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All the Letters of the Rainbow
I was 16 when I found out. My father and I were reminiscing about when I
was a little girl, learning to write the letters of the alphabet. We
remembered that I'd learned to write all of the letters quickly except for
the letter R.
"Until one day, " I said to my father, "I realized that to make an 'R' all
I had to do was first make a 'P' and then draw a line down from the 'P'
loop. And I was so surprised that I could turn a yellow letter into an
orange letter just by adding a line."
"Yellow letter? Orange letter?" my father said. "What do you mean?"
"Well, you know," I said. "P is a yellow letter, but R is an orange letter.
You know - the colors of the letters."
"The colors of the letters?" my father said.
For as long as I could remember, each letter of the alphabet had had a
color. Each word had a color too, and so did each number. The colors of
letters, words and numbers were intrinsic to them as their shapes, and like
the shapes, the colors never changed.
I had taken it for granted that everyone shared these perceptions. My
father's perplexed reaction was totally unexpected. I felt as if I'd said
something as ordinary as "apples are red" and had elicited a bewildered
response. I didn't know that seeing such things as pale yellow P's,
turquoise Thursdays, and wine-colored V's was unique to the one in 2,000
people like myself who had "synesthesia," an unusual patterning of neurons
in our brains that makes us experience such peculiarly blended perceptions
as words or other sounds having colors.
That conversation propelled my father to search for information to explain
my peculiar perceptions. His search led to "synesthesia," the magic word
that put my perceptions on the map of recognized human experience. we found
other "synesthetes." such as the poet Rimbaud, who wrote "Voyelles, " a
sonnet about the colored vowels he saw; the novelist Nobokov, who described
his colored alphabet in his autobiography, "Speak, Memory"; the painter
David Hockney, who described how hearing "colored music" helped him design
stage sets for the Metropolitan Opera.
Minds far less awesome have experienced the world that way, but people tend
to keep silent about it because they feel inhibited by the 99.95 percent of
people who have never experienced nor heard of synesthesia.
At the first meeting of the American Synesthesia Association in Manhattan
last spring, synesthetes and researchers from Yale University and the
National Institutes of Health gathered. We described what we saw, and
researchers offered their theories of why we saw it. The researchers seemed
as intrigued by our perceptions as we were to have them clothed in the
dignified garb of science. We knew that by opening to one another's worlds,
a new and wider one was being formed.
Nature, so endlessly creative, has arranged things so that each of us sees a
slightly different world. Each time anybody looks at the world, a new world
is created, a world colored by our one-of-a-kind pattern or neurons, culled
from our one-of-a-kind collection of genes and experiences.
My father could appreciate the way I colored my world. Long before
universities dignified the study of synesthesia with conferences and Web
sites, my father, all by himself, validated what I saw. Because he was
convinced of the logic of my unusual perceptions, he was able to engage in
that suspension of disbelief needed for one vision to open to another.
Some months ago I was going through some drawers in the room where my father
and I had our conversation about my colored alphabet so many years before.
I came across a drawing I had done at the age of 7 titled "50 Blue Cats for
Dad." On the back of it, in an added note dated May 1968, my father had
written: "Update on Patty's artwork: She just told me today that 'cat' is a
blue word. Now I understand why these cats are blue."