Reading in color: a synesthesia conversation

Lucia Granja: Hi. I’m Lucia Granja. Today we’re going to be talking about synesthesia with two beautiful juniors: Isobel Alm,

Isobel Alm: Hi.

LG: And Rylan Hefner. We all have a form of synesthesia. So Rylan, what form of synesthesia do you have?

Rylan Hefner: I have grapheme color synesthesia, which is where numbers and letters have colors for me. In my mind.

LG: And you Isobel?

IA: I think I have the same thing as Rylan. I didn’t know it had a special name, but yeah, for colors and numbers, I associate them with certain colors.

LG: And then I have the exact same thing. So we’re all just kind of vibing in here, sharing our experiences. But I just want to do a little background, in this podcast before we get started.

Basically, synesthesia isn’t just letters and numbers associated with colors. It’s just like the combination of senses in general. So a very famous one some people have is music and color. And then there’s also more rare ones, like words and tastes. So some people taste words, which is really cool.

But grapheme color synesthesia is the most common one, which we all share. So just for everybody listening, how did you guys find out that you had synesthesia?

RH: For the longest time, I thought that it was just something that everyone had. I didn’t realize that it was not something that the majority of the population had.

So I was talking with my parents one day and I mentioned that it was hard for me to read music because the letters of the notes were different from the numbers of the fingers on the violin. And they were confused cause they didn’t, they didn’t know what I was talking about. So they looked it up and it realized that I had synesthesia and that’s how I found out.

LG: That’s sick. Isobel?

IA: I don’t know. I just thought about it and I was like, “Oh, this isn’t normal guys.” You know? I think I was talking with you about it and like middle school, and we were like, “Oh yeah, A is this color.” And we were like, “That’s kind of weird.”

LG:  Yeah, I remember. Originally I think I just realized that I associated [numbers and letters with colors] Cause you just don’t think about it, right?

IA: Mmhm, it’s just like you take it as everyone’s reality.

LG: It’s just like how it is.

RH: Yeah.

LG: It’s just like an association. So I obviously did it without thinking about it, but I didn’t have this concept of it being normal or not normal. I just like didn’t think about it at all. And then I realized… It might’ve been like eighth grade or something.

I was like, “Dude, like, A is red. That’s crazy.” And then I was like, “I don’t even know. Is that normal?” And then like me and Isobel had a conversation about it. So yeah. And then I like Googled it really intensely, cause I thought it was cool.

IA: You went through a really intense, like synesthesia research phase. And I was just like, “Cool.”

LG: I mean, now I have knowledge. So just like more background. Grapheme color synesthesia, which we all have, do you guys have… Some people just have really strong associations, but they don’t like, kind of see it over it, but like how do you guys perceive it? Because there’s different ways to perceive it.

RH: I, whenever I’m just looking at a letter, it will be kind of that color in my mind. Like I’ll still see the color that it’s actually written in, but I’ll see both of the colors at once. Like the color in my mind and the actual color.

IA: I think it’s not that like when I see words, I’m seeing colors.

It’s that like when I think about specific letters and numbers, they have like, not personalities, but like…

LG:  Energy.

IA: Yeah, energies, or colors, most obviously. But they have a certain vibe to them and then I can express that as best I can. But sometimes it’s kind of hard to do with certain letters, if that makes sense.

LG: So the thing is, it’s just like hard to explain to people who don’t have synesthesia how you perceive it. Cause I feel like it’s, it’s about like association. So it’s not necessarily that your eyes are literally seeing the color, but it’s like in your brain it’s associated like,

RHn: Yeah.

LG: And like according to science.

So I don’t know. I kind of have the same thing as Rylan where you can kinda like see it, but you don’t actually. Like, obviously if I’m looking at a book it’s black words, and I know that. It’s not just me having a crazy rainbow time.

IA: Someone’s like, “Whoa, it’s a rainbow guys.”

LG:  Yeah, literally. Do you guys have any favorite letters or numbers based on their color?

RH: Well, kind of the opposite way around, but I always said that purple was my favorite color because r, the first letter of my name is purple, in my mind.

LG: Oh that’s so cute!

IA: I just have always really liked the number two because it’s really balanced and it’s also purple.

Rylan: Wow.

IA: I love it.

LG: I really like the number three. I don’t know. I don’t have a specific favorite. I like the number three because it’s a really pretty blue.

You know when you have to choose jersey letters- not letters, numbers- I usually do that based on the combination of what the letters look like. Do you guys?

IA:  Yeah, I know what you mean.

RH: Yeah.

LG: So I really like five and A cause they’re both the same red color, and I was born on the fifth, so very smart stuff there.

But I heard there’s this thing where basically there was a study done that showed that a lot of the people who had these certain, you know those letter magnets that you have on your fridge?

