Friday, May 21, 2010


Black Pouring Over Color
Jackson Pollock

Much to my amazement, I discovered a few years ago that I have synesthesia. Oh, don't worry, it's not contagious. According to the University of Washington, synesthesia is described as a condition in which one sense (for example, hearing) is simultaneously perceived as if by one or more additional senses, such as sight. Another form of synesthesia joins objects such as letters, shapes, numbers or people's names with a sensory perception such as smell, color or flavor. The word synesthesia comes from two Greek words, syn (together) and aisthesis (perception). Therefore, synesthesia literally means "joined perception." In other words, I see numbers, letters of the alphabet, days of the week and months of the year as colors. For example, the letter "E" is royal blue, and the letter "Q" is a lovely powder blue. The number "7" is brown, and the number "8" is yellow. "Wednesday" is green, and "August" is a mellow orange. Each synesthete will experience a different color for different numbers and letters of the alphabet, but for some strange reason, most people with synesthesia will see the letter "A" as red. Yes, it is definitely red.

I also notice colors that don't "fit". For instance, my friend Russell once told me that he loved colored Christmas lights, but not the orange ones because they seemed out of place. I laughed, because I thought I was the only one who realized the orange lights don't fit. The blue, green, red, and yellow -- yes -- but not the orange ones. The orange Christmas lights have always seemed to not "fit" with the rest of the lights.

It is estimated that as many as 1 in 200 people have synesthesia, but the numbers may be higher, because many people have it and don't realize it. In addition, synesthetes tend to be:

● Left-handed: synesthetes are more likely to be left-handed than the general population.

● Neurologically normal: synesthetes are of normal (or possibly above average) intelligence, and standard neurological exams are normal.

● In the same family: synesthesia appears to be inherited in some fashion; it seems to be a dominant trait and it may be on the X-chromosome.

Some famous synesthetes are:

Leonard Bernstein
Duke Ellington
Franz Liszt
Tori Amos
Vladimir Nabokov
Billy Joel
Marilyn Monroe
David Hockney
Stevie Wonder
Douglas Coupland
Eddie Van Halen
Tilda Swinton
Paul Klee
Georgia O’Keeffe
Charles Baudelaire

How about you? What color is the number "3"? The letter "W"?


The Bug said...

I feel gypped! My world is infinitely more boring than yours. All letters & numbers are just black in my head (unless I'm reading something & the color on the page is different). BORING!

Anonymous said...

does it happen vice-versa? If you see a rainbow of colors, do you see numbers/letters too? That would be odd.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

I envy you. I have always wanted to have synesthesia. "W" is a dark gunmetal gray, btw. And I have always been jarred by orange Christmas lights, too - they simply don't belong - it's as if orange is a sub-color or something which I can't explain. I love the Jackson Pollock painting. And I believe that May is orchid-colored, while June is a light, happy green.

Linda said...

I'm left handed, but no synesthesia!

Guess I'm just 'normal', whatever 'normal' is!

Your are funny, Jo!

Sam Liu said...

This is really fascinating, I'd never heard of synaesthesia before. I don't think I have it, as I don't associate numbers or letters etc with any particular colours, but, nevertheless, this is an extremely interesting condition.

MOANA said...

I see three as yellow and w as white, but I had never considered that this was unusual. I thought everyone saw colors associated with numbers and letters.

Carl said...

3 is Green and W is Blue. Haven't they always been ;-)

Kathryn said...

I don't seem to have this as you describe it, but sounds, tastes, & smells definitely effect me profoundly, mostly as memories go.

The whiff of Dove soap takes me back to the summer i was 18 when i house sat for friends & that was the soap in the house.

The first bite of raspberry (a good one anyway) takes me to late summer when i was 8. We'd just moved to Montana & the empty house next door had raspberry canes. Oh, they were so good!

Certain songs transport me immediately back to teenage years, or even into my 20s. College is surrounded by music.

