Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Color-Numbers: A Personal Account of Synesthesia

I like colors. I like numbers. It does not take much thought to accept that I like to combine the two.

But saying I “like” to put those two things together is misleading, akin to saying I like my muscles connected to my bones. Of course I like them that way. 

You can’t separate them, not if you want to function correctly. Were it not for tendons binding muscle to skeleton, you could not move. Numbers and colors are inseparable in just the same way.

In this case, the tendon is synesthesia.


The dictionary tells me that synesthesia means “a process in which one type of stimulus produces a secondary, subjective sensation.” So far so opaque.

Let’s go with the working definition of synesthesia as the condition of blended senses, or the reason why I can describe the number 72 with the words “orchid-sand” or why 47, 53, and 73 are disgusting.

Number-color synesthesia (or “grapheme-color synesthesia), which is what I have, is not the only kind of synesthesia there is, of course. Taste and color and sound are all found together in at least one of the animators of “Ratatouille”, for example, and some people associate colors and letters.

 For myself, I also describe sounds with images and sensations: one of the flautists in band has tone like a brook running through a sun-dappled forest clearing, while one of my friends has a voice like the feeling of a cat stepping on your foot. Also, the note D natural is green in all octaves.

But number-color association is strongest for me. I once got it into my head to take a look at the books about synesthesia at the library, but when one declared that seven is green, I had to put the book down. Just writing that I shuddered in revulsion.

Seven is not green. Feet do not grow from the ends of wrists; we do not have mouths above our eyebrows. Seven, I must repeat, is not green. It is orchid added to the color of the kidney-shaped pieces in Chex Mix. I have the exact colored pencil to depict it.

Aside from pushing me away from blasphemous books, synesthesia has a positive effect on my education. Remembering dates in history is easier when they are associated with colors. I still remember that the Ming dynasty fell in 1644 because there are so many fours associated with the number – four times four to make sixteen, forty-four on the end.

But of course a phenomenon related to numbers affects my math experience the most. Math is not difficult once you know how numbers combine.

Division and multiplication in particular are better accomplished by the intuition of hue than by crunching numbers. (Eight times three is twenty-four. Smoke-navy, shell-pink, and sandy-green. Beach colors.) 

Synesthesia gives me certain biases: I love working with multiples of eight and twelve (four is not as selective, but what would you expect from something the color of new grass?) while prime numbers make my teeth jar like over-sugared cereal.

People tend to assume that my proclivity for math comes with my slanty eyes and black hair, but really, it is the colors of the numbers, not me, that makes it easy.

Synesthesia is like light: it’s impossible to get rid of (not that I want to anyway), it affects how I see the world, and it makes life more colorful.


Written for my English portfolio about a month ago.


  1. wow that was a great read, too bad it didn't go on...i wanted to read more about it!

    I love both maths and colours, but they don't seem to have any specific relationships in my head. i'm pretty sure colours have a gender, and some go out with one another (that's just plain silly i know), but i don't see that in numbers. numbers are just fun.

    I want your gift too! i want numbers and colours all together like they so obviously seem to go, except i can't see it! :-(

    I loved this post!

  2. Thanks! I've been meaning to do more research on synesthesia, but never really got around to it. It's definitely in my box of ideas.

  3. I just learned about synesthesia on--you'll never guess--my last ACT test. And immediately I wanted it. xD That would be so useful. I would totally abuse my powers and stuff.

    You should be a synesthesia superhero or something. I'm sure they have those, like supertasters.

    ...What am I writing? Did any of that make sense? XD

  4. One of my favorite quotes ever comes from a PSAT preparatory booklet. Looks like standardized tests come in useful after all. x)

    The Synesthete. Kinda sounds more like a supervillain name - "sinister", you know? Better start working on my evil laugh.

  5. Yeah, yeah... Who would be your arch-nemesis? They could have some dumb name like "The Nose" or something like that. That would be neat.