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.

William James on the Selectivity of Consciousness According to Human Interests

A couple of days ago, I noted humanism‘s affinities with pragmatism, and quoted William James to cement that claim. Today, I want to point to James’ treatment of consciousness to show how fundamental human interests are in his philosophy of mind. (This post is cribbed from Patrick Kiaran Dooley‘s Pragmatism as Humanism: The Philosophy of Willam James, Nelson-Hall Publishing, Chicago, 1974, pp. 42-52. All James quotes below are taken from Dooley’s citations from Principles of Psychology.)

For James, our consciousness influences our behavior and our actions by selection from data presented to it (via attention); what guides and regulates this selection and attention are our practical, aesthetic, religious and ethical interests. We first become aware of the world via sensational contact with it (these sensations are already knowledge for James). This data of awareness of the world around us is then enriched by differentiating it and noticing relationships among its different aspects. But these relationships that we notice, the aspects we attend to, are not just those that are presented to us most frequently; they ‘stand out’ because they are of interest to us. We perceive that which we attend to and we attend to that which interests us. In sensory attention:

The only things we commonly see are those which we preperceive and the only things we preperceive are those which have been labeled for us, and the labels stamped on our mind.

In perceiving, consciousness is selective in isolating a group of sensible qualities which, because ‘they are most constant, interesting or practically important, we regard as the most essential constituents of the thing.’ It also selects among these to appoint some as typical or ‘correct’ representatives of the object in question:

Out of all the visual magnitudes of each known object we have selected one as the real one  to think of and degraded all the others to serve as its signs. This ‘real’ magnitude is determined by aesthetic and practical interests.

Some representations are promoted to the status of ‘true’; others to that of ‘signs.’ This follows simply from the fact that ‘true representations’ are perceived from the most practically advantageous positions.

For James there is no such thing as a pure sensation; all is interpreted first. We do not experience the world passively but actively act on the data available to us. Our attention does a great deal of work: by settling again and again on the most ‘useful’ presentations it turns them into ‘experience.’ But it is driven by our interests, which determine the how and the what of our experiences.

And this then further leads to our construction of what is real, of what we consider reality – the ‘common sense world.’ Here objects appear of interest and importance to us. To call an object ‘real’ is merely to indicate a reference to ourselves because our cognitive relationship to the world is ‘affective’, not dispassionately objective:

[We] give what seems to us a still higher degree of reality to whatever things we select and emphasize and turn to with a will.

The affective component of our selves thus determines what we consider ‘real’: the objects of our beliefs are related to our interests. This extends to all levels, so that even the most ‘basic’ entities of the world are those that bear an acute relation to our interests, ranging from the most practical to the most sublime. In our conceptions of the world, we are constantly selecting and rejecting according to these:

Whichever one of these aspects of its being I temporarily classify it under, makes me unjust to other aspects. But as I am always classing it under one aspect or another, I am always unjust, always partial, always exclusive. My excuse is necessity–the necessity which my finite and practical nature lays upon me.

   Our purposes determine our conceptions of the world, its so-called ‘essential properties’ but:

Reality overflows these purposes at every core. Our usual purpose with it, our commonest title for it, and the properties which this title suggests, have in reality nothing sacramental. They characterize us more than they characterize things. 

Thus even in the most basic sizing up of the world, in our determinations of ‘what is,’ we cannot eliminate the human. We are mixed up in the cement of the universe.