Life in colour – who has Synesthesia?

Until my mid twenties, I thought everybody saw numbers and days of the week in colour, and months of the year as concrete spots on an imaginary clock face. Then I had a very enlightening conversation with my sisters who told me they didn’t in fact see Friday as yellow or any other colour, and didn’t see words floating in the air, and I realised it wasn’t an everybody way of seeing the world. It was just something odd that had carried through from childhood – inexplicable but benign.

Then a few years later, I heard a discussion on the radio about something called Synesthesia – whereby people see letters and numbers and words in distinct colours, and time like a clock face or a tangible path. It’s hard to explain how amazing it was to find out that it’s a “thing” and that other people see words and time the same way. Now I had something concrete to google, and so I did.

Here’s a better description from Wikipedia – this is the kind of Synesthesia I have:

 “In one common form of synesthesia… letters or numbers are perceived as inherently colored. In spatial-sequence, or number form synesthesia, numbers, months of the year, and/or days of the week elicit precise locations in space (for example, 1980 may be “farther away” than 1990)”

So for me for example, the days of the week look like this every time I think about them or say them or hear them:

Monday is deep blue, Tuesday is grass green, Wednesday is purple, Thursday is brownish-white, Friday is bright yellow, Saturday is brown, and Sunday is pinky-white.

Synesthesia - Office Mum

When I talk about time, I picture the calendar months in a circle. At the moment for example I see January (which is brown) as physically behind me, I’m at May (blue) at around number 5 on the clock face, and June I can see just ahead – it’s yellow.

According to Neuroscience for Kids, estimates for the number of people with synesthesia range from 1 in 200 to 1 in 100,000 and there are probably many people who have the condition but don’t realise what it is. That’s the funny thing about Synesthesia – most people don’t realise they have it, because they think everyone else sees things the same way they do – exactly as I did until my twenties. And of course it’s not really something that comes up in conversation very often.

Synesthesia - Office Mum
Image: Commons.Wikimedia

But where I find it interesting again is listening to my kids – they claim to see days of the week in colour, and I keep meaning to write down what they say to see if it changes over time. I’m guessing if my daughter sees Monday as orange this week but yellow next week, it’s power of suggestion at work, rather than Synesthesia. As it happens, she’s been seeing Monday as orange for about five or six years now, but I don’t know if it’s memory and habit or real. Every time I ask the kids, I write down what they say on scraps of paper and then lose them. Maybe now I’ll write them at the end of this post so that I can keep track.

And really it means nothing at all – it’s just an interesting way to see the world. But I’m curious – does anyone else reading this have it? Or is there anyone reading this who has it but didn’t know the name until now? Let me know in the comments!

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For me to finally keep track and check back in the future:

Eight-year-old: Monday is orange, Tuesday is mushroom, Wednesday is indigo and lilac.

Six-year-old: Monday is green, Tuesday is pancake yellow, Wednesday is purply-blue.

Four-year-old: 4 is gold, 2 is yellow, 3 and 6 are red

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My friend Naomi wrote this feature on Synesthesia for the Examiner – she is a scientist so knows all the science-y bits.

 

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15 thoughts on “Life in colour – who has Synesthesia?”

  1. I have this but I didn’t know it was a think. I had a conversation once about this with a college friend and he was the same, so I assumed everyone thought like that. Till now, that is.
    For me the year is a clock shape with January at no. 7, September at no. 3, as if June is the pinnacle of the year.
    Numbers have colours too as do F is deep pink, U is yellow, for example. 1is white, 2 is blue, 3 red, 4 purple, 5 orange, for example. Years are in those colours, so 1980 is white brown green white.
    As a child I saw countries in colouring my mind’s eye, like on a map. France was green, for example.
    Thanks for this post Andrea!

      1. Oh I’m so delighted reading this!! It’s just not something that crops up, I don’t think I’ve ever asked anyone if they have it other than that conversation with my sisters and chatting about it to my kids. I was thinking about it last night – if it’s more than letters and numbers and days of the week, and realised that countries are one too, so that’s interesting you mention countries. I think for me, it happens with abstract things that generally have no precise colour (like numbers and letters) but not with things that do have a colour. For example. the word horse looks brown like a horse – no surprise 🙂
        I was also thinking about names after I read your comment – Fionnuala is blue to me, and so is Fiona, and so is Fidelma (I was thinking about names of people I was in primary and secondary with) so I guess it’s because F is blue to me. I could talk about this all day – must go and do some work!