RH: Yeah

LG: There was a study done that this group of people who were born around the same time and they had the same… It was like Fisher Price or some popular toy company had made these magnets and they were all like in different colors. So then a lot of those people had grapheme color synesthesia of the colors of the things that they have on their refrigerators. Which is why A is usually red for people because it’s associated with apples when you’re learning colors.

Do you guys have anything like that where there’s like a clear association?

RH: I can think of a few examples. This doesn’t apply to all of the alphabet, but I had this workbook for when I was learning to play violin. Each string had a different color and three of those strings are still, those letters still have those colors in my mind. Like A was red in the workbook. It’s red in my mind. D was dark blue. It’s dark blue for me, and G was green and it’s still green for me. Yeah.

LG: Isobel, do you have anything like that?

IA: For A, B and C, they go together and it’s the three complimentary colors. So A is red, B is blue and C is yellow. Cause they’re a little triangle. They’re like a unit, you know?

LG: Yeah, I agree. When we were learning letters in first grade, I remember each week we’d have a different letter and we had a presentation to go with it and a little story about it.

So I remember the A week it was all just like, “A is for Apple.” Cause that’s the classic thing I feel like people have. I think that probably has to do with my association, but I don’t really know. How does this impact you every day?

RH: Well I’ve gotten, more used to it now, but when I was younger, it always used to be so jarring when I would see letters written in the wrong color or words that were spelled out in different colors. My brain was  thinking, “No, it’s not the right colors. It doesn’t look right. What are you doing wrong?”

LG: Yeah, I’m wearing a sweatshirt right now. It says chill and it’s in complementary  colors, but they’re the wrong colors in my brain. So it kind of pisses me off a little bit, but I also like the sweatshirt, so what can you do, you know.  Isobel do you have anything like that? Do you feel annoyed by my sweatshirt?

IA: Yes I do.

RH: I actually, thinking back to that last question, I think the  reason that my handwriting is really easy for me to read, but really difficult for everyone else to read, is because I grew up writing those shapes and thinking about those colors in my mind.

So like when I read my own handwriting, I see the colors, so it’s easier for me to tell what those letters are, but for anyone else, it’s just like scribbles of cursive mess.

LG: Yeah, that’s funny. I heard a study that people with grapheme color synesthesia are more likely to be better at visually memorizing stuff and being better at just scanning stuff. Cause they can see the colors and they can  just go through it.

Do you guys experience that or is it just a wacky study?

RH: I think that does ring true for most of what I can think of, yeah.

LG: Yeah. I feel that’s true for me cause I’m just a visual person in general. So if I see stuff like written out, it helps me learn it a lot better, in school and stuff.

RH: Yeah.

IA: I would say I’m a pretty visual learner too. I like having  diagrams and being able to visualize everything I’m doing. So I guess that might tie to synesthesia. I don’t know.

LG: Yeah.

RH: I used to play a game where someone would give me a dollar bill and I would try to memorize the serial number on it, and if I could recite it half an hour later, I would get the dollar.

IA: Oh my god.

LG: That’s kind of fun.

RH: And I used my synesthesia to remember what the colors were.

LG: Dude did you get a lot of money? You make bank?

IA: “I made millions!”

LG: “Millions!”

IA: “Now I’m a millionaire. ”

LG: How old were you?

RH: I don’t know. It was always just like on road trips with my parents and they had an extra dollar.

LG: Aww, that’s cute.

IA: Exploiting your parents.

LG: Getting all their money too. Yeah, I just feel like I can do stuff like that just because of the visualization of the colors. Yeah. I dunno. What do you guys- for example, what color is S?

RH: S is like a dark blue-green.

LG: I disagree, but you know, we don’t have to fight over this.

IA: S is really angry and stressful and it’s red. It’s like dark red.

LG: Mine’s red, but it’s a more neutral red. Like the red you think of as a complimentary color. Same energy.

IA: Nice. I disagree, but ok.

LG: I know, we’re going to have to have a fight over this later.

RH: Well for me, five is like a hot pink.

IA: Five is like very red.

LG: I agree with that.

IA: It’s like round on the bottom and that’s l how I visualize-

LG: -Like the vibes

IA: It’s exploding. Cause there’s a circle on the bottom of it. I’m sorry guys-

LG: -No, you can go crazy-

IA: – This is just how my brain works.

LG: My synesthesia focuses on vowels more than like consonants. Because like A and E are really aggressive to me. So if I see a word with those in it, it kind of overtakes the colors of the other letters. You know what I’m saying?

IA: That makes sense.

RH: Mmhm.

LG: Yeah. Does that happen with you guys too?

IA: Consonants are kind of less strong.

LG: Yeah.

RH: Yeah. I can see that.

LG: For me A is really red and then E is very green and it takes over like everything. It goes crazy.

RH: A lot of the letters towards the end of the alphabet, they’re very similar colors in my mind. I can see that they’re different, I just don’t know how to describe them differently.

IA: Yeah. You mentioned that the other day

RH:  It’s like T, U, V, X, Y, and Z. They all have very similar colors to me, and I see them all differently. W is the only exception in that area of the alphabet. It’s kind of like a maroon.

