My chromatic alphabet from A to Z.
I recently read Maggie Koerth-Baker’s insightful article Magnetic Letters Taught Us More Than How to Spell, which is available online at National Geographic. It’s a fascinating read for people interested in grapheme-color synesthesia, as well those interested in how we learn, and how culture shapes that learning. Ms. Koerth-Baker’s reportage is focused on those brightly colored alphabet magnets that Gen-Xers and Millenials know so well. These magnetic toys were designed by Victor Reiling and first produced by Fischer-Price as part of the “School Days Desk” play-set. The letters came in a rainbow pallet of 6 hues that repeated the spectrum from red to violet. Currently, they’ve gone through many changes, including dozens of manufacturers each creating their own designs, and color ranges that are influenced by prevailing trends. In the image that accompanies Ms. Koerth-Baker’s article, an art-car is decked out with thousands of magnet letters in various fonts and hues. You can find that photograph here.
I was in grade school in 1972 when the Fischer-Price magnetic letters first hit the marketplace, and while I didn’t play with them in my early childhood, they were popular with my younger sister Barbara and her friends. Alphabet magnets were ubiquitous, at least in my community; almost every family with a school-aged child had a set of them stuck to metallic surfaces in their home. I saw them a lot in my teen years too, when I was in demand for my mad babysitting skills. After my charges had gone to bed and there was nothing for me to do but homework, I would write terse and angst-ridden poetry on the door of a harvest gold Frigidaire, carefully deranging the letters before my employers came home.
In the last few years, I’ve had several conversations with non-synesthetes about my experiences with grapheme-color synesthesia, with most of them suggesting I learned synesthetic perception from these magnetic letters or other learning toys. I’ve never felt that this is the case for me in regard to my own grapheme-color, although I do believe that ideas may inform the experience of cross-modal perception. There are three specific reasons why I don’t feel my grapheme-color synesthesia is rooted in magnetic alphabet toys.
The colors I associate with my letters aren’t the primary and secondary hues included in the original play-set. When I look at my alphabet as a whole, my letters seem tinged by the mid-century pallet that influenced design in the 1950’s and 1960’s. For example, my mother had a taffeta bridesmaid’s dress from the late 50’s that is the exact shade of my letter “A”. And that weird sage green that I associate with “Z” is almost the color of the sofa in the living room of my childhood home. It seems more likely to me that my grapheme-color was informed by multiple objects in my environment, and not just toys.
Additionally, those magnetic toy letters weren’t around in my early childhood. I learned to read at a ridiculously early age, mostly due to the efforts of my older sister Elizabeth. When the first School Days Desk play-sets were produced in 1972, I had been reading for 5 years; my colored letters were already formed. I have an early recollection of my colored letters and colored words from 1969, with my first experience at school. I felt a strong connection to my preschool teacher Mrs. Clark in part because she was lovely, and kind, and in all ways wonderful, but also because the color of her last name (Clark) matched the color of my first name (Carolyn). I already knew that “C” was medium blue long before magnetic letters appeared in toy stores. And, in those first play-sets, the “C” was primary yellow.
Also, color distribution among the letters of the alphabet as experienced by grapheme-color synesthetes is one of the most frequently researched synesthetic phenomenon. While many of my grapheme-color experiences are quite unusual (for example, my bright pink “F” and my purple “J”), others are very common, including my colorless vowels. For me, the vowels “I”, “O”, and “U” are white. But, none of the magnet letter toys, including those produced by manufacturers other than Fischer-Price have white letters. However, many synesthetes do tend to have white vowels, and it seems possible that the frequency of color distribution among specific letters in grapheme-color synesthetes has a cultural or learned aspect.
I’m not certain how my grapheme-color synesthesia formed, although I’m positive that colored magnets had little or no influence on the origin of my cross-modal perception. However, those colored magnets do indeed seem to have some impact on synesthetes younger than me. You can learn more about that in Ms. Koerth-Baker’s article. Also, grapheme-color is one of the most common forms of synesthesia. If you’d like to assess your own synesthetic tendencies, specifically in regard to grapheme-color, I highly recommend taking the Synesthesia Battery. It’s one of the few ways to test for synesthesia online. You can find the Synesthesia Battery here.
On Leap Day, I’m leaping into new opportunities….