  2. Thank you for this post! I don’t see in colour but until I read this I had never realised that I have spatial sequence synesthesia – I see years and numbers in timelines and have a great memory for historic dates etc. Happy to know there is a name for it….

    1. Oh that’s great to know! Do you ever use your hands to demonstrate time when you’re talking about it? Just curious. If I’m saying something was last year, I’ll make a circle in the air with my finger, relative to how I see that time on the imaginary clock face, though now that I think about it, I don’t think I do it for years going back in a timeline. Anyway, great to have a name for it as you say!

  3. This is fascinating, I associate some words with colours but not to the extent that you do. I’ve heard people talk about this before though and have always thought that people who did this seemed to have better memories than me, I wonder if it’s because of an association thing?

    1. There is something in one of the research pieces I read online about better memories alright. Although I have a good memory for facts and figures and learning off by heart (Leaving Cert style) I have completely forgotten huge chunks of childhood and later memories so I don’t know if it’s always the case. Having said that, when I do remember something from the past, I often know exactly what people were wearing. I don’t know if that’s about Synesthesia and colour or a clothes obsession… 🙂

  4. My days aren’t colour-coded (though that sounds nice!) but I would have thought everyone visualises concepts like time in different ways. I’d visualise a single year of months as something like a dial, but would see multiple years linearly – going forward and backward from the current year.
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    1. Maybe everyone does visualise time, or maybe you have one type of Synesthesia – it will be interesting to see if anyone else says the same! I will ask that question to people over the next few days to see. Well, only the people I know well enough so that nobody thinks I’ve lost the plot 🙂

  5. This is really interesting, I often say that one of my kids sees things completely differently and he often talks about colours of things that don’t have colours, I’m off to look into this more. Thanks! Also, may is turquoise. Always has been.

    1. Oh that’s interesting that one of the kids might have it – it could be worth asking him “What colour is Monday?” and see what he says? Would love to hear how it goes!

  6. The first time I heard of synesthesia was in a blog post, but not this one! The blogger Amalah was frustrated because her son was demanding that she play the blue song on the radio, and she was trying to come up with songs with colours in the lyrics, until finally she realised it just *felt* blue to him – so she hadn’t a chance in hell of figuring out what it was.
    Here’s the link, though it’s only in the comments that someone mentions synesthesia, so I think Amalah didn’t know that’s what it was at the time. She does talk about it more later though. http://www.amalah.com/amalah/2009/12/but-i-know-one-thing.html#.VzZH9ZMrKRs
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    1. Oh that’s interesting! I don’t have the music one at all (and am not musical in any sense – presumably one would have an ear for music to have it) – I can’t imagine hearing musical notes as colours, it must be quite cool. I picture the names of songs in colour, but that’s different. Thanks for the link!

  7. Hi Andrea- I laughed out loud when I saw your post- while in college I realised that giving someone a study tool that I used- i.e. that it helps to remember the colours of words- e.g. ‘voiture’ is yellow – and it helps that yellow and voiture have the same shape as well (?) wasnt something that worked for everyone!
    February is yellowy/orange for me. Monday is definitely grey/blue! I wonder does it go bk to the wall charts in primary school which had words in different colours (I think?). I also picture the streams crossing a la ghostbusters as an example of what is happening in my brain.
    Not sure it’s connected but my brain puts names into categories – e.g. names like aoife / ciara/ orla would be linked (like a drop down menu) -problem is someone with the lovely name of ‘ciara’ could say hello and as im getting older, there is a greater chance that I may select the wrong name in the drop down menu and not notice till a few minutes later…..

    1. Liz, I can just imagine the conversation about voiture and yellow – that’s brilliant.
      And I love the drop down menu for the names! I definitely categorise names but I have no drop down menu – now I wish I did, that sounds great. Though yes, I see how it could get harder to get people’s names right 🙂
      Re. the wall charts theory – I don’t know – my February is green-ish and we were in the same class, so maybe not!
      Great to hear from you and delighted to find another synesthesia buddy 🙂

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