I associate colors to numbers. Like, when I think of a number or hear a number or see a number, it’s colored. I never quite understood whether it’s good or bad, whether it’s the symptom of a condition or the most normal thing or some sort of (useless) magical power, or just nothing at all. But it’s there and I went most of my life without even noticing it.
Seven, to me, is yellow. And three is green. Five? Red -- but a dark red, almost burgundy. Two is a brighter red; like a “regular” red. Certainly less bright than four, which is more orangeish. One and nine look alike: black, or almost black. Six is dark blue, eight is brown. And ten is white. A pure, candid, immaculate white. I can go on, as I have a color -- a hue, rather -- for any other double-digit (or triple-digit, or multiple-digit) figure.
Maybe this is something more widespread than I can fathom, I don’t know. But every time I talk about it with someone, they kind of struggle to relate. Sometimes they do, though, but in a distant, vague way -- they follow what I’m saying (and that’s already a sign that I may not look insane to them) but if I ask them to try and experience the same thing, if I ask them to tell me what color their three is, or their eight, they just stare at me with a dude, you’re the weird one here, not me kind of face.
And so one day I finally decided to research this thing. Not that it’s ever bothered me. Actually, I kind of like it -- maybe that’s why I’ve always been good at numbers, at remembering or using or working on/with them. Admittedly, though, it’s a little strange, and so I wanted to know whether this is a known thing and if it means anything. Maybe I’ll get to know something new about myself, I figured. And as I’m pathologically curious, the more I learn, the more I want to know.
It’s called Synesthesia, and it’s a condition in which “a sensory stimulus presented to one modality elicits concurrent sensations in additional modalities”. Theoretically, it can combine any two senses (apparently, there are over 80 different types of synesthesia), but research has mostly focused on two of the most common variants in which “auditory tones and achromatic (colorless) numbers produce vivid and perceptually salient colors”. Mine is called grapheme-color synesthesia.
Also, it looks like these evoked colors remain stable over time for any given individual (seven has been yellow to me for my entire life), but the same number doesn't necessarily evoke the same color in different individuals. Research suggests that synesthesia is associated with six genes related to a process called axonogenesis, something neurons require to connect to each other. These genes are thought to be inherited in a dominant manner (just one copy of the gene, inherited from either parent, is sufficient to cause it), and may explain why number-color associations vary among “affected” individuals (who are called synesthetes, by the way).
So it’s a real thing, not a mere product of my imagination, and it’s present in 2%-4% of the population. Not that widespread either.
After reading this I immediately called my two kids and asked “When you think of a number, do you see it colored?”. Now that you make me think of it, I do, both of them answered. Their seven isn’t yellow like mine, though, but blue to one and red to the other. I also asked their mom, and she gave me the are-you-insane look before admitting that, for her, there’s no color involved. So I’m the parent who passed on this thing to my kids in a dominant manner. And that’s kind of neat. (When I was trying to explain what this dominant inheritance of the genes means to my 20-year old daughter, she stopped me short saying I know what that means dad, I did study some genetics -- I’m the sole ignorant here, alas.)
I like this. It’s not really life-changing to know that I’m a synesthete, but I like it. Is this something completely useless or irrelevant or stupid or even distracting? Probably, all of the above. But I don’t care. I’m happy that I was finally able to think about, pay attention to, and articulate this curious thing, and I’m happy to be part of this singular minority (I guess my type of synesthesia is even a fraction of that 2%-4%, which comprises them all). And I learned that I’m in excellent company: among the famous, Duke Ellington, Billy Joel, Vladimir Nabokov, Vincent Van Gogh, and Stevie Wonder all are/were synesthetes of some type.
Novelist and poet Vladimir Nabokov, one of my favorite authors, wrote about his synesthesia in his memoir “Speak, Memory”, where he describes his experience with it as having mild hallucinations. And unlike most synesthetes, who see it as a positive aspect of their creative lives, Nabokov says that he didn't really get any benefit from the condition other than a slight annoyance. Despite being blind, Stevie Wonder said that music gave him the gift of colors. On the piano, he’s apparently able to perceive colors from notes. How stupendous and incredible and immense and prodigious and out-of-this-world is that? Two universal languages, colors and music, blending to give birth to something godlike, magical, miraculous.