I'm a very visual person, but maybe because i use my vision so much, it doesn't seem to effect my memory as profoundly as the other senses. (Outside right now, i'm looking thru the green of a pine tree into the blue, blue, blue that our skies often wear. I don't think i will ever get enough of that view.)

TomCat said...

I'm sure glad I'm not a synesthete. As a political blogger, with my lousy luck, I'd be studying Republicans in smellivision. :-(

Canarybird said...

Oh that is so interesting Jo!

I see 3 as a pale yellow and W as a dark reddish brown. Never have though of it as having synesthesia though. You are lucky to always think in colours. I do with some things but I'm sure it's just my imagination.

Paula Slade said...

The "3" and the "W" are just plain old black for me. :( Fascinating post Jo, I had never heard about this condition.

PinkPanthress said...

Yay... I love this topic! :D

To me some smells, emotions & adjectives have a distinct flavour, odour and/or colour.
For example, to me danger equals the colour electric-green & 'tastes' bitter.

3? light-red..
W? green..

Single and Sane said...

I haven't ever heard of it either, and as someone who loves a life filled with color, I'm suddenly rather annoyed not to have this gift. I'm left-handed and everything. What gives?

BTW, I feel sure you are of above average intelligence, Jo. Way above.

Marcos Vinicius Gomes said...

I suppose that 3 is some of primary colors...

Marcos Vinicius Gomes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Katy said...

I have a friend who sees in colors. I love hearing her discribe things to me. Awesome gift to have. I just have the gift of extremely good hearing which is a blessing and curse. I can't wear not digital watches because the ticking drives me insane!

Sniffles and Smiles said...

Well,I don't know that I've ever thought of this...but I have always dreamed in color...and there is nothing that speaks more to my soul than color and music...and so, I associate music, songs, colors with all kinds of experiences~ Janine XO

myletterstoemily said...

that is very intriguing. when you look
at just colors, do you think of the
corresponding number or letter?

i have dividesia. i can't keep myself
from dividing words into half,
counting one half, and then doubling
it to see how many letters it has.

yours is WAY cooler.

Anonymous said...

I don't have colors, but I'm with Kathryn about smells and music. Mostly smells. For me Dial soap is a real big one, right back to being 19. Sometimes I will smell something and have a really strong sense of memory but not know what it is. And music triggers me really emotionally. I have depression so I have to be really careful with my music.
Oh...and I'm left handed. Woohoo!
I'm having a hard time even trying to imagine letters and numbers as colors. It would be pretty cool imhop.

Amy said...

I've never heard of this condition Jo. I must say certain colors together clash badly for me; I had to move a pot of lavender geraniums so they wouldn't clash with my orangish, salmon Margo Koster rose. They say flowers all go together, but not these!


First, if you would try using only orange and yellow lights on your Christmas tree, you'd see something quite lovely. Put two orange lights consecutively then one yellow on - repeat. It makes the dark pine tree alost 'golden'.

Also, I remember having fun with my Crayolas when I finally had a box with enough colors to color each letter of the alphabet a different color.

Not only do I have synesthesia but very accute hearing, and while that's great because I sing and play piano, it's not so great when every tiny noise or sound turns into an 'intolerable noise' at times.

Re the smells; goodness, I found myself smiling when the previous comment mentioned Dial soap.

My first husband only used Dial, and after I divorced him I couldn't stand the smell.

My second husband liked my Chanel #5, and after I divorced him I disliked it and never wore it again.

My sister gave me beautiful Lilacs when my 3rd child was born; my grandfather gave me a corsage of Hyacinths - I adore the smells and love them both, so I know how easy it is to be transported to places when we smell something that we either like or dislike.

I also love the Jackson Pollack painting - he's one of my favorites.


....whoops - I meant to write that the orange and yellow lights make the tree almost golden - sorry....

DJan said...

I read about this in Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks, and I was immediately envious of those who have this particular "disorder." And now I know one, and judging by the comments, more than one! I am unfortunately not one...

Charles Gramlich said...

I don't know about the number 3 but "Monday" is definitely blue and Saturday night used to be "red hot."