LG: Dude. I disagree.  The end of the alphabet for me is kind of yellow-y.

IA: Yeah. W is yellow and wise.

LG: They’re all like kind of yellow energy for me.

RH: I see the rest of them as kind of an orange-tan color.

LG: What is O for you guys? Cause I feel like O is a very big letter in my brain.

IA: I feel like it’s white.

LG: I agree I like saw,

IA: -and like soft.

RH: It’s just black for me.

LG: Really? For me, O is white, and then P is black.

RH: P is like a slightly lighter shade of black.

IA: P is weird, man.

RH: L is white for me.

LG: L is the same shade as the end of the alphabet. It’s just kind of yellow-y.

IA: L is just really passive and like…

LG: You got the personality going.

IA: I feel like that’s not synesthesia, that’s just like me being quirky.

LG: Well, it’s still an association.

RH: I’ve known people with synesthesia talking about different letters and numbers having personalities too.

LG: I have to do more research, but I’m pretty sure that’s a thing. Maybe you’re just going crazy. I don’t know. I feel like synesthesia in general is just hard to explain.

RH: Yeah.

LG: Cause it’s in your brain.

RH: I know there are some people who visualize things in space.

LG: I have that a little bit.

IA:  Yeah! Oh my gosh

RH: Like the days of the week or month.

LG: I have that a little bit.

IA: Yeah isn’t yours the thing where it’s like a circle ?

LG: Yeah, for me, I forgot what it is. It’s like spatial organization or something wacky like that-

IA: You were going crazy about this in eighth grade you were like, “Yeah, guys, imagine there is a calendar around me.”

LG: That is basically what I was like. That is basically what I was like. No, basically, for me, the months of the year or just the year in general is organized in a circle. Sort of around me, but I’m part of it too. It sounds kind of wacky, but basically I visualize where I am in the year and then I can- I don’t know how to explain it, it’s really wack.

IA: It’s really common with people who have synesthesia to visualize the calendar that way.

LG: If you guys could have any kind of synesthesia, which one would you have? That’s like wild and rare.

IA: I would have the one where like when you listen to music, there’s just like colors all over. I remember reading a book- I don’t know what the book was. But it was a book. I read it in middle school and it was very formative to my childhood, because the main character saw colors whenever she listened to sounds and then auras around people.

LG: Those are cool. Those are cool.

IA: I know! But, the plot is -this is a spoiler- her cat died.

LG: Oh no.

IA: Her cat had an orange aura and then-

RH: -Wait. Something about mango-

IA: Yeah, yeah! A Mango Shaped Place! God, that book is crazy, man. But anyways, it just made me- That was like the one book that made me cry in my life.

LG: No, but what happened with the orange cat?

IA: Oh, she, after, I think after the cat died, she saw the space of the cat, but she didn’t see the cat or something.

RH: And she named the cat Mango cause it wheezing sound that she visualized as a mango color in her mind.

LG: That’s so cute.

IA: That book had me crying.

LG: Dude, I heard that taste-based synesthesia really sucks.

RH: Oh, I can’t imagine that. There was one person whose own name tasted like ear wax.

IA: Ew.

LG: Oh, I heard about that actually. Their name was Derek, and  it was a terrible name, and they were like, “This is the worst mistake that my mother ever made.”

IA: How does that even work?

LG:  Cause I heard some people have such intense stuff that they literally can’t- It’s too distracting. Like they aren’t in touch with- they’re in touch with reality, but, it’s hard for them to interact with people and like do stuff, which sucks.

RH: Have you heard of mirror touch synesthesia?

LG: Yes. That’s crazy.

RH: That’s where if you see something happen to someone else physically, you feel that on yourself.

LG: If like someone gets tapped on the shoulder in front of you, you could like feel that on your back. Like if someone is tapping you. Yeah, that’s a real thing.

RH: There was a doctor with mirror touch synesthesia who whenever he gave people shots, he would feel that on himself.

LG: Dude, imagine like giving surgery with mirror touch synesthesia.  That’s crazy.

IA: What? What if you saw someone getting shot?

What if someone got punched? And you’ve never gotten punched before? Like would your brain do what it thinks punches would feel like?

LG: Probably, cause it’s the brain association.

IA: It’s like how when you lose a limb or when people lose limbs, they have ghost limbs.

I’m researching. One more thing. People can get emotional synesthesia where textures or colors can make people happy or sad or even start crying or something. That’s crazy.

RH: That seems like it’s kind of similar to the personalities of letters and numbers.

IA: Yeah. Cool.

LG: That’s wild. Thank you guys for talking to me today, I hope you learned more about your own experiences and learned about what other people are feeling in their heads.

For more information about synesthesia,  check out the links below.

Getting a Handle on Why 4 Equals Green – New York Times

Derek Tastes Like Earwax – BBC

Some People Really Can Taste The Rainbow – NPR