I have a vibrant synesthetic experience with the concept of Leap Day. In my spatial-sequential synesthesia, Leap Day appears radiant, a luminous orange glow amid the ever spiraling cycle of late winter days. There’s something hopeful about Leap Day too; it’s a lagniappe, a little bit extra. It feels full of promise, not only for wishful spinsters, but for anyone hoping to upend conventions and leap into new opportunities.
I’m making my own big leap today; this is my last day working for TwitterHQ in their health and wellness program FitterTwitter. I have loved my career at Twitter, and I’m terribly sad that it’s ending. But the company continues to cut expenses, and my program was eliminated along with some other employee perks. Despite the end of my career with Twitter, I’m still very fond of the Twitter social media platform as a means of creating connection and fostering community. It’s been a fantastic means for interacting with other synesthetes across the globe. If you’d like to follow me, you can find my Vox Synaesthetica (@voxsyn) account here.
As I jump from the nest at TwitterHQ I’m also diving into more creative possibility. With a new schedule and fewer extra-early starts to my workday, I’m recommitting to my writing; it’s been a decade since I began my MFA studies, and it’s high time I made my craft a priority. I have several essays about the synesthetic experience in the works, along with others about being neuroqueer in a neuronormative world. I’m hoping to participate in some advocacy work for neurodiversity. I also hope to leap into new adventures too precious and nascent to name.
Ready. Set. Leap!
Valentine’s Day has long been one of my favorite celebrations. I adore its pink and red color scheme (even though I see the word “valentine” in green) and I’m quite fond of its emphasis on love and friendship. When I was a child, my sisters and I would sit at the kitchen table on the evening of February 13th signing cards for our classmates. Our parents helped us spell difficult names and made certain we completed a card for each of our peers. The next day, we’d deliver our valentines at parties in classrooms adorned with lace doilies and crepe streamers, a paper sack hanging from each kid’s desk to collect goodies. These bags, decorated with hearts and flowers and occasionally an oddly zoomorphic rendition of Cupid, were the receptacles for cards, candy, and possibly (fingers crossed!) cryptic notes from secret admirers. We children would mill around the room, dropping our offerings at each other’s desks, maybe slipping in a lollypop or red foil wrapped Hershey’s kisses, or best of all, conversation hearts.
Later that afternoon, when I had returned home and had a moment of quiet, I’d open my cards one by one, giggling at their punny messages. A card with a puppy motif, “You’re doggone nice!” written in curling script. An image of a fawn, looking much like Disney’s Bambi, proclaiming “You’re Dear, Valentine!”. Two kids decked out in astronaut helmets, their message suitable for children of the space-age: “Valentine, you’re way out!”. I’d keep my cards at least for a month or so, taped to my bookcase, until the edges began to curl and fray in the humidity that came with California’s spring rains. By the time Easter arrived, my valentines were tossed into the trash, or perhaps on a bed of embers if March was chilly enough for a fire at the hearth.
Somewhere along my way through middle school these festive gatherings vanished, along with their droll little cards. And now, with my school days so long behind me, it seems Valentine’s Day in its grown-up incarnation is solely a lover’s holiday, with cards and other tokens of affection shared only between sweethearts. Gone are the winsome, heartfelt, and funny greetings exchanged between friends.
This year, I’m reclaiming the Valentine’s Day of my childhood by celebrating the online friendships and acquaintances I’ve cultivated in the international synesthesia community. There is a lovely kindred (and perhaps genetic?) affinity between the synesthetes I’ve met via the Internet. Additionally, I’ve connected with several neuroscientists who study synesthesia. They have been incredibly gracious with their knowledge and insight; I’m celebrating them as well.
Sean A Day: Scientist and synesthete Dr. Sean A Day manages the Synesthesia List which brings international synesthetes and researchers together in a lively online forum. I’ve learned more about my own synesthesias from following Dr. Day’s list, where I’ve also had the pleasure of engaging with an eclectic international community. The Synesthesia List is the heart and soul of the online synesthesia community, and I am ever so grateful for Dr. Day’s commitment to this project.
Maureen Seaberg: A sparkly unicorn who writes about other sparkly unicorns, Maureen Seaberg is a fascinating creature. Synesthete, genetic tetrachromat, author, southpaw, advocate, beauty….there is no end to the words I can use to describe this fascinating lady. Maureen’s star is really rising this year….if you aren’t familiar with her now, you will be soon!
