You're always learning something new. Sometimes, if you're lucky, something new about yourself.
I'd never heard of "synesthesia" until this past month, while reading a YA novel. To the narrator, every letter appeared in his mind as having a specific color -- the letters appeared so involuntarily -- and always the same color for each letter. And because words were spelled with letters, every word had a different coloration.
The whole word takes on the colour of the first letter, really, but the other letters retain some of their own colour too. In the case of Oxford -- with two terra cottas, a dove grey x, a pale green f, a bright red r, and a dark brown d -- the other letters don't do much to modify the first letter. But take another word, and the effect is different. England, for example, is lilac, coral, fuchsia, bright orange, pale yellow, coral, dark brown. The whole word takes on a lilac tint, but I can still see the orange and yellow and brown.1
A person with this form of synesthesia would obviously have a richer sense of words and (as shown in the novel) of their spelling than do the rest of us.
I thought that was all certainly interesting, but a condition totally foreign to my own colorless existence -- until I did a little on-line research into the phenomenon of "synesthesia."
While synesthesia, when known about at all, is most commonly associated with the color form described above, there is also a "number form" of synesthesia. According to Wikipedia:
A number form is a mental map of numbers, which automatically and involuntarily appears whenever someone who experiences number-forms thinks of numbers. Numbers are mapped into distinct spatial locations and the mapping may be different across individuals.
The article suggests that the condition may result from a cross-activation between the portion of the brain responsible for numbers and that responsible for spatial relationships.
These number forms can be distinguished from the non-conscious mental number line that we all have by the fact that they are 1) conscious, 2) idiosyncratic (see image) and 3) stable across the lifespan.
The image to which the article refers is that reproduced at the top of this post.
If I had been a cartoon character, a small light bulb would then have appeared above my head. I was -- I am -- synesthetic!
Since my earliest days as a child, numbers have appeared in my mind as laid out in a complicated set of loops. They start out from 1 to 12 more or less like the numbers on a clock -- and as in the illustration -- but then continue in circles within circles within circles. Centuries are laid out in a different manner, and -- as I now realize -- laid out in a vague manner over the map of Europe. So that 300 B.C. is in Greece, 300 A.D. is in Italy, and the low and high Middle Ages work their way up through France and England. Days of the week are in a simple circle, counter-clockwise, with Sunday at the "top" of the circle. Months are laid out in a different circle, clockwise, a circle that seems pitched more "horizontally," while the days of the week are laid out more "vertically." Letters of the alphabet are arranged in an order that I could draw for you, but that would be difficult to describe.
The spatial lay-out is conscious and automatic, whenever I think of a number. It's idiosyncratic -- other members of my family have very different mappings. And it has been the same for me ever since I can recall (with the association of centuries with countries no doubt developing gradually over time as I learned about history.)
Weird, huh? And yet I've always assumed everyone had similar "maps" in their mind -- mainly because most members of my family do. It must be a genetic trait.
Some friends, who I now realize are "normal," have listened to my descriptions with some puzzlement, responding that, in their imagination, days and months and years just go on and on in a straight line, one after another. I always thought this was a little strange, and I couldn't understand how they could organize temporal occurrences in their minds with so boring a spatial layout. But they do. Obviously. And their "straight line" isn't really experienced as a spatial layout in the same sense as mine.
Anyway, so I'm weird and my brain's wired oddly. But it seems normal to me. I only wish I had color synesthesia. Now that really is weird. And definitely pretty cool!
1Robin Reardon, Educating Simon (2014)