A Synesthesia Of Sorts

For a long time now, perhaps as long as I can remember, letters and numbers have had colors and personalities and aesthetic grades. Here are the ways in which they do, for me:

  1. I see colors in vowels. The letter ‘a’ is yellow; ‘e’ is red; ‘i’ is white; ‘o’ is black; ‘u’ is grey. Because of these colors associated with vowels, when I see a printed word, I see a word that is colored somehow. That word ‘somehow’ is red and black for instance; it has acquired a particular color for me. My name has shades too; my first name is ‘lighter’ because of the presence of the ‘a’ and ‘i’ in it; my last name is made darker by the presence of an ‘o.’ Words in which there are very few vowels in proportion to their length look a little colorless to me as a result. ‘Sky,’ for instance, is entirely colorless. Blocks of text in which a particular vowel predominates acquire a shading based on the color of that particular vowel.
  2. I see ‘personalities’ in numbers (not all). ‘2’ is timid and obsequious; ‘3’ is a little smug and self-satisfied as does ‘6’; ‘4’ looks ‘closed off,’ not ‘open’ to conversation; ‘5’ looks a little like a plump person. 1, 9, 8, and 7 do not produce such connotations. Neither does zero.
  3. I see some numbers as pretty and some as ugly. ’74’ is a beautiful number; ’57’ is ugly as is ’77’. These examples show that it is not the number ‘7’ that makes the difference here but the particular combination with other numbers. Moreover, my perception of beauty in these numbers has nothing to do with their arithmetical or number theoretic properties. This perception of numbers as beautiful continues for a while but fizzles out somewhere below 1000; after that the ‘appearance’ of the numbers is of little interest or importance to me, though some older perceptions persist and affect my take on even larger numbers. For instance, because I find ’77’ ugly, I find any number ending in those two digits ugly. So acute is the perception of some numbers beauty or ugliness, that I can barely stand to see them; I find ‘111’ ugly and don’t even like seeing it in print. Some other beautiful numbers below 100 are: 54, 86, 84, 76–these are all even numbers; some odd numbers I find ‘beautiful’ are: 71, 63. I have noticed that I find more even numbers beautiful than I do the odd ones, suggesting to me that odd numbers seem ‘incomplete’ or not ’rounded off’ to me. My daughter’s birthday falls on the 23rd of a month; I remember being vaguely disappointed at that birth date; a 24 or a 26 would have ‘looked much better’; ‘even’ a 25 would have better.
  4. Lastly, I see the numbers ranging from 0-100 in a kind of spatial grid and not arranged along a number line. The grid looks like a stack of ten rows and ten columns; the first row runs from 0 to 10, the second row from 11-20, and so on till the tenth row which runs from 91-100. If I’m watching a game of any kind in which the score–whether team or individual–advances from 0 onwards to 100, and possibly beyond, I see it advancing along this grid. I suspect that my lifelong history as fan of a sport obsessed with statistics–cricket–has had something to do with the enhancement of this vision.

Wikipedia defines synesthesia as:

Synesthesia (also spelled synæsthesia or synaesthesia; from the Ancient Greek σύν syn, “together”, and αἴσθησις aisthēsis, “sensation“) is a perceptual phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway.[1][2][3][4] People who report a lifelong history of such experiences are known as synesthetes.

In one common form of synesthesia, known as grapheme-color synesthesia or color-graphemic synesthesia, letters or numbers are perceived as inherently colored.[5][6] In spatial-sequence, or number form synesthesia, numbers, months of the year, or days of the week elicit precise locations in space (for example, 1980 may be “farther away” than 1990), or may appear as a three-dimensional map (clockwise or counterclockwise).[7][8]Synesthetic associations can occur in any combination and any number of senses or cognitive pathways.[9]

Based on these definitions, I am inclined to think I’m a synesthete of a sort. I welcome comments from folks who report similar perceptual experiences.

Nietzsche, Power, and Bible-readers on the Subway

Last evening, after a full day of work teaching Philosophy of Biology, a seminar on Nietzsche, and conducting a teaching observation of a graduate fellow, I left campus for my evening weightlifting session. I was feeling run down, and not a hundred percent. Perhaps it was the lack of sleep, perhaps a nagging cluster of cold-sore throat related symptoms that were insidiously undermining my ability to face up to the world. As I rode the subway to the gym, I felt uninspired and sleepy; the book I had intended to read only had a few of its pages turned.

Thankfully, the lifting went well. I was scheduled to back squat (Crossfit South Brooklyn is following the Wendler Cycle for our strength programming), and after lifting 185×5, and 205×5, I did my maximum-repetitions set at 230 (for 12 reps). By the end of it, my legs were shaking, I was close to hyperventilating, and a clarity-inducing  surge of euphoria had seemingly cleansed me of the sluggishness of the afternoon.

I changed, and made my way to the 7th Avenue subway station to head home. As I waited for the train, I pulled out my copy of Karl Jasper‘s Nietzsche: An Introduction to the Understanding of his Philosophical Activity (JHU Press, 1997) , and, somehow emboldened, began to read:

The pyschology of the feeling to power: Nietzsche’s conception of the ‘will to power’ is by no means identical with his conception of the drives that aim to provide a feeling of power. The one relates to genuine being that has become extra-empirical; the other to observable psychological experience. The one involves an abstract will, intent upon determining the course of its own being; the other, the conscious pursuit of the enjoyment attending the feeling of power.

I stared back at the page. Really, was this where I had left off, and now, resumed reading?

As I sat on the bench, a lady on her way back home sat down next to me and opened up a book. It was the Bible. She opened it to Numbers 25, and began reading. I sat there for a few seconds, and then, unable to resist, spoke: “Excuse me, are you reading the Bible straight through or picking selections?” The lady smiled, and said, “I’m reading it straight through.” I then asked, “Have you read the Bible before?” She smiled again, and said, “No, I’ve read it many times before.  This time my reading has been a bit slower; I got bogged down in Leviticus for a bit.” I nodded; sometimes I too, get mired in parts of books I read.

A B train pulled in and discharged its passengers, who swarmed around us to head for the exits, as we sat there with our books open on our laps. I wondered if my new acquaintance would ask me about what I was reading, and how I would describe it if she hadn’t heard of Nietzsche. She then spoke again, “Are you a believer?” I replied, “No, but I’m always curious about people that appear to be serious readers.” Her reply was made inaudible by the arrival of the Q train. I bade her take care as I headed for a subway car.

I wonder what Nietzsche would have thought about it all: a hundred years after his death, philosophy professors, on their way home after weightlifting, reading books about his writings, sitting next to readers of the Bible, all the while ensconced in the bowels of a gigantic subterranean transportation system in an American city.