Joanne Harris: I follow a number of authors on Twitter, and none of them are as generous with writer’s advice as Joanne Harris. Best known for her charming novel Chocolat, Joanne is a fierce advocate for her fellow authors. She’s also a synesthete, ridiculously smart, and can annihilate Internet trolls with impressive rapidity.
Richard Cytowic: I know I’ll cross paths with Richard Cytowic, MD at some point in the future. He’s my first “synesthesia hero”, a physician, scientist, and author whose book “Wednesday is Indigo Blue” (co-authored with Dr. David Eagleman) brought me home to my synesthete self. Richard also holds an MFA in Writing; his essays are just lovely.
Joel Salinas: Erika Hayasaki wrote a brilliant article about mirror-touch synesthesia for Pacific Standard. Although she interviewed me for the article, I knew that she was profiling another synesthete whose experience with mirror-touch was quite profound. That person is Dr. Joel Salinas, a brilliant young physician and researcher. Joel has been so kind and gracious in our conversations. I’m excited to see what the future holds for this remarkable man.
Leigh Erceg: I’m captivated by Leigh’s story; she acquired synesthesia, along with mad skills in mathematics, the visual arts and poetry, after a traumatic brain injury. I’ve enjoyed interacting with Leigh via social media, and I’m excited to see her story brought to life by the talented writer Maureen Seaberg.
Rodger Hoefel: Like Leigh Erceg, Rodger suffered a head injury in a motor vehicle accident that left him with lingering trauma…and gifts. He has become a champion for neurodiversity, revealing deeply human stories via his creative endeavor Like-Minded Magazine.
Bahar Gholipour: Neuroscientist and editor of braindecoder.com, Bahar Gholipour is an advocate for the beautiful and exquisite strangeness that is the human brain. Bookmark braindecoder.com and you’ll be continually delighted by its scintillating revelation of neuroscience and its impact on our lives and cultures.
Elinor Cleghorn: I met Elinor Cleghorn of the Ruskin School of Art at Oxford University via the Synesthesia List, where her search for mirror-touch synesthetes lead to several long dialogues via email about synesthesia, the senses, and the visual arts. I’m looking forward to Elinor’s launch of Qualia, a literary journal that sits at the intersection of art and science.
Daria Martin: The only person on this list I’ve actually met in person, Daria is an academic, photographer, and filmmaker who is also affiliated with the Ruskin School of Art. Her films At the Threshold and Sensorium Tests are informed by her research on mirror-touch synesthesia.
Io the Jack Russell Terrier, my shining star.
It’s been a tough few months for me. I had the flu over the Christmas holiday, turning my 10 days of vacation into nothing but chicken soup and recuperation. My career as a massage therapist in the tech sector feels in peril while Twitter transits the “ugly adolescence” of corporate growth. And, a poem I’d hoped would be published in a literary journal got nixed by an editor who was once my writing mentor. This rejection is a small pothole in the very bumpy road that is the writer’s life, but still, it’s a bummer.
But, my largest heartbreak this winter has been witnessing the plodding decline of “Io”, my elderly dog. I make no bones about it; I adore my Jack Russell Terrier. She’s been my stalwart companion for 16 years, the constant shadow at my side, my shining star when I’m sad or lonely. In mid December, Io had a seizure, her second in less than six months. We’ve spent the last few weeks consulting doggie neurologists, internists, and several other veterinary specialists. Io is stable for now, and although we don’t have a clear diagnosis, she seems okay for the moment; her appetite is as voracious as ever and she’s not in any obvious pain. But, even though she’s doing well, I cry a little almost every day. I’m worried that our time together is short. I’m fearful for what the coming months may hold, and reticent about the intense experience that will come with losing my beloved companion.
“Intense” is the perfect adjective to describe the ways in which synesthesia infiltrates my struggles with Io’s declining health. My synesthetic perception is ever present, it consistently informs each moment of my life and creates the weirdest frictions. For example, the canine neurologist asked about Io’s medications, specifically what we are using to control her seizures. I could see the medicine in my mind’s eye, the periwinkle colored pills that I coat in cream cheese to get my dog to swallow them. But I couldn’t find their name. In my grapheme-color lexicon, words are saturated by the tint of their first letter, and I don’t have a single letter that is this specific hue. So I trawled through my memory searching for the word, seeing a wide swath of light purplish-blue and feeling utterly confused. The nurse was on the verge of calling the critical care vet to get the name of the drug when it came to me. K. Kepra. Seafoam green.