I've often wondred if terms like blue monday didn't come from synesthesia experiences. It would definitely be an interesting thing to experience.

Laurie said...

I have always sensed (???) words as flavors. "Thursday" tastes like scrambled eggs. "Much" tastes like pretzels. "Propose" tastes like spaghetti with meat sauce. Not all words have tastes or smells connected to them though. Oh..."though" tastes like plain white bread...

Marguerite said...

Wow, so interesting! I had never heard of synesthesia. That would sure make life more fun and is so cool! Have a great weekend, Jo!

SparkleFarkel said...

Heck, I wish it was contagious!

Back in the day, I had a wonderful second grade teacher who introduced me to Art History, at which time, Vincent van Gogh and I became best friends. I mention it, because it was then that I heard about synesthesia, as Vincent lived and breathed it, just like you do. What a magical gift indeed!

It was only a couple of years ago that I picked up a copy of a paperback called A Mango-Shaped Space, renewing my interest in the fascinating world of synesthesia. Briefly, the book tells the story of a seemingly typical teenager, desperately trying to keep secret the fact that she has always experienced a mingling of perceptions (sees sounds, smells colors, tastes shapes). When school trouble forces a reveal, her friends and family can't relate to her, and she must look to herself to develop an understanding and appreciation for her gift. <– It’s a fast read (because it is Young Adulty) sprinkled with a good measure of wit and humor. Maybe you’d like to page it sometime? Perhaps even Marigold might?

A few days ago, I pre-ordered a book through Barnes and Noble called The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender (released date: June 1). It’s more than a smitch heavier than A Mango-Shaped Space (This will link you to a summary:, but it, too, is a synesthesian tale, and I can’t wait to eat it up!

I’m not surprised in the least that you are able to see numbers, letters of the alphabet, days of the week and months of the year as colors. Because, not unlike synesthesia, I’ve always thought of you as being quite phenomenal!

KathyB. said...

Very interesting. One always assumes people are people and we all think somewhat alike. Nothing can be further from the truth when you begin to try to understand people. Interesting gift Jo.

To me 3 seems like it should be blue and W is definitely a serious black. BTW, I think in words. When people talk to me I see the words spelled out. I sometimes find myself puzzling over the spelling of a word that was said instead of concentrating on the discussion.

And I have always, ALWAYS known orange lights do not belong with the others on the Christmas tree. The orange lights just plain bug me, so I replace them with better colors, the RIGHT colors. ( ha ha)

white crow said...


@ly said...

I am jealous that you lead such a colorful life and I lead such a boring black and white one. Never heard of this but thanks for sharing. So interesting!

Anonymous said...

I don't think I have synesthesia, though I've always seen the days of the week in color: Mon/yellow, Tues/brown, Wed/green, Thurs/navy blue, Fri/black, Sat/sky blue and Sun/off-white.

Way back when others were asking "What's your sign?" question was always: "What color is Wednesday?" Sometimes it started some interesting conversations. BTW, I'm pleased that we agree that Wednesday is green!

Susan said...

I'm one of the gypped ones, too, but not my guy. He's a musician and he "sees" sound as color. Which would explain why he couldn't resist music - what a trip to hear color.

Owen said...

I think we can safely assume that you are of the above average intelligence level mentioned here... your blog is living proof !

Miranda said...

Okay I'm def. below average intelligence because I don't get it. And obviously don't see colors when I see numbers. I'm so confused! I've heard this before though, did you write about it before? I was confused the first time around too. Or maybe it's deja vue or something. Now that's something that happens to me all the time!

Cloudia said...

When I was a kid,
all the numbers had
personalities that I knew
like family members...

Aloha from Hawaii

Comfort Spiral

Belizegial said...

Jo, I don't see numbers in color. However, when I dream which is often, I see everything/everyone in vivid technicolor. LOL

john said...

3 is green for me and W is tree bark brown.


regards, John

john said...

and i'm more of a sound-colour synethesia victim though some colours, words, numbers do definitely have a profound effect :P

Elise said...

That is fascinating!!