme-color synestheisa, which is one of the most common forms. It means my perception of numbers, letters, etc. is associated with an experience of color — but it’s all in my mind’s eye. For example, I can see that “ABC” is written in black here and that’s how I actually physically see it. However, I inherently “know” that the letters have colors similar to this: ABC. I also have what’s known as spatial-sequence synesthesia, which is a fancy way of saying that, in my case, my mental calendar roughly resembles a “Z” with the summer months falling in that vertical line.
There are numerous types of synesthesia, which I find absolutely fascinating. People can see music or taste words. They can feel a sensation on their skin when they hear certain sounds. Their numbers might have personalities, or they could smell something when they see a specific word.
The more I learned about synesthesia, the more I became fascinated by the idea of writing a teenage character with it and exploring how this neurological condition affects her relationships and her beliefs about the world.
David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College who studies synesthesia, summed it up well when he said, “We all accept the reality presented to us, so synesthesia is a really direct way to look at how individual changes can lead to different beliefs about reality.” <— That’s exactly what I wanted to do with my story, and I hope I’ve pulled it off.
To learn more about synesthesia, watch Eagleman’s short video below. And if you’re also a synesthete, I’d LOVE to hear about it.