While forgetting a word is a common human experience, the cognitive dissonance I felt in this situation seems aberrant. That disonant feeling is always with me, fed these days by a stream of constant low-level anxiety about my dog’s declining health, and magnified by the many ways in which my synesthesia fosters confusion. One of the procedures Io had recently was a biopsy of a tiny mass in her spleen. She tolerated the procedure easily, and appeared to have little pain. But even three weeks later, when I see the place where her belly was shaved, I get bolts of electricity that shoot from my hips to my heels. I don’t even need to view the tiny crimson spot where the needle entered her body; my synesthesia-for-pain is triggered continuosly by the rectangle of cropped fur. And, while her coat is slowly regrowing, my synesthetic pain is unchanged.
I’m fond of February 1st, in part because of its ties to Celtic cultures and the feast of St. Brigid, but also because here in California, the first hints of spring are typically on display. I really like the lovely blue-violet hue of the word “February”, and the way the pale color of “1” makes me feel. 1 is pure white on its own, and yellowy-white in pairs, full of promise and opportunity. On this February 1st, it’s sunny and bright in San Francisco, a hopeful omen for what looks like a difficult year ahead of me. I’m wishing for strength in these strange days so that I can take excellent care of my sweet Io. But I’m certain that my synesthesia will challenge me in ways that are both familiar and odd.
Very few people are synesthetes; researchers in the field of neuroscience estimate less than 4 percent of the population has some form of entwined senses. But, even though synesthesia is rare, interest in this neurological phenomenon is rapidly expanding. Currently, there are numerous scientific and creative endeavors that try to convey the experience of synesthesia for those who don’t have the condition.
I’m intrigued by the idea of helping non-synesthetes feel what it’s like to have conflated senses. My most recent writing project is an attempt to engage urban hikers in synesthetic perception as they explore one of San Francisco’s most iconic neighborhoods. Syn City SF: The Haight Ashbury was created via the VoiceMap platform, which utilizes a mobile app for iPhone and Android devices. When the app is activated, VoiceMap uses one’s location to play an audio tour. VoiceMap journeys are created by writers, journalists, and passionate locals so that you can experience the selected walk from a uniquely informed perspective. VoiceMap is location aware, and coordinates with your phone’s GPS to play content automatically; it also includes helpful offline maps and additional resources. Just put on your headphones and you’re ready to explore!
I’m delighted to have the VoiceMap I created, Syn City SF: The Haight Ashbury, available via https://voicemap.me Take a hike!
Photo by Valentina Saduil
I’m glad that Halloween is over.
Once upon a time, it was my favorite holiday. When I was a kid, I’d spend weeks planning the perfect costume, trying to hit that sweet spot between spooky and beautiful. I would comb through my mother’s closet for dresses and accessories that could transform me into a ghost-bride, a vampire princess, or some other fantastical creature. I made crowns from cardboard covered in aluminum foil and created spots of fake blood from my mom’s Revlon Red lipstick. And, I’d decorate a plain paper grocery bag with witches and ghosts, hoping my illustrations would charm the neighbors into giving me extra treats.
Our doorstep was adorned each Halloween with three jack-o-lanterns. My parents would take me and my sisters to a local farm where the rule was this: I could pick any pumpkin I wanted as long as I could carry it by myself from the field to the car. I’d choose the biggest squash I could get my hands around and my father would cut it free from the vine with a Bowie knife. He’d use that same knife later to sculpt a face from the pumpkin’s flesh on the strictest orders to make my jack-o-lantern really really scary, with jagged teeth and wide angry eyes.
Yesterday, I carved a small pumpkin I could easily carry on the San Francisco MUNI train to these same specifications, even though I’ve lost interest in the contemporary celebration of All Hallows Eve. It’s become so laden with gore, so focused on blood and carnage as instigators of fright that it sends me into mirror-touch overload. My synesthesia-for-pain gets triggered by even the slightest hint of a wound or injury, and because of this, Halloween has always been a bit zingy for me. But the bloody mummies and neck-bolted Frankenstein monsters of the past have been replaced by zombies with entrails spilling from their abdomens, corpses with knives through their skulls and other loathsome monsters of this phantasmagoric ilk. The sheer verisimilitude of these costumes means I get zapped down my back by what feels like bolts of electricity almost constantly on Halloween.