I don’t know what to say about this discovery of having synesthesia, except that sometimes, when I have to pick a number, I decide based on the hue that it invokes and how that makes me feel. I remember once, many years ago, I received a job offer with a salary number that I didn’t like. Not because I thought it was too low, mind you. It was a very nice salary. I just didn’t like its color -- it was too dark and gloomy and I didn’t want to start a new professional experience with that on my mind. So I asked to change the figure to one that would make me feel better, one that would evoke a greenish-yellowish-whiteish hue (obviously, I didn’t mention my synesthesia to justify this unusual request, or they probably would have withdrawn the offer altogether). Ironically, the figure ended up being even a little lower, but it was the one that I felt comfortable with.
Colors are important to me. I’ve always wanted to make sure things in my life had the right color. And that’s easy, as numbers can be found pretty much everywhere. Did this make me richer or put me on a better track professionally or guarantee me a flawless sentimental life? Not really. This ain’t magic. It’s just my way of feeling more emotionally at ease.
So why am I writing about it? You might ask. After all, seeing numbers in a certain color is no productivity hack, no insight to make one better, no success story to learn from, no universally applicable get-rich formula.
I really don’t have an answer. But I have more questions. Did finally finding out that I’m a synesthete reveal something about me that I didn’t know? Would my personality have turned out different absent this number-color association? I don’t know. I guess it’s all business as usual; it’s just that I now know what this thing is. Maybe it tells me that my observational powers and fantasy and imagination are “more pronounced than average”. But I seriously doubt it. Maybe I should now know that I’m very sensitive or perceptive or emotional, but that’s no news. Artistic? I don’t think so. I’m just happy to find comfort in seeing numbers colored; I find it soothing and electrifying at the same time. And it’s unfortunate I cannot pass this on to anybody (without a genetic transmission), cause it’s a nice experience.
I’m writing this while listening to the Beatles’ White Album, a jewel that’ll never lose a single micro-particle of its value. It hasn’t since its release, in November 1968. And I’m thinking that it was the Beatles’ ninth official studio album and that the number nine for me is so dark-brown that’s almost black, and that based on this they should have really called it “The Black Album”, or released it as their tenth.
I was three when the White Album was released and my dad used to tell me and my sister a bedtime story about a little village called Lumaconia, inhabited by snails (Lumaca means snail in Italian, so Lumaconia would translate into something like Snail-Ville, I guess). And I don’t remember much except that these snails would always get in trouble and things would get hard and they wouldn’t know how to fix them and at some point one of the snails would have the idea of calling me and my sister to intervene and rescue them and we would magically appear and save them and they would celebrate us as their heroes and we would feel real proud and omnipotent and content just before falling asleep. Later on, our brother too joined the audience and the rescue team, as he wasn’t born yet in ‘68. But besides enriching our three little lives with the precious feelings of accomplishment and righteousness and comfort and possibility, the story of Lumaconia had this bit where dad would describe the village that, at night, had thousands of tiny lights that could be seen from far away. Tiny lights of every possible color: red, yellow, green, blue. And he would go on leaving brown out on purpose until one of us would say “Brown!” and he’d go “Right, brown! How could I forget?”, so he could continue with the story and we’d feel happy to have given our valuable contribution. And I wonder if brown made me think of the number eight back then. I’m sure it did, but I guess I was too little to pay attention.
And the White Album, the Beatles’ ninth but white and spotless and perfect as the number ten, goes on undisturbed in the background and Julia is playing now.
“Half of what I say is meaning-less”, it says.
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Fellow synesthete here, but for me colors have sound and some sounds evoke colors. I've met a few along the way in life but have yet to see someone write so intimately about their own experience with it. A beautiful reminder in a few years I'll have to check in with my son and see if he experiences it all too. Well done Silvio
I have the opposite - aphantasia. I can't visualize anything. Interesting how we all experience the world in different ways!