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.

On Seeking Out The Unpleasant For The Subsequent Relief

This past Saturday afternoon, after I had completed my abortive attempt to scale Mt. Washington, I returned–exhausted, bedraggled, and freezing–to my motel room in North Conway, NH. It was about 3:30 PM; I had stopped off on the way to pick up a cup of coffee (and had my car get stuck in the parking lot snow for a while; some good samaritans pushed it out for me.)

Once inside my room, I began peeling off my various layers of clothing, all inflicted with varying degrees of wetness from sweat and melting snow: a pair of soft-shell climbing pants, a pair of hiking pants, a ‘base layer’ of long-johns for the bottom, and then, up top, a heavy fleece jacket, a mid-weight jacket, a lighter jacket, a wool sweater, another lighter jacket, then a matching ‘base layer’ for the top. Off came the two pairs of gloves, one light, one heavy, and then, two pairs of ‘smart wool’ socks. I had planned to shower once I was indoors, but all I did was slip into a pair of shorts and get into bed. And there I lay for several hours, reading Nicholas Howe‘s Not Without Peril: 150 Years of Misadventure on the Presidential Range of New Hampshire, (a superb read, which I finished that night itself) and occasionally checking the news on CNN and MSNBC; later, for dinner, I ordered in some pizza. My fingers and toes cramped repeatedly; four fingers and two toes still burned and tingled and ached, showing signs of incipient frost-nip/bite (a diagnosis grimly confirmed now by blisters on two fingers); my throat was parched and I drank water by the liter.

It felt awesome.

And I couldn’t wait to subject myself to the same grim business I had subjected myself to earlier in the day: the rising at 530AM, the ‘gearing up,’ the exhausting plodding through deep snow, the freezing cold on my face and fingers and toes, the biting wind, the clumsy climbing and slipping, the constant reminders of my lack of co-ordination, the persistent doubt and fear about the venture I was undertaking. And I was willing to do this again because I knew that at the end of those trials and tribulations would lie the pleasurable recovery, the basking in the glow of aching muscles and a slowly warming body. I had ‘failed’ to reach the summit; I had been beaten back down by a combination of bad weather and my own weaknesses. A stronger, fitter, more skilled climber might have made it to the top; I hadn’t. But that didn’t stop me from ‘enjoying’ that late afternoon and evening of recovery.

Very often, we voluntarily subject ourselves to the painful and the uncomfortable not just because we can, because we want to find out whether we can endure those states of being, but also because we know that the relief station at the terminus of the unpleasant is especially salubrious. The ordinary pleasure becomes extraordinary within those precincts; we enjoy a form of sensory and perceptual enhancement there quite unlike any other. We have altered our state of consciousness radically; pain is understood differently now. It signals not trauma now, but something else altogether.

The prospect of such relief might be compelling enough to make us want to subject ourselves to the trials required beforehand; that pleasure is sweet enough is to draw us on, upwards and onwards through zones of persistent discomfort. And to make us want to go back again for seconds.

Honey And Me And Quining Qualia

I grew up loathing honey. I preferred jams: plum, orange. apple, ‘mixed fruit,’ gauva, mango, marmalade. Toasted bread with thick white cream and jam; never honey. Honey was just a little ‘sickly-sweet;’ its taste was a ‘little off.’ It crossed some permissible boundary of ‘sweetness’ and became cloying; it sent shudders through me. I couldn’t wait to get a drink of water, washing out the offending affect. My taste was inexplicable; I could not make sense of it when I made my reluctance to consume honey known. I stood by, a mere onlooker, as others around me sang paeans to its glory.

But then, just as mysteriously, shortly after I moved to the US, I began adoring honey. The ‘taste of honey’ was now a glorious treat, the right attribute of a nectar of sorts. I liked honey with crackers and cheese, on toasted bagels, in iced tea, lemonade–all of it. Sugar seemed a crude sweetener, its ‘taste’ not ‘complex’ enough; honey gave off the right airs of sophistication. Had I, in ‘growing up,’ finally found, in this new maturity, the right apparatus to process honey’s ‘taste’? Or was the honey just ‘better’?

Time rolled by; I found myself growing distant from honey again. Its ‘taste’ lost its standing on the pedestal I had erected for it, and now mingled with the masses. I grew suspicious of sugar and sweeteners and things that gave you insulin spikes; like many men north of the forties, I possessed a new-found rectitude at the dinner table, the salad bar, the diner counter. Honey’s ‘taste’ acquired connotations and allusions; honey entered the precinct marked ‘treats,’ its contents to be pilfered with care. The contrast with all else I ate grew, marking every encounter with honey with a distinctive shock of sorts. The ‘taste of honey’ ain’t what it used to be, no sir.

A curious business then, this ‘taste’ of honey.  Talking about ‘the taste of honey’:

presumes that we can isolate [it] from everything else that is going on….What counts as the way [honey tasted to me] can be distinguished , one supposes, from what is a mere accompaniment, contributory cause, or byproduct of this ‘central’ way. One dimly imagines taking [my tasting experiences] and stripping them down gradually to the essentials, leaving their common residuum, the way [honey tasted to me] at various times….The mistake is not in supposing that we can in practice ever or always perform this act of purification with certainty, but the more fundamental mistake of supposing that there is such a residual property to take seriously [Daniel Dennett, ‘Quining Qualia‘, in Consciousness in Contemporary Science, edited by A. J. Marcel and E. Bisiach, Oxford University Press, (1988)].

If such thoughts are correct, then there was no ‘taste of honey’–always indexed by ‘to me’–there were only various experiences: ‘tasting-honey-during-my-childhood-years;’ ‘tasting-honey-after-I-migrated;’ ‘tasting-honey-as-a-forty-something’–the ‘taste of honey’–the way honey seems to me–is not something that can be drawn apart from these. There’s no articulable qualitative experience, independent of the surrounding ‘context.’

We’ve known this for other supposed qualia too, of course. That shortness of breath, that pounding in your chest, that fire in your legs, those reminders of your determination and outward bound spirit that herald the glory to come as you ascend a steep switchback with a cool wind raking your brow and the aroma of pine trees wafts by, if transplanted to a hospital ward with the sick visible, the smell of disinfectant in your nostrils, becomes ‘unbearable agony.’ There is no separable ‘pain’ here; just a different assemblage of my ‘world-sensation’, experienced differently thanks to its arrangement and presentation and internal relationships. We don’t experience the world as a bunch of separate parcels of sensation and phenomenal experience; the world comes to us a package with each component receiving its ‘meaning’ by its placement within the ‘field,’ by its relationships within it. What we notice, taste, see, smell, hear is a function of the arrangement of this field, and of course, our histories and anticipations (our ‘interests‘) which have performed this arrangement.