I’m put off by the grossness and carnage. Perhaps it’s due to my synaesthesia, but I also think my own sense of aesthetics is to blame for my discontent with contemporary Halloween celebrations. I don’t like gore, I don’t find it thrilling or exciting, and I specifically dislike the way it triggers my synesthesia. What I do find interesting and attractive is the combination of allure and fear. I delight in the tension that comes when I am both captivated and a bit repulsed. Beautiful ruins. Lovely decay. I adore the frisson fomented by the juxtaposition of the beautiful and the hideous. I like to call this combination “phantasmagorgeous”. And I wish modern Halloween had more of it.
I’ve become enchanted with Dia de los Muertos, the traditional Mexican celebration held on November 2nd. This festival has its roots in Catholic customs honoring the dead on the feast of All Souls, combined with indigenous Aztec celebrations held in the name of the goddess Mictecacihuatl. San Francisco has a vibrant Latin American community in its Mission District including families and individuals from all regions in Mexico. On Dia de los Muertos, the Mission will teem with people decked out in colorful costumes and painted in beautiful, ghoulish “calavera” make-up. A candlelight procession will make its way through the community and past altars honoring the dead. These magnificent “ofrendas” are wonderfully adorned with marigolds and sugar skulls, votives and photographs. The celebration is both solemn and festive, and it has completely captured my heart.
I created my own ofrenda yesterday, honoring my late mother and father. At its center is a jack-o-lantern, which is not part of the Dia de los Muertos celebrations as I know them, but serves as a nod to my childhood traditions and the Irish roots of Halloween. Tomorrow night, I will walk through the Mission in a sumptuous black velvet gown, with my face painted like a bejeweled skull. And I will revel in this opportunity to experience a moment of the phantasmagorgeous.
My “ofrenda”, November 1st, 2015
I’m honored to have an interview published today, “A Strange and Wonderful Life”, which appears on the blog Sometimes Life Is… This fascinating project is edited by Rodger Hoefel, a writer, graphic designer, and art director who makes his home in Amsterdam.
Sometimeslifeis.com is a showcase of stories and conversations shared by those who have experienced life at its most unforgiving. This creative project is “based upon the insight that exposing your experience can initiate meaningful connection and exchange, with the likely goal that support and understanding can be found from others who have shared similar experiences”.
While many synesthetes would not consider their conflated senses “unforgiving” or a burden, my experiences with mirror-touch and its correlate, synesthesia-for-pain, have been full of frustration. I’m grateful to have my story included on Rodger’s thought-provoking blog.
My mother Joan Mary Crowley (far left) in her nursing school dorm room, 1955.
Today, October 7th, 2015 would have been my mother’s 80th birthday. While we struggled with most of the problems common to mother/daughter relationships, she was wonderfully supportive of my career in manual therapy. She encouraged me to attend a therapeutic massage program at a time when my intellectual adventures studying literature at UC Berkeley had stalled. For this, I am forever grateful.
My mother had hoped that I would choose a career in healthcare: not massage therapy, but a career of a more traditional sort. She was a second generation American; all four of her grandparents immigrated from Ireland to America, and for those economic refugees, healthcare careers such as nursing were a sure path into the middle class. My grandmother, Mary Foley Landers, had been trained as a practical nurse by the Sisters of Providence, in Springfield Massachusetts. My mother, Joan Mary Crowley, attended the same program, the Mercy Hospital School of Nursing, graduating with an RN degree 35 years after my grandmother entered the nursing profession.
My mother seemed to recognize that nursing wasn’t quite the right path for me, but she repeatedly encouraged me to pursue a career in the health sciences. Perhaps due to my exuberant “twitchy kid” energy, she suggested I consider physical therapy. But I ditched every last one of her efforts to get me over to Merced Community Medical Center so that I could meet the PT staff and get a feel for their work. By the time I was a senior in high school, my mom stopped asking and let me drift academically at my own will.
Even as my mother implored me to consider physical therapy school, I never told her that when I looked at other people’s bodies, I felt sensations in my own body. I never explained that her place of employment (a large, understaffed, county-run hospital) was like a house of horrors for me, that I got bombarded with electrical bolts down the back of my body when I saw the the implements of medicine. Scalpels, hypodermic syringes and crutches gave me searing, nervy pain down my spine. And the patients too, people with sutures and bandages and bloody wounds flooded me with waves of electricity that coursed from my sacrum to my feet.
Like most synesthetes, I thought everyone had these experiences. This is the troubling conundrum that comes with synesthetic perception; we assume that every person’s sensations are similar to our own, so our unusual perceptions go unnoticed. Unless there is an “aha” moment. I was recently interacting with another synesthete on Twitter who mentioned that her grapheme-color synesthesia was discovered when she was sent by a teacher to the school library to fetch a copy of MacBeth. She didn’t see the white book on the shelf because for her, MacBeth is always purple. This was her Hellen-Keller-at-the-well epiphany.
I never had that moment of discovery with my mother; she died in 1996. I’m certain she saw me as the strangest of her three girls, but she never knew about my mirror-touch synesthesia and its influence on my career choices. On her 80th birthday I find myself wondering about Joan Mary Crowley; was she a synesthete too? I’m sad to know I’ll never know.
The American Synesthesia Association begins their 11th annual conference today in Miami. Over the next few days, synesthetes and the researchers who study synesthesia will come together at the University of Miami campus for a series of lectures and discussions. The papers presented include several focused on neuroscience research along with others that explore the intersection of art and synesthesia. The schedule offers social gatherings as well that provide participants with an opportunity to connect. The weekend conference is hosted by Dr. Berit Brogaard, who is both a synesthete and a leading researcher in the field.
I wish I was able to attend the ASA conference, as I would so love to personally engage with the larger synesthesia community. One of the challenges that comes with having synesthesia is that the specificity of the synesthetic experience to each individual synesthete can be isolating; no two synesthetes are alike. For example, my spatial-sequential synesthesia is unique to me in regard to color, locus, and import. It is very unlikely any other synesthete experiences the same shades for their months of the year, nor would another synesthete perceive those colored months in the same location in three dimensional space where I perceive mine.
I get really excited that October is here because the color of this month is the most lovely golden-yellow, which fills me with a sense of optimism and hope. This is a very personal sensation, and it is challenging to accurately convey to my friends, my family, and my readers what it is about the color of October and its location in relationship to my body that makes it one of my favorite months. However, there’s something refreshing that comes with connecting with other synesthetes, who most certainly do not share my exact sensory experience, but who do share the awkward dissonance that can come with synesthetic perception.
I have found the online synesthesia community to be wonderfully supportive and inclusive, and I’ve connected with the most interesting and diverse group of synesthetes via Facebook, Twitter and this Vox Synesthetica blog. I just wish I had the opportunity this weekend to broaden my circle of fellow “synners” by participating in the ASA conference. Many of my online synesthete friends are in Miami right now; I so look forward to learning about your experiences at this important gathering.
I have a quiescent sound-to-shape/texture synesthesia that tends to linger in the background of my psyche. It doesn’t disrupt my awareness in the ways my mirror-touch synesthesia constantly zaps me with sensation. But, it’s still present, mostly when I hear music without vocals. Or sudden loud noises. At the top of this page is a quick illustration of the horn section in Bing Crosby’s “Moon Over Miami“, which appears to me as vertical, wavering shapes that broaden and taper. I wish Bing’s velvety voice gave me sensations greater than goosebumps. But they’ll do….
It’s been an exiting few weeks for MTS synesthetes! Erika Hayasaki’s brilliant article on Mirror-Touch Synesthesia (MTS) was published in Pacific Standard Magazine. The physician profiled in that story, Dr. Joel Salinas, had his experiences with MTS recounted in People Magazine. And, my personal essay on MTS as a massage therapy super-power was published this morning on neuroscience website braindecoder.com.
I’m delighted to see Mirror-Touch Synesthesia getting some recognition by the media. It’s a curious condition that may teach us much about the human brain and its capacity for empathy. If you’d like to be part of the Mirror-Touch Synesthesia community that’s hosted on Facebook, you can